HELENA — He once commanded the Montana National Guard troops in Iraq, but Lt. Gov. John Walsh now has a different mission. He’s traveling the state promoting Gov. Steve Bullock’s agenda.
Bullock’s vision, he said, is to create more and better-paying jobs, improve education and improve the effectiveness of state government.
“So every day that I come into the office, those things are my focus,” Walsh said in an interview last week. “What can I do to move the governor’s vision forward?
“I do a lot of traveling around the state to speak with various groups and to get feedback from the citizens of Montana on how we’re doing. What we can do better and what we can do to improve in those three areas.”
Walsh, 52, has been to 34 counties so far, traveling outside Helena about two days a week.
He accompanied the Big Sky Honor Flight that transported some of Montana’s World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial honoring them.
“That was a very humbling experience just to be able to listen to the stories of men and women truly from our greatest generation,” he said.
Walsh has also been present for military deployment ceremonies when Montanans have left for Afghanistan and Kuwait.
Among other assignments, Walsh is focusing on veterans’, military and national security issues, with a top priority of trying to reduce the state unemployment rate for veterans. It has dropped from 20.1 percent in 2010 to 17.5 percent in 2011.
“So we’ve made some significant progress in that area,” Walsh said. “The reason is we’ve been offering some intensive services to our veterans. Our agencies have really focused and it shows.”
He views it as part of the effort to uphold the promises made to the men and women who have served their country and made significant sacrifices.
Another of Walsh’s top priorities is working with Bullock to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state government. After getting feedback from department directors, they have completed a series of meetings with each agency’s director and deputies.
They’re trying to find ways for agencies to continually improve various processes. Walsh said it’s a “bottom-up” process that seeks to tap the expertise of employees who have worked in the agencies for years.
Already, he said, the departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources and Conservation are working together to improve the environmental permitting process.
Walsh said Bullock is working to have one central location for all departments’ computer network systems at the Information Technology Services Division in the Department of Administration, instead of each agency having its own. This will allow all purchasing of network systems to be done out of one agency, rather than a dozen agencies, reducing duplication and saving money.
NorthWestern Energy already has sent the state an energy rebate of $365,000 for lower costs to power the network systems, he said.
The administration is not yet ready to highlight other government efficiencies, Walsh said. It expects to publish a report by January detailing the improvements.
For Walsh, holding political office has been a major change in his life after serving for decades in the Montana National Guard. The Butte native joined the guard as a student at Carroll College, starting as an enlisted man and later becoming an officer.
In 2004-2005, Walsh commanded the 750-soldier 163rd Infantry Battalion from Montana in combat operations in Iraq. It was the largest deployment of Montana soldiers since World War II.
In September 2008, Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed him adjutant general of the Montana National Guard. Walsh resigned in March 2012 to join Bullock as his running mate.
Walsh said he knew Bullock as attorney general, but not well. He had taken Bullock to Dillon to see the National Guard’s Youth Challenge, a boot camp program for at-risk youth.
Impressed by Walsh’s leadership, Bullock approached him in early to 2012 to see if he’d like to join the ticket.
Walsh said it was a tough decision because he loved leading the guard. He discussed it with his wife, Janet, and their two sons.
“I’d been in the National Guard for 33 years and working full time for the National Guard for 29,” he said. “So this provided a great opportunity to continue to serve here in Montana and serve the citizens of Montana.”
Walsh said he and Bullock talked about roles and responsibilities.
”The one thing that I really said was that as adjutant general, I was actively involved in the decision-making process and kind of the final say, other than the governor, as to what was happening,” he said.
Walsh said he told Bullock that if they won, he wanted to play “an active role” in the administration.
“He said, ‘Definitely,’ and he’s followed through with that commitment,” Walsh said. “I’ve been an active member of the team involved in the majority of decisions that have taken place so far.”
Those activities have included helping vet the candidates for top jobs in the administration and members of various boards. He helped develop Bullock’s budget and worked with the Legislature to advocate for the governor’s agenda.
Under the Montana Constitution and laws, the lieutenant governor has few duties except those assigned by the governor. Some previous Montana lieutenant governors have withered away on the political vine when governors have refused to share any duties with them.
That hasn’t happened to Walsh.
“I’ve been continuing to stay busy,” Walsh said. “That’s the one thing I was concerned about. I didn’t want to just sit here and wait to be told to do something.…I’ve really enjoyed working with (Bullock). I’ve really appreciated him considering my input."
For his part, Bullock said Walsh has “become a close friend and a trusted adviser.”
“He’s been by my side as we crafted a budget, negotiated with legislators and, more generally, set our agenda for governing,” Bullock said, “He brings equal parts of enthusiasm and determination to every task he tackles.”
He said Walsh has been particularly helpful “as we dig into how government can better serve all Montanans.”