MISSOULA - Steve Bullock put on safety glasses and stepped past curlicues of shredded plastic carpeting on the factory floor of Diversified Plastics. Next to him, Brad Reid explained how the plastic gears his company makes are superior to steel ones traditionally used in machinery from ski lifts to wastewater plants.
To Bullock, the Democratic candidate for governor, Diversified Plastics illustrates what is right with the business climate in Montana, but it also shows where government can do better.
On the one hand, the Missoula-based company is a success story, growing from a garage-run business started by Reid's father to an export-driven manufacturer that saw revenues of $9 million last year. But Bullock recalled Reid telling him previously that information about the state's small-business programs was scattered and nearly incomprehensible.
"He said the same thing to me (then)," Bullock said. "'I have a business to run. I don't have time to try to figure out what options there are.' So we need to be more effective."
That's a central theme of the 46-year-old attorney general's campaign for governor: Montana is doing well compared to other states struggling to emerge from the Great Recession, but there are areas it can improve. The government must encourage small businesses so the state can diversify its economy, Bullock said.
"Part of it has been partnering with the government with some incentives. Part of it is to continue to invest in our education system," he said.
Bullock's Republican opponent, Rick Hill, said he believes the attorney general can't see just how hostile Montana's regulations are to businesses because Bullock has no business background. Hill, a former congressman, also said he, not Bullock, is more aligned with Gov. Brian Schweitzer's aggressive stance in developing Montana's natural resources.
"Whereas Steve gives lip service to that, his record suggests otherwise. You look at the people who are supporting him, trial lawyers, environmentalists, those groups that are supporting him, those are all the people who are opposed to energy development in Montana," Hill said.
After a career practicing law in both the public and private sectors and one term in elected office, Bullock wants to be Montana's next CEO. His Democratic peers call him one of the party's brightest young stars. They have been generous in bankrolling his campaign, and unlike Hill, Bullock faced token opposition to win his party's nomination.
Bullock has pledged to build on Schweitzer's success of consecutive years of growth and surpluses, and he has even borrowed some of the governor's ideas, such as promising a one-time $400 homeowner rebate. But Bullock also has set out to show he would be his own man, one who would bring people together, compared to Schweitzer, who seems to revel in butting heads with Republican legislative leaders.
"Let's try to find the areas where we can agree," he said. "I'll certainly take a firm stand and pull out the veto pen when necessary, but also try to focus on where we want the state to be."
After graduating from Columbia University's law school in 1994, Bullock took a job with a New York law firm in hopes of quickly paying down his school debt, which topped $100,000. But he moved back to Helena less than three years later after learning his father had advanced cancer.
Bullock worked first as chief legal counsel for the secretary of state's office, then moved to the Department of Justice under Attorney General Joe Mazurek. It was there, standing in a courtroom, that the pull for public service manifested itself for the first time.
"I got to stand up and say, 'I'm Steve Bullock, I'm representing the state of Montana.' I thought, 'What a great job,'" he said.
Bullock decided to run for attorney general in 2000. He lost to Mike McGrath, who is now the chief justice for the Montana Supreme Court. Bullock stayed with the attorney general's office for another year before taking a job with a private law firm in Washington. He still had that law school debt to pay off, but he and his wife, Lisa, eventually moved back to Montana to raise a family.
Bullock opened his own practice and, in 2008, ran again for attorney general, this time defeating Tim Fox. Fox is the Republican nominee for the office again this year.
Bullock counts multiple multimillion-dollar settlements with prescription drug companies and legislation he backed dealing with repeat drunken driving offenders as among his biggest accomplishments.
On a recent day in Missoula, Bullock visited two other businesses besides Diversified Plastics before hustling to make a University of Montana political science lecture and two more stops in the Republican stronghold of Hamilton. He devotes at least two to three hours to his day job while on the trail.
He's also got a third job: Dad to three kids ages 10, 8 and 6. No matter where the campaign trail ends each day, he tries to make it back to Helena so he can see his children in the morning.
"Just because it's 10 o'clock in Billings, we'll still drive back just to try to keep some sense of normalcy, as much as it can stay normal," he said.