HELENA — Late last month, a yearlong journey came to an end for John Lewis, state director for Sen. Max Baucus, when he called on Helena Mayor Jim Smith at the City-County Building here.
Their visit was the final stop on Lewis’ quest to travel to all 56 counties and meet with the mayors of all of Montana’s 129 incorporated cities and towns on behalf of Baucus in 2011.
Lewis ultimately visited 118 mayors or, in a few cases, city managers in smaller towns without mayors. The remaining 11 officials he spoke to by phone, in part because they had jobs elsewhere and couldn’t meet in person.
Lewis said he racked up more than 20,000 miles on his vehicle traveling to all corners of the state, ran out of gas near Rexford, got one speeding ticket and several warnings and hit some pheasants but avoided any deer.
“As they say in Montana, there’s two kind of people: Those that have hit a deer and those that are going to,” said Lewis, who totaled a vehicle after hitting a deer when working for Baucus’ 2008 campaign.
The Helena mayor greeted Lewis warmly, saying, “I’ve been awaiting the day.”
So had Lewis, who lives in Helena and told Smith early on that his final stop would be here.
“And it motivated me,” Lewis said. “Every time I saw him, I’d say that’s going to be the end. I wanted him to be at the end because that’s where I started and it’s Max’s hometown.”
“I’m really flattered that you undertook the project at all and saved me for the end,” said Smith, Helena’s longtime mayor.
It was an idea hatched by both Baucus and him, said Lewis, a Billings native raised in Missoula who has worked for the senator for a decade.
“Max is one of the hardest-working people I know,” Lewis said. “He walks the talk. He set the standard. He walked across the state twice. He expects his staff to get out there and talk to people and go into all the communities and really understand the issues.”
Said Baucus: “I’ve always encouraged my staff to get out there and really go the extra mile to reach out to Montanans and serve them.”
Lewis’ meeting with Smith was similar to his other hourlong meetings with mayors elsewhere.
The same issues — infrastructure (water and sewer projects and highways and roads) and jobs — came up everywhere. In smaller towns, mayors are concerned about losing their post offices.
“Helena is clearly one of the larger seven or eight towns, and it’s a little different than a lot of the majority of the 129 towns I met with,” Lewis said. “But it’s a lot of the same issues, just bigger scale, in terms of infrastructure, clean water and streets.”
Smith thanked Lewis for Baucus’ past support for the Missouri River water treatment plant that’s now fully operational.
Lewis asked what future projects the city is trying to get the congressional delegation to help fund.
Smith said Helena officials will be seeking money to replace some of the water system’s 1.2 million linear feet of pipe. Some pipe was installed 80 to 100 years ago.
No one really cares about the water distribution system until there’s a “brown water episode” or a leak and the pipes need to be fixed, Smith said.
Lewis said it became clear to him how important infrastructure is, especially in rural communities.
“Everyone wants clean drinking water,” he said. “You need a wastewater system. Streets are crumbling. With the debate that’s going on in D.C. over the budget cuts and deficits, that’s one thing I’m recommending to Max as a result of this is with budget cuts, we can’t unfairly target rural America.”
He asked how a town like Ryegate, with several hundred residents, many of them elderly, can come up with the money for a new drinking water system.
“You can raise the rates on them, but you can only do so much of that, and that’s not going to do it all,” Lewis said. “There’s got to be resources available to make the kind of infrastructure improvements that people need.”
Highways are the lifeblood of Montana communities, Lewis said, He pointed to the relatively new paved road between Baker and Ekalaka that replaced a dirt road.
Baucus, a key author of past highway bills, helped unanimously pass out of committee a new highway funding bill, Lewis said, “and we’re going to continue to push on that.”
After meeting with many rural mayors, Lewis said it’s clear to him that closing small post offices won’t solve the Postal Service’s financial problems.
“For a lot of communities, that’s the last thing there,” he said. “If you take away the post offices, it’s going to mean job loss and disruption of service for seniors that need their medicine on time in the winter.”
He said Baucus has successfully pressed the Postal Service to help stop the process of shutting down post offices for five months to give Congress time to work on solutions to address its financial problem.
As for jobs, he said many people have lived in small towns for years and want to stay there, but they need jobs to remain.
“So when something happens like the Keystone pipeline, that’s important to a lot of these communities, especially in eastern Montana,” Lewis said. “It’s the jobs, it’s the tax revenue, and I hear that everywhere.”
He said Baucus brokered the bipartisan deal to extend the payroll tax cut for two months while including the language to move the Keystone pipeline forward.