HELENA — Montana’s new Senate president, Republican Jeff Essmann of Billings, says his earliest childhood memories are of his family’s dry-cleaning business, watching an artist paint seasonal Christmas scenes on the store’s plate-glass windows.
Essmann would buy the business from his father 25 years later and expand it to more stores, often working on the new buildings himself.
“I’m a hands-on guy,” he says. “I built those shops with pipe wrenches in my hand. That was the most rewarding part of building those businesses …
“I liked doing (things myself) when I built a new building, because I had to find the location, imagine the layout and have a vision … and it was rewarding to see it ready to open.”
Now, as Essmann assumes perhaps the most pivotal leadership post in the Montana Legislature, he’ll be plotting a path and vision for the Senate’s Republican majority – a job with a rocky pathway both ahead and behind it.
Essmann, the Senate’s Republican majority leader since 2011, challenged Senate President Jim Peterson in November for the Senate majority’s top post and won. Senate Republicans also elected Bozeman Sen. Art Wittich as their new majority leader, defeating Kalispell Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, who had allied himself with Peterson and expected to win.
Supporters of Essmann said they wanted a “sharper edge” to their leadership, who would better define Republicans’ conservative vision for the state.
“I think it’s important that we make it clear that we stand for something, and that we’re not just `Democrat lite,’” says Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, who nominated Essmann for the president’s job.
The victory of Essmann and Wittich has created hard feelings among some Republican senators, who say they’re still waiting to see what plan the new regime has in mind to stack up against proposals from Democratic Gov.-elect Steve Bullock.
“I haven’t seen what (Essmann) wants to do,” says Tutvedt. “We don’t have any idea what his agenda is. Right now there is a void, and hopefully it will be filled by Republicans and not the governor.”
Essmann, in an interview last week, said the Republican agenda will be fleshed out more once the Legislature gets under way on Monday. He said Wittich is contacting all GOP senators to learn their priorities.
“When everybody gets here in town and we get through the swearing in, we’ll sit down and come together on specific bills, in a collective process,” he said.
Essmann says one goal he’ll be emphasizing is a conservative state budget that doesn’t overly rely on federal money, which is 40 percent of the current state budget.
“We are far more dependent on federal money than the typical state,” he says. “That will make us vulnerable going forward when the people in Washington get down to the business of getting our financial house in order, and I hope they do.”
That Essmann doesn’t have it all figured out, right now, should come as no surprise, say those who know him. Friends and political foes alike describe him as a thoughtful, strategic thinker who likes to approach problems in a methodical way.
“He works well with both sides, he’s extremely articulate and likes to think through the problem rather than make a knee-jerk reaction,” says John Ostlund, a Yellowstone County commissioner who has known Essmann for a couple of decades.
Ostlund points to Essmann’s work in 2011 on the rewrite of Montana’s medical marijuana law, when Essmann guided the complex bill through a maze of interest groups and political maneuvering, crafting a measure that clamped down on the law’s excesses yet attempted to preserve marijuana use for those who needed it.
“I thought he came up with a very, very good compromise bill that went forward, that seemed to work out well and that was confirmed by the voters,” Ostlund says.
Essmann says he won’t be carrying any major legislation this year, but that his work on the marijuana bill reflects his “hands-on” instincts, developed from years as a business owner.
He also says growing up in a small-business household shaped his political views, which hold that lower tax rates and a less-intrusive, fiscally restrained government will pave the way for economic growth and opportunities.
“I’m worried now about whether we’re going to get a growth economy in this country again,” Essmann says. “We cannot continue taking on all of this debt …
“I really think that is the major policy question, with moral dimensions. Is it right for the current generation to be taking care of itself at the expense of future generations? I don’t think it is.”
Essmann grew up in Billings, but went to Chicago to study engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. After his junior year, he worked a summer for a packaging company on the south side of Chicago.
“The summer was long and hot, and it occurred to me if I stayed in engineering, I was likely to be in the East or the Midwest for most of my life,” he recalls. He started thinking of how he could get back to Montana. “I thought, well, I could probably go to law school.”
He returned to Missoula and worked his way through the University of Montana law school, joined a small law firm in Billings, and then was invited in 1979 by a former law professor, who was general counsel for the Montana Power Co., to work for MPC in Butte.
Essmann spent two years at Montana Power, working on land issues on the location of the new Colstrip 3 and 4 power plants. After leaving Montana Power, Essmann returned to Billings, did some legal private practice and then bought his father’s dry-cleaning business in 1982.
He has since sold the dry-cleaning stores, but still owns a business that sells water to homeowners and businesses that don’t have their own water system, and owns and manages commercial property in Billings.
Essmann says he got involved in Republican Party politics as a young man and stayed active, eventually chairing the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee. In early 2005, he won appointment to take the state Senate seat vacated when Sen. John Bohlinger became lieutenant governor under Democrat Brian Schweitzer. Essmann has twice won re-election to his West Billings district; his final term expires in 2014.
Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, who was Senate minority leader when Essmann was majority leader in 2011, says she thinks Essmann has become more conservative and aligned with the party’s conservative wing than when he first arrived in 2005.
She wonders whether Essmann will be able to mend the rifts within his own party and work with Democrats to get things done – as he will need to do, with a Democratic governor in power.
“I don’t get the sense that he has that kind of rapport with everyone in his caucus, and certainly not everyone in the Democratic Party,” she says.
Essmann says he has always been a conservative, and that he might have been seen as a moderate early on because he treated political opponents “with politeness and respect.”
And while Essmann expects sometimes to do battle with Bullock and Democrats over policy, he doesn’t want that conflict to be the focus of the 2013 Legislature.
“I’d like to get off to a good start with the new governor,” he says. “I’d like to focus on real problems. … I’m sure differences in policy will arise, but our differences in policy should not devolve into petty, personal politics.”