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'10 Questions' With Montana's Populist Cowboy Governor Brian Schweitzer

09/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The day after Gov. Brian Schweitzer's (D-MT) very well-received speech at the Democratic Convention, Political Base's managing editor, Mark Nickolas, spent some time with him.

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10 Questions With Gov. Brian Schweitzer

Montana Governor Discusses His Convention Speech, Obama's Chances In Montana, Importance of Native American Voters, and Energy Policy

POLITICAL BASE: Governor, you earned rave reviews across the country last night with your convention speech, with some commenting that the mistake was not making you the formal keynote speaker. Can you talk a little about when this all came together? When did you know you would be the final speaker before Hillary Clinton?

SCHWEITZER: I heard about three weeks ago that I would be speaking Tuesday night and I heard last week that I was going to be between Mark Warner and Hillary Clinton, but there was going to be six, eight people there, and a lot of governors. I don't think they necessarily put me in that position, which was a great position. But imagine that you are the warm-up band for the Rolling Stones and what people are really hoping is that something happens to your electric system and you get your hind end off of the stage so they can get to Keith Richards. So, I understood that the main event was Hillary. But I'm passionate about American alternative energy and I think we have ideas in Montana that can change the world. And it looked like last night that they agreed with me.

POLITICAL BASE: What did it mean to you to know that while you were firing-up the convention crowd in Denver, Senator Obama was watching it from a home in Billings with a Montana family?

SCHWEITZER: Yeah, it was very cool. He actually called me after my speech and it was a real honor that he was in Billings while I was down here. So I guess we were trading responsibilities and roles for the night.

POLITICAL BASE: Let's talk a little about Barack Obama's chances in Montana. Yesterday was his fifth trip to the state while John McCain has yet to visit. Obama won the primary by 15 points and he's clearly making a full-court effort to win the state. How do see Obama's chances and is McCain making a huge strategic mistake by ignoring the state?

SCHWEITZER: McCain needs to run his campaign the way he needs to run his campaign, but Obama has an army of people working for him and a larger army of volunteers. He's been running TV ads, and he's been active there now since the primary. He didn't pull out after the primary. So, it's very difficult to win the game if you don't field a team. And McCain right now hasn't fielded a team. No coach, no captain, no uniforms, no plan, no huddle, no pass, no run.

POLITICAL BASE: You spent a good deal of time with Obama after he won the primary, especially during his overnight trip to Montana on the 4th of July. What did you learn about him during that time?

SCHWEITZER: Let me say this -- I didn't have as much time with him as Nancy [Schweitzer] had with Michelle. They sat together for a long period of time and Nancy just thinks the world of Michelle. She's a wonderful, intelligent, articulate, passionate woman. Clearly a very good mother, with remarkable ideas about education and health care. In the case of Barack, he's a good guy. When he walks into the room, he'll shake a few hands, slap a couple of 'fives, and wink and the point. He feels so comfortable in that environment and couldn't be further from the Republicans' message that he's an elitist. How can you be elite when you were raised by a single mom on food stamps? If they [GOP] can pull this off then they can make Donald Duck into a wolf.

POLITICAL BASE: You were elected as governor in 2004, which was generally a very bad year for Democrats. Bush carried Montana by 20 points but voters made you their first Democratic governor in 16 years. Since then, we've seen strong Democratic gains in the Intermountain West and are on the verge of even bigger wins in Colorado and New Mexico. What has happened in that region in the past few years to turn the tide for Democrats?

SCHWEITZER: Well, we don't have a parlimentary system of government in America. When people vote in the United States, they don't vote for party. They're not voting for the Tories. They vote for individuals and it's individuals who actually win elections. And it just so happens that we went a couple of decades in the West when Republicans were winning everything and they filled their benches up with candidates who were very good. And Democrats had to work harder. You had to be more skillful. You had to be more talented. You had to paddle your canoe upstream. And then Republicans thought floating downstream was enough. But then they found out that we had some good people with big oars who learned how to paddle upstream.

