Schweitzer Boasts About Election Night Tactics
Caught on Tape, Says He Was Only Joking
By Pat Hill
Montana's high-stepping governor Brian Schweitzer got a little hitch in his giddy-up last month, after a Bozeman-based editorial writer blew the whistle on comments the governor made in July while addressing an annual gathering of trial lawyers.
After her on-line discovery of a July 14 speech Schweitzer delivered in Philadelphia to the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America), syndicated conservative columnist Tamara Hall wrote of her “outrage” over remarks Schweitzer made regarding the 2006 election. In his speech, Schweitzer said that he used his power as governor to give fellow Democrat Jon Tester an “advantage” as he narrowly defeated incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Conrad Burns in the '06 race.
“And the advantage is, you know, when you've got a governor on your side, whoa!” Schweitzer boasted to the trial lawyers. “You can turn some dials, and we did.”
Hall went on to file a formal citizen's complaint against the governor. According to the Associated Press, Hall said that Schweitzer told the assembled lawyers that “he designed a plan to threaten poll watchers on Indian reservations, personally applied pressure to the elections officer in Butte/Silver Bow while votes were being tabulated, and manipulated the media for purposes of diminishing a call for a recount.”
In the speech, Schweitzer describes calling the AP the morning after the election to press the bureau chief into declaring Tester the victor in the Senate race, a race the bureau chief wasn't ready to call just yet:
“And I said to them [the AP], 'Look, let me tell you something. If you're not willing to do your job, I'll do it for you. I just called a press conference and you're invited at 10 o'clock this morning, and I'm going to stand next to the next United States senator, and I'm going to introduce him to the world because you're not doing your job.'” Schweitzer then told the assembly of lawyers that the AP called the race for Tester two minutes before the press conference kicked off.
AP bureau chief Jim Clarke acknowledged the phone call from Schweitzer, but denied any undue influence by the governor regarding the announcement of a winner in the election.
“I told him we would call the race when we were satisfied the vote count was accurate,” said Clarke, according to the AP. “That's what we did…that the AP would be swayed by an elected official into prema-turely calling a race is highly in-accurate.”
In his speech, Schweitzer also took credit for strong arm tactics used on the reservation on election-day 2006, when he referred to tribal police ensuring all tribal members (traditionally Democrats) got to vote by intimidating would-be GOP poll-watchers with threats of incarcer-ation:
“Then they said to them, 'People matching your description have been reported as having stolen a pickup about 30 miles [away]. We only have one jail here and we don't have a phone here, and we've already got 11 people in the jail. Sometimes it takes two or three days to work these things out. So you either come with us in the backseat of our car or you can both get in the front seat of your car and we'll lead you off the reservation, and if we never see you again, you won't go to jail.' We didn't lose one single vote there.”
Schweitzer told the AP in September that “It was just a colorful way of saying you can't have anyone intimidated,” and that he didn't know of any incidents of poll watcher intimidation on the reservation.
Schweitzer also told the lawyers assembled in Philadelphia that he called the Butte/Silver Bow election office after the polls had closed, and after learning the county still had seven precincts left to count before finalizing the election results. He said he spoke with an elections clerk who was “as nervous as a pregnant nun,” telling her that “'I want you to listen…I want you to listen close. I'll call you when you're done counting…now do you understand it?' She's from Butte…she understood exactly,” Schweitzer said, alluding to Butte’s history of improper election practices.
Butte/Silver Bow County Clerk and Recorder Mary McMahon told the AP that she did not take that call from Schweitzer because she was counting votes with a biparti-san committee when he called, but spoke with the governor after the count was completed.
“The insinuation…that he had any influence in how the numbers were released is absolutely false,” McMahon told the AP. She said the elections office has worked hard to overcome the perception of election-fixing in Butte/Silver Bow. She also said she was offended by the governor's “pregnant nun” remark, and demanded “on behalf of all women, especially Catholic women, an apology,” in a letter faxed to the governor.
The news of Schweitzer's speech made the pages of the New York Times, but Schweitzer told the AP he was just kidding about exerting improper (and possibly illegal) influence in the 2006 election.
“I was just joking around and making it colorful,” the governor said of his July 14 speech. “I can see now it's offensive to some people, and I'm deeply sorry if I offended anyone.”
Great Falls attorney Larry Anderson, who was in Philadelphia for the trial lawyers' annual gathering on July 14, backed up Schweitzer's claim that he was only joking about exerting undue influence on the election, adding that anyone watching the governor deliver the speech knew it was in jest.
“It was just Brian poking fun at the caricature of Montana, and poking fun at the caricature of Butte, and poking fun at outsiders,” Anderson told the AP.
Montana's Attorney General Mike McGrath declined to investi-gate the matter after it was forwarded to his office by Secretary of State Brad Johnson.
“Any question at all about the integrity of our election officials and workers cannot go unanswered,” said Johnson, according to the AP, but McGrath said the allegations of election fraud were not “supported by fact.” McGrath, though, offered some advice in the wake of the incident. “All of us would do well to choose our words carefully,” he said.
Republicans including Schweitzer's GOP challenger for the governor's seat, Roy Brown, are still trying to make political hay out of Schweitzer's comments, and Democrats, though acknowledging the governor's comments weren't funny to everyone, say the governor's gaff is old business.
But state GOP Party Chairman Erik Iverson told the AP he didn't think the incident would fade away in the minds of Montana voters. “Either the governor is a liar, and he's lying about these incidents, or he broke the law,” said Iverson. “Those are the only two conclusions and neither one reflects well on him.”
On Sept. 25, McMahon told the Pioneer that Schweitzer “did apologize to me personally.”
“When it happened it was very frustrating, but as far as I'm concerned it's a done deal,” she said. “I have his every assurance that he'll never make jokes about elections again.”