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Is he from the Deep South or Montana?

| June 23, 2021 8:55 AM

By Bob Brown

I think it was the 1977 Montana Republican state convention, and the speaker standing before the delegates was newly elected Congressman Ron Marlenee. Facing criticism from some of the hard right element of his party regarding his personal life, Marlenee was as dynamic and defiant as I ever saw him.

He told the party faithful that if they elected him to get back the Panama Canal, they had elected the wrong man. He said if they had elected him to get prayer back into public schools, that would not be his priority, nor would getting the U.S. out of the United Nations. But if we wanted a fighter for the interests of Montana’s rural farmers and ranchers or for our state’s mineral and timber resources and the Montana jobs those resources represented, then we had elected the right representative.

Sometimes working with his colleague Democrat Pat Williams, Marlenee went on to make good on his promise as his “no nonsense” record proved in his subsequent 16 years in Congress. He was a conservative coalition builder, a realist, not a radical.

Our state with its small population and vast remoteness has been vulnerable to exploitation by powerful interests for our entire history. It has been our continual challenge to protect the interests of Montanans in the management of our vast natural bounty. Meeting that challenge was pretty much Marlenee’s sole focus.

Understandably, the Marlenee record was not always popular with everyone, particularly conservationists. One of his laugh lines was that the only result he could see coming from the extinction of grizzly bears was that “we’d be up to our a in huckleberries.”

In looking back, our state has been served by some great Republicans. Gov. Joe Dixon forced the controlling mining interests to begin paying taxes. Gov. Sam Ford’s program of public road building “got Montana out of the mud.” Both proved vital to the progress of our state. Jeanette Rankin was a leading figure in the nation’s most consequential mass movement which resulted in the right to vote for half our population.

Now comes another newcomer to represent Montana in the recently ransacked hallowed halls of our nation’s capitol. Freshman Congressman Matt Rosendale, unlike Marlenee, has revealed that he will indeed be an ideologue. In fact, he has shown himself to be so far on the fringes of the minority that he has the distinction of being one of only six members of either house of Congress to oppose BOTH the Congressional Gold Medal awards to the Capitol police protectors who lost their lives defending the U.S. Capitol AND a federal holiday to commemorate the anniversary of the end of slavery.

Rosendale stands out even among these hardest of the hardcore Republican ideologues because he’s the only one not from the Deep South. Voting as he did, Rosendale canceled out the vote of his very conservative Montana colleague Senator Steve Daines.

Early impressions can be long lasting. By exposing himself as an extremist as he makes his first impression as a member of Congress, Rosendale has carelessly diminished his credibility to do his real job to represent the real people of Montana.

The conspiratorial radicalism typified by Rosendale’s extremism is not conservative. He has purposely chosen to be part of a small cult on the radical fringe of our system. He has time to atone but we know that he won’t. He will continue to be who he is. All Montanans, Democrats and Republicans, deserve better.

Bob Brown, Whitefish, is a former Montana Secretary of State and state Senate President.