HELENA — Republican state senators, facing internal discord that surfaced in internal documents this week, got a pep talk Thursday from a colleague who invoked Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
Delivering the talk at the Senate Republican caucus was Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who was state GOP chairman during part of the 1980s and helped unite a divided party and lead it to victories.
His message seemed aimed at getting the two factions — the new Senate leadership team elected in November and the ousted 2011 leaders, and each group’s supporters — to work together again.
Watching from the audience at the caucus were the current state Republican chairman, Will Deschamps of Missoula, and the party’s executive director, Bowen Greenwood.
Earlier in the meeting, Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, criticized by some of the GOP senators for lacking an agenda, said he does have one — the same agenda he’s talked about in various speeches before various business groups in recent weeks.
“My agenda is to pass a conservative balanced budget that will meet the needs of Montana,” Essmann said. “This session, frankly, it is my only priority.”
He said his constituents want good roads, their kids to attend good schools and “they want to be left alone.”
Essmann repeated his view that the Legislature must realize that “things at the federal level are broken” and that “Washington is lurching from crisis to crisis.” He has urged legislators to not count on federal funds for the budget, given the uncertainties.
Just as European countries will face a day of economic reckoning, Essmann said the U.S. federal government may as well.
Essmann, in an apparent appeal to reach out to the caucus, handed out a four-page poll to let the GOP senators set the caucus priorities on issues.
This caucus was called two days after the Great Falls Tribune released emails disclosing how conservative Republicans plotted how to seize control of the Senate leadership posts and elect Essmann as president and Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, as majority leader and push out some more moderate leaders from 2011. They defeated Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, who was Senate President in 2011, and Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, who was Senate pro-tempore.
After the caucus, Tutvedt told reporters that he had his doubts about Essmann’s agenda and had his own agenda.
As a Reagan Republican, Tutvedt said his agenda at the 2013 Legislature is to hold the line on tuition increases at state colleges, properly fund public education with Sen. Llew Jones’ school-funding bill, and shore up the public-employee pensions.
“If we don’t stand up for our Reagan Republican values, we will continue to lose statewide races and be seen as extremists,” Tutvedt said.
While Republicans won control of the state Senate and House again, their candidates last year lost close races for the U.S. Senate and governor’s office
Tutvedt also said when people talk about the impact of the “fiscal cliff” budget cuts, the only ones that might truly hurt Montana would be military cuts. Most other programs aren’t in real danger of being cut, he said.
He also said he has trouble believing that those who supported those who took control of the GOP caucus in the Senate have “no agenda.”
“They didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Reagan Republicans to have no agenda,” he said, referring to primary election races. Tutvedt said he believes the “extremists” in the GOP Senate do have an agenda, but one they’re keeping under wraps for now.
At the caucus, Essmann said Brendan had asked to speak to the Republican senators.
Brenden said he sees 29 Republican senators, a diverse group with lots of experience.
He told how Montana Republicans were highly divided in 1981. Brendan said he ran for state party chairman that year, thought he had won by 11 votes, only to lose by 12 votes that he said were stolen.
“That was the best thing that happened to John Brenden,” he said.
There were newspaper stories wondering whether he was going to bolt the party, Brenden said, but he didn’t.
In 1983, Brenden said he ran again for state Republican chairman and won. He took over a party that had fallen on hard times, but the GOP set a goal of gaining seats in 1984 and 1986, culminating with some major victories in 1988. Republican Stan Stephens was elected governor, the first Republican to win that office since 1964, and Conrad Burns unseated a Democratic incumbent to become only the second popularly elected Republican U.S. senator in Montana history.