POLITICAL BASE: What would you say to those Democrats across the country that are still not fully onboard yet? How does the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign continue to reach out to those voters that are still yet undecided?

SCHWEITZER: This is a great question. It's a matter of math. You guys that study journalism, they never made you study any math, did they? No physics, no chemistry, no biology, maybe just a little political science or a little English lit? A little of this, a little of that. I was listening to Fixed News [Fox News] the other day and they were talking about Hillary having supporters who won't switch to Obama. 45 percent they said. They've got some polling. 45 percent of the Hillary voters aren't going to switch to Obama. Really? So they say it over and over and over again, as if history doesn't matter. Every time in the last 50 years that we had contested primaries, both Democrats and Republicans, the Republicans came home in the end, and the Democrats came home in the end. They always have. They always will. So, if it's true, on Fixed News, when they say 45 percent of the Hillary voters aren't going to support Barack Obama – or don't right now. But here's what I already know: they will and 95 percent will come home. Furthermore, they say the race is tied. If this race is tied, and half of Hillary's voters aren't even showing up, and we're 40 percent  Democrats in this country, you start doing the math and you say 'Oh my God' there's still seven or eight percent more out there waiting to come to Obama. That would make the landslide of LBJ look like a tough race.

POLITICAL BASE: One very quiet, under-the-radar effort that the Obama campaign has been making has been on the Indian reservations and the states with large native populations happen to be swing states like Montana, New Mexico, Alaska, North Dakota, and Nevada. How important will this group be to Obama's chances of winning, especially in Montana?

SCHWEITZER: It's important. They're seven percent of the population of Montana and, as you may know, Barack Obama has been adopted by the Crow Tribe and his name given by the Crow Nation is Barack Black Eagle and he's going to get roughly 95 percent of the Indian vote in Montana. The Indian reservations are also the youngest populations in Montana. The average age of Montana is about 38 while the average age on the reservations is about 21. So, having Obama's people out there, organizing, getting young people registered to vote, making sure they turnout to vote, is a three or four percent difference. And whoever wins the state will do so by a couple of percent, so it's a big deal.

POLITICAL BASE: Many people want to know, if you are re-elected this fall – and you continue to lead by large margins – what is next for you? Could you see yourself making a run for federal office down the road, as many have been encouraging?

SCHWEITZER: Here's a promise. If the people of Montana are nice enough, and I'm hopeful that they will be, to give me an opportunity for another four years, I'm going to be doing more fishing.

POLITICAL BASE: Back to the theme of your convention speech – energy. While you come from a major coal producing state, you have taken the lead in building a very diverse energy portfolio from wind farms to just finalizing a project to create one of the nation's first coal-to-liquid plants. What's your vision as far the direction the country needs to go in the area of energy policy?

SCHWEITZER: Multiple platforms. Like I said last night, this is not a debate of wind or coal. It's not a debate of oil or geothermal. It's not a debate between the platforms. We need all of the platforms. But, as I said last night, oil cannot be the only platform because we consume 25 percent but produce 3 percent. So, you need all of the platforms. And that's why, Montana being absolutely  dead center of the most important energy corridor on the planet, from the oil sands in Alberta, to Montana's wind and our oil and gas and our coal, to Wyoming's hydrocarbons, and to the Southwest's solar and more wind resources. It's the most important energy corridor on the planet, but it means pulling all of those resources in order to pave the way to energy independence and decrease carbon emissions.

POLITICAL BASE:  Last question, What do you and your peers as Governors believe that you will be able to accomplish under an Obama administration, at the federal and state-level, that you have been unable to accomplish under the Bush administration?

SCHWEITZER: Someone who will return our calls. 

Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "'10 Questions' With Montana's Populist Cowboy Governor Brian Schweitzer. His significant other, Chantel McCormick, works in Governor Schweitzer's energy policy office."