HELENA — Great oratory is rare in the Montana Legislature, and witty speeches are even less common these days.
But when Rep. William “Red” Menahan, D-Anaconda, spoke during his 30-year career in the House, everyone paid close attention. No one wanted to miss his witty remarks, usually delivered with a sharp bite.
At times his comments pierced the tension in the House, with everyone having a good laugh afterward. Even those scorched by his comments usually laughed about it later.
We reporters were all ears in anticipation of a good quote to liven up our stories when Menahan spoke, just as when Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, does now.
Menahan, who served in the House from 1971-2000, died July 26 at age 78. He had been a teacher, principal and coached an Anaconda High School girls’ basketball team to a state championship in 1973. He later moved to Helena.
His red hair and moustache had turned to white long ago, but his nickname persisted.
In looking through a thick file of clippings, here are some of the best Menahan quotes from stories written by many reporters over the years:
Above all, Menahan was a fierce defender and advocate of the state institutions in or near his district: the Montana State Prison and for many years, the Montana Women’s Prison, Warm Springs State Hospital and Galen State Hospital.
As chairman of a key appropriations subcommittee, he fought for higher pay for the employees at these institutions and for the state to hire more workers. It was often a losing cause, because Warm Springs was being “deinstitutionalized,” with many patients moved from the hospital into community-based care around the state.
During one budget hearing, Menahan told a director of the former state Department of Institutions, “You have a calculator for a heart.”
Menahan often was at odds with governors from both parties and the tight-fisted chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, fellow Democrat Francis Bardanouve of Harlem, over funding for institutions.
His son, Mike Menahan, later a Helena legislator and now a district judge, told the Associated Press about the time when Bardanouve complained that Menahan had added too many new projects to the state budget.
“I don’t want to die tomorrow with today’s lunch money in my pocket,” the Anaconda legislator said.
During a debate over a bill to raise the state minimum wage, one Republican rancher opposed it and said he’d pay his employees whatever he wanted.
“Don’t unbutton your shirt,” Menahan told him. “You’re heart might fall out.”
Menahan took delight in needling Republican farmers and ranchers – “the aggies,” as he called them – when they refused to support increases in social services funding, while collecting large federal ag subsidies.
One Republican rancher in the House once suggested that Menahan get himself a cowboy hat.
“You need a narrow mind to fit into one of those,” Menahan shot back.
As farmers and ranchers in the House worried about the drought, Menahan said, “In Butte and Anaconda, you talk about moisture — well they just tapped another keg at the local pub. That’s how much we care about agriculture in Butte and Anaconda.”
He fought proposal in a 2000 special session to appropriate $1,000 for Saco to make the world’s biggest hamburger at 6,040 pounds.
“They’re going to waste all the money,” he said. “They should give it to schools instead.”
When his fellow Anaconda Democratic colleague, Rep. Joe Kanduch, inexplicably started voting more with Republicans, Menahan said: “The only exercise he gets is jumping to conclusions.”
In a jab at the GOP, Menahan liked to say, “If Republicans will stop telling lies about Democrats, then we’ll stop telling the truth about Republicans.”
All humor aside, Menahan was a serious legislator, someone who always fought for the “little people,” for organized labor, for K-12 and higher education and for other issues, even if some of his ideas failed.
Menahan often proposed giving the Public Service Commission authority to regulate cable television but was never able to pass it.
Another failed bill that that might have been popular would have ordered the state Department of Administration to require a human being “and not a pre-recorded voice menu system, to answer every telephone call placed by a member of the general public.”
Menahan especially loved tweaking the Billings legislators, many of whom were Republicans.
One of his most famous comments came in the early 1980s, when the Billings legislators successfully fought to have Lake Elmo added to the state park system.
Menahan had to give them some guff.
“Six Swedes with bellyfuls of beer could urinate a bigger lake than Lake Elmo, and it would be cleaner, too,” Menahan said.
Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 447-4006. His e-mail address is chuck.johnson(a)lee.net .