Discussing Montana's Politics at the General Mercantile
While were in Helena, we stopped in a great old-fashioned coffee/tea house called the General Mercantile. While there, I met George Ochenski, an environmental lobbyist and political analyst for the Independent. His latest article is about globalization and the cost of energy. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
What's your opinion of Governor Brian Schweitzer?
He better hold up his promises. Now that you're in office, there's this whole other agenda going on. What is all this coal development? You didn't run for office on that. You said Montana's true economic foundation is the beauty of the mountains themselves and what lies underneath them. He said that in a speech to the Wilderness Association. I was there also giving a speech, so I heard that and said, oh, that's good. You watch him say these various things and think, finally, finally, somebody is not gonna just whore out the state to the highest bidder for whatever resources that we have that can be extracted.
Montana's history has been a resource extraction colony. Take whatever you can, wipe out the Indians, take their land, then introduce cattle, cut down the forests and run the railroads up every valley. The whole thing has just been take, take, take, so I'm thinking, oh wow, here's somebody who finally understands that in the real world, what Montana has is becoming more valuable by the second because every place else, natural ecosystems are disappearing and natural landscapes no longer exist. We take those things for granted because we live here. Those are really valuable now. Where can you go where rivers are still full of wild trout? They're naturally reproducing. Why? Because we have put policies in place over the last 20 years to truly keep it that way and help maintain this wild character, rather than raising them in hatcheries and dumping them in the rivers. The whole thing is totally bogus. You don't get a balanced ecosystem or a functioning ecosystem.
Because Montana rarely gets national attention, a lot of people associate Montanans with guns and hunting. How does that play out in the environmental movement?
I've been an environmental lobbyist for 20 years. All of my friends are the executive directors of the Wilderness Association, the Environmental Information Center, Trout Unlimited, and so on. They all hunt. Everybody hunts here. That's not a big deal to us to go hunting. Most people hunt does because there are lots and lots of deer here. Tons of animals. The ranchers appreciate it when you thin out the herds. The best way to do that is to shoot a doe and when you shoot a doe, then it also happens to be the best eating, so most people that I know do that because we have very low wages here. The lowest per capita income and hourly wages in the nation, so people hunt to fill their freezers and feed their families.
And hunting is not strictly a Republican sport. In the media, we often hear, if you're a gun owner, you're a member of the NRA and a Republican.
That's the ignorance of the media. They have these cute little pigeon holes where they have to stuff everybody, but people don't fit into pigeon holes.
Especially in this state.
Our politics have swung back and forth. When the Republicans came in in 1989, they took the governor's office. They hadn't been in power for 20 years. They were in power for 16 years. Now they're out. Now we have a Democratic governor, we have a Democratic senate majority, but in that 16 year period, we had all Republican governors. By 1993, the House was Republican and by 1995, both the House and the Senate were Republican. Now they're out, so the pendulum has swung back again, so how does this red state/blue state stuff work out? It doesn't.
Quite frankly, there are simple mistakes that both parties make that people aren't cognizant of and Montanans are smart. They are not dumb people. We get painted as being okies with snow and we're not. We have good schools and cool people and good journalists. I think the Democrats are fiscally irresponsible and so the people get tired of paying taxes because we have low wages. The Democrats basically get tattooed tax and spend and they get swept out of power. That's what happened in 1991. They had a seven percent solution and raised all taxes across the board. Next election, Democrats were gone just like the tide going out. Republicans get in, they immediately cow tow to the corporations, trash the environmental regulations, get rid of the tax base. It's the same thing we see on the national level right now where we have one party control of the executive and the legislative branches. One party control means we lose the ability to have honest debate about the policies with which the state or the nation are gonna go forward. That happened here. We've made some huge mistakes.
We deregulated electricity when Montana had the sixth-lowest electricity in the nation. The Republicans introduced a bill in the last two weeks of the section -- a major bill well over 100 pages -- to deregulate our electricity supply. In Montana at that time, the dams that were producing the cheap hydro-electricity were owned by one company, Montana Power Company (MPC) that had been around for 100 years. They were all regulated so that MPC was given a guaranteed profit and everything that they built was put into the rate base so we paid for it all. They got their guaranteed profit and we got low-priced electricity. Well, they deregulated it and six months later, the MPC announced they were selling off the dams and going into the telecommunications business. They sold them to Pennsylvania Power and Light for about $1 billion.
All of a sudden, Montana didn't have control of its electricity anymore. It was owned by a global mega-corporation. Pretty soon, our electricity rates started going up. We took a 40 percent jump in almost the first year and it's been going up since then. That same company owned all the natural gas companies, so they had the fields, the transmission lines and the delivery lines. They sold all those off, so now somebody owns the fields and somebody else owns the transmission lines. Right now they're projecting a 70 percent increase in natural gas prices up here. Montana is not like Florida. We can't go without heat in the winter. This is a place where it gets really cold. Most people heat with natural gas. We had these major, major policy mistakes because we did not have a balanced political debate. That's where the red state/blue state stuff breaks down. We might vote for George Bush instead of John Kerry because John Kerry didn't resonate with Montanans. I don't know about George Bush. I sure didn't vote for him.
