Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series on the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate.
BOZEMAN — Flanked by a fellow military veteran and senior-citizen advocates at a senior center here, U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., hears about a disabled veteran who needs transportation to the Veterans Administration hospital in Helena.
A bus used to pick up the legless veteran at his house, but now he must come into Bozeman to get picked up — and then the bus drives right back past his house, on the way to the hospital.
“I’ll have someone get (his) name and look into the details of that case,” Walsh says. “That doesn’t seem right to me. … We need to make a decision in this country: Do we support the veteran or do we not?”
It’s not the first time Walsh talks veterans’ issues this day, and it won’t be the last, as the former Montana National Guard commander and Iraq War veteran naturally perceives the political world through the eyes of the military man that he is.
Whether the issue is campaign finance reform, health care or the nation’s debt, Walsh often refers back to his military experience in saying where he stands.
“When I was getting ready to deploy in Iraq in 2004, there weren’t any corporations lined up to go with me,” he says in denouncing excessive corporate money in campaigns. “It was citizens of Montana. That’s who should be influencing elections in this country — the citizens, not corporations.”
Walsh and his supporters are hoping his military record and profile as a working-class Democrat from Butte will help carry him to victory, both in the June 3 Democratic primary and general election this fall.
Two other Democrats are running for the seat, as well as three Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Steve Daines.
Walsh, 53, also has the advantage of being the incumbent senator. He was appointed to the post just three months ago by Gov. Steve Bullock, to fill out the remainder of the term of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who resigned after becoming U.S. ambassador to China.
His status as U.S. senator has helped Walsh gain a huge edge in campaign money, raising $1.5 million through March 31, far more than his two Democratic primary rivals, Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.
Yet the appointment has forced Walsh to defend himself against charges by political foes of being chosen and aided by “D.C. insiders” as the Democrat to win Baucus’ seat. Baucus announced a year ago he would not run for re-election this year, and then in December was nominated by President Barack Obama to the ambassador post.
Walsh, persuaded by Democratic figures both inside and outside Montana to run for the U.S. Senate last year after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer declined to run, says he hopes he can be a senator who can bridge the partisan divide and attack the nation’s problems.
“People like (former U.S. Sen.) Mike Mansfield didn’t always follow the party line, or the president,” he says. “Those are the kind of people I want to emulate. Let’s put some solutions on the table and figure out how to solve things.”
He also says when the prospect of being appointed to fill Baucus’ seat came up late last year, he spoke to Bullock about it once — and then left the decision to the governor.
Walsh says he told Bullock he was interested, because he felt it would be more acceptable to run for the office as U.S. senator, rather than from his then-current post as lieutenant governor.
“I wouldn’t be neglecting my lieutenant governor duties and wouldn’t be open to the accusation that I was using state time to campaign,” he says.
Now, as senator, he’s campaigning in the evenings and weekends — but he’s also traveling as a senator, meeting with constituents, quizzing them on programs they feel are important, and asking what he can do to preserve them.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that our debt is too high and that we need to reduce our debt,” he says at the Bozeman Senior Citizens Center. “But I don’t believe we need to do it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens — our seniors, our children, single mothers, single fathers, who are struggling to put food on the table.”
Later in the day, Walsh travels to his home town of Butte, where he meets again with senior citizen advocates and then, in the evening, attends a “meet and greet” event at Headframe Spirits in uptown Butte.
A parade of Butte politicos and pals drops by the micro-distillery’s tasting room to share a drink and chat with Walsh and his family; his wife, Janet, sons Taylor and Michael and granddaughter, Kennedy, are here, too.
Walsh grew up in the shadow of the Berkeley Pit, in east-central Butte, his father working for the ubiquitous Anaconda Co., first as a contractor helping build an ore concentrator for the mining giant and later as a union pipefitter.
“In our house, we had three pictures on the wall,” Walsh recalls, “Jesus Christ, JFK and (labor leader) George Meany.”
At the Headframe tasting room, the talk often turns to politics — and old friends aren’t sugar-coating it, telling Walsh he has a tough battle ahead of him if he hopes to hang on to his new Senate seat.
“I was telling John, he’d better start working on it, because it’s not going to be easy,” says Joe Quilici, a former Democratic state representative from Butte. “The only reason he’s here, is to help people. You’ve got to take care of your people.”