Jon Tester: A New Kind of Populist
He's not exactly the type of Democrat you'd be likely to see backslapping New York City fat cats on their way into an elaborate fund raiser for Hillary Clinton. In fact, Jon Tester, the senator-elect from Montana, isn't your typical Democrat. He's almost not a Democrat at all, or at least not the kind we're used to seeing run around Washington these days. In fact Tester ran his campaign against Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) on just that platform. He was tired of the scandals and dishonesty that engulf our national politics and professed that the polluted Beltway could use a little Montana house cleanin'. Voters agreed, and Burns, who had ties to the now incarcerated power broker Jack Abramoff, was defeated in one of the tightest races in state history.
A State Senator and organic farmer by trade, Jon operates his family's homestead just outside Big Sandy in northern Montana where the winter chills can chatter your teeth as early as mid-September. When I say he's not really even a Democrat, that may be a bit of an understatement. Tester is essentially an NRA approved neo-populist with libertarian tendencies who wants to immediately redeploy troops from Iraq as well as repeal the PATRIOT Act. And although nobody would consider Tester an anti-globalization activist, his position on international trade is more in line with the protesters who shut down Seattle in 1999 than with the Democratic Leadership Council.
On a recent Meet the Press broadcast Tester even addressed the most evaded issue in national politics: Poverty. "There's no more middle class," he confessed to Tim Russert, "the working poor aren't even being addressed. Those are the people who brought us here [to Congress] and they need to be empowered. It's time to show them attention ... We have to use policy to help that situation."
In a debate last September, Sen. Conrad Burns attempted to paint Tester as weak on terror. "We cannot afford another 9/11," Burns chided. "I can tell you that right now, he [Tester] wants to weaken the PATRIOT Act." To which Tester countered, "Let me be clear. I don't want to weaken the PATRIOT Act. I want to get rid of it."
Tester built his campaign from the ground up, shunning support from nationally known Democrats like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, as he knew they'd rub Montanans the wrong way. Instead, the nearly 300 pound farmer who lost three fingers in a meat grinding accident as a child, drove around the state so he could chat face-to-face with his potential constituents.
Fortunately for Tester, he's used to bucking the system. His first foray with the Washington Consensus came in 1998 when he ran for the Montana legislature because he was outraged over the huge energy hikes that had resulted from the state's deregulation of the power industry. And he's been speaking out against policies that pit working folks against the corporate class ever since. That's why he supports renewable energies and a livable minimum wage.
Still, Tester isn't the perfect politician. While he may remain strong on many issues, he is a bit wishy-washy on a few social justice concerns, such as the death penalty and gay rights. Nevertheless, Tester's campaign and personal appeal may serve as a winning blueprint for left-leaning populists out here in the Interior West. Indeed Brian Schweitzer used the exact formula to become Governor of Montana two years ago.
We should keep an eye on the senator-to-be when he takes office next month. If Jon Tester shuns the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, and truly speaks for the people of Montana, he could have a profound effect on our national discourse. Not to mention the way business is done in Washington.