Did you vote for Kerry?
Painfully. I was disappointed just watching the guy. Why are we talking about the Vietnam War now? This is something I went through. That was my era. Why are we talking about a war that happened 40 years ago and you're defending what you did then instead of talking about what's going on in the United States now. I'm still extremely disappointed in DC Democrats. You got Feinstein, Biden and Lieberman saying we should be sending more troops. We went into Iraq without any debate and the stupid Demos went along with it instead of saying, hey, this was a mistake. We should get the hell out of there before we kill anymore people. We're gonna suffer for years down the line, not just our image, but our fiscal standing. How are we gonna pay for all of this?
Do you align yourself with the Democratic party?
No. I haven't given any money to either party in years. I used to. I just became so disillusioned with them. I see them as guys in a locker room. Let's go club those guys down. Wait a minute, folks. That's not what's going on here. I lived in the mountains for a long time and climbed, skied and sponsored exhibitions around the world for years. When I came to Helena in 1984 to lobby, I was not particularly aligned with Democrats or Republicans as political parties because out there in the real world, you don't ask somebody, hey, are you a Republican or a Democrat before you help them push their car out of the snow. That doesn't exist here and that's part of why the red state/blue state thing doesn't work. Montanans by necessity, given our harsh climate and the rural nature of our state, have to help each other out. We do that all the time. It's even on the books. If you break down by the side of the road in Montana in the winter, you have to stop and render assistance.
This is the capital city and the partisan politics are so defined. I really do get tired of it. The Republicans don't keep their promises. They claim to be fiscally responsible, but just take a look at what Bush has done. Same here. Republicans got in charge of the state and they spent us into a hole. All of a sudden, the Democrats come in and what do they get? They get tax and spend because they have to restore something. In the meantime, the environmental damage leads to higher medical rates and higher incidences of cancer.
Do the Democrats and Republicans work together on environmental issues here?
It has struck me, after all these years of doing this stuff, that the way people most often deal with each other, whether it's in groups or over issues, is through polarization of the debate. I passed a bunch of bills through the Republican controlled legislatures while I was absolutely an environmental lobbyist. How did I do it? I tailored them so that they met the self-interest of the Republicans because that's what matters to them. They are not worried about people who don't have or problems that aren't theirs. That's not what they're worried about. They take care of themselves. If you put whatever kind of cookie in there that appeals to their self-interst, then they're likely to pass your bill, as long as it doesn't cost anything.
My bills created programs to enhance small feeder streams for natural reproduction of trout so rather than have to spend endlessly on million dollar hatcheries, we have these trout breeding and spawning naturally. Because most of those small feeder streams are on private ranches, I obviously had to get the backing of the ranch community and a lot of those guys are Republicans. The way I did it was offer the money to improve your stream for free, but without the guaranteed access for the public. If I would have said, if you're going to use state money to do this, then you have to open your ranch to the public, they would have said, no, it's not worth it.
My impression of how things work is there are no great movements that change things down on the ground for people. It's a whole series of little actions and lots of them are boring. It's like the state parks. Nobody ever wants to just go clean up the cigarette butts and pick up the garbage, it's always, we should have a big visitor center. In reality, it's the tiny steps that make the difference.
What's in store for the future of Montana politically?
Everything is fluid right now and not just in Montana, but in the nation. You can't raise gas to $3 a gallon and expect people to sit back and take it. It's routine for Montanans to drive a couple hundred miles just to see their family, visit their kids in college or go hunting or fishing. These guys are trying to convince everybody that this great economy is going to chug through the icebergs just like the Titanic. I would really feel good if I saw somebody out there saying it's time for America to grow up. It's time to quit being the big pig on the block with energy and pollution. It's time to get our shit together so that we have a high-standard of living, but much lower consumption.
Out of all the work I've done and great successes I've had, the thing that really haunts me most is, what kind of world are we leaving for future generations? That really bugs me. I have a 25-year-old daughter who lives in Portland. I work so hard to try and make a better world for the future and not just money. Is there a world that still operates? Do we have healthy systems? Do we have minimizing cancer causing toxins? Are we going to leave them these mines that are leaking cyanide messes? It's a real bummer for me. As a child of the sixties, I thought we were on the right path. All of a sudden, people my age driving Hummers. Where did you go wrong? How did you lose the vision? And they're all spotless. Not a drop of dirt.
What message would you send to the next set of political candidates?
It's time they really took their responsibility seriously. America has no vision. Where are we going? We're living paycheck to paycheck. Our society is stratifying into the haves and have nots at an astounding pace. The middle class is disappearing because we're being squeezed by the high cost of necessities. I really would like to see some candidates who come forward with some kind of a vision and say, this is where American should be going and here's how we're going to get there.