"I'm just a rancher who ended up governor of Montana," Brian Schweitzer is fond of saying. In a world where even Mitt Romney paints himself as a populist with humble roots, one might reasonably be skeptical of Schweitzer's self-portrait. The governor of the Big Sky State, however, appears to be the real deal -- a plain-spoken 51-year-old farmer and irrigation engineer who had never held public office before he ran for the highest post in Montana eight years ago.
At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Schweitzer may rival New Jersey's Chris Christie as the nation's most physically imposing head of a state. He is also arguably the most accessible, keeping his door in the Capitol building in Helena open to ordinary Montanans, who reportedly show up without appointments to chat with the governor.
When he was elected in 2004, the liberal Democrat with libertarian leanings was hailed as a harbinger of blue hopes in this overwhelmingly red part of the country. There was speculation that Schweitzer might someday be a potential presidential contender. But the Montana governor has proven to be anything but a team player. To the chagrin of his own party's faithful, he told The New York Times in 2006 that if Mitt Romney got the nomination he might consider supporting him (some suggested that Schweitzer was angling to be Romney's mate.)
Since then, Schweitzer has distanced himself from Romney, who he says has "taken a right turn" on immigration policy and military expansionism. The outspoken governor also recently got into hot water when he suggested that Romney's family roots in "a polygamy commune in Mexico" might hurt him in the upcoming presidential contest.
However politically maladroit such comments might be, they reinforce Schweitzer's image as being a straight-shooter and a maverick, an image that was further burnished by a recent New York Times op-ed in which the governor called for a federal constitutional amendment that would allow state's to ban corporate money from political campaigns.
The opinion piece recounts Montana's surprising populist history, where citizens demanded that corporate money be excluded from election campaigns -- and got it way back in 1916. It happened after Montana's wealthiest citizen, the copper-magnate William A. Clark, paid each of the state's legislators ten thousand dollars in cash ($250,000 in today's money) for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Public outrage against this brazen act of corruption boiled over, leading to the passage of a ballot initiative that effectively took money out of politics in Montana. Even private donations to politicians were eventually limited to a maximum of a few hundred dollars.
All meetings of state officials, in Schweitzer's telling, are required to be open to the public, and all documents -- including the governor's emails and hand-scrawled notes -- are available for citizen inspection. Legislators in Montana are basically ranchers, teachers, carpenters, and others who put their professions on hold for a 90-day session, every other year, to serve for $80 a day. "There's very little money in Montana politics," Schweitzer writes matter-of-factly.
But all of this is about to change, under threat by the Supreme Court, whose Citizen's United ruling two years ago (which said that corporations are "persons" and money is "speech") opened the floodgates of corporate contributions to political PACS. In February, the court informed Montana that it could no longer enforce its own law. The state would have to allow dirty money to corrupt its political process.
Schweitzer sees this as the death-knell for Montana's "rare, pure form of democracy," which will now be forced to kowtow to the highest corporate bidders like the rest of the nation. "I know this," Schweitzer says:
Because I've started receiving bills on my desk that have been ghostwritten by a host of industries looking to weaken state laws, including gold mining companies that want to overturn a state ban on the use of cyanide to mine gold, and developers who want to build condos right on the edge of our legendary trout streams [...] In the absence of strict rules governing campaign money, these big players will eventually get what they seek. I vetoed these bills, but future governors might sign them if they have been bribed by the same type of money that is now corrupting our State Legislature.
Montanans are fighting back. Their attorney general, Steve Bullock, says that states should have the right to be the masters of their own elections. He challenged the Supreme Court ruling in a brief -- joined by attorneys general from 22 states and Washington, D.C.
Last month, the Supreme Court refused Montana's petition. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing on behalf of the court's majority, said that: "Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," and therefore "[n]o sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations."
This means that the only remaining option to reverse the court's ruling will be for a constitutional amendment to be enacted. This can be accomplished by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in addition to a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. This might seem like a longshot, but the Constitution was successfully amended a dozen times in the twentieth century. Brian Schweitzer is pushing an initiative which will be on Montana's ballot in November that instructs the state's congressional delegation to support such an amendment to nullify the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.
There is speculation about what the popular Schweitzer, whose second and last term ends later this year, will do after he leaves the governor's office. Some think that he should run for Sen. Max Baucus' seat (if Baucus bows out) in 2014. Others see a possible future Cabinet post, should Obama be reelected, or even a bid for national office.
But the governor may be considering another option: Nobody is better-suited than he to lead a nationwide campaign to amend the Constitution and save our American democracy from the subversion of corporate cash.