Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana, keeps the hide of a skunk in his office in the state capitol building in Helena to remind visitors what he thinks about lobbyists. The Rocky Mountain governor, who some believe has an outside chance of being invited to be Barack Obama’s running mate, waves the hide around to demonstrate his point.
By Edward Luce
“When I took this job the smell of skunks was pretty bad in this town,” he says. “But I’ve chased most of them away.” He has been caricatured as a “cowboy Democrat”, and it would be hard to find another as different in personality from Mr Obama.
The Democratic presidential nominee is from the city, eats arugula in his salad and has never shot a gun in his life. Mr Schweitzer grew up on a ranch, likes his steak and was endorsed for governor by the National Rifle Association. It is Democrats like Mr Schweitzer, whose state voted in the last Democratic primary on Tuesday and endorsed Mr Obama over Mrs Clinton, who hold the key to Mr Obama’s fortunes in November.
A decade ago each of the eight states in the so-called “Mountain West” were run by Republicans. Now five, including Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, have Democratic governors. Mr Schweitzer says part of the shift has been caused by the move of relatively liberal people from California to places such as Montana.
But it is also driven by the centrist pragmatism of Democrats like Mr Schweitzer, who are leftwing on trade and energy independence but also deeply mistrustful of the federal government. Mr Schweitzer was the only governor in the US to refuse to comply with the Department of Homeland Security’s instructions to create driving licences containing electronic data about the bearer.
The DHS told Montanans they would be unable to travel by air if he refused to comply. He did not budge. The DHS backed down. “We don’t trust the federal government – we think they made a mess of the Patriot Act after 11 September,” he says. He lampoons the DHS’s Transportation Security Authority as “Thousands Standing Around”.
But Mr Schweitzer, whose office is littered with small models of wind turbines, hydrogen engines and other symbols of his drive to make Montana the capital of renewable energy, says Mr Obama could win much of the Mountain West if he “respects the way we do things here”.
He mentions the region’s “restoration economy”, which, unlike the declining Midwest, has kept states such as Montana growing rapidly by cleaning up the environment, attracting alternative energy investments and eco-tourism. But he also mentions the kind of “wedge” issues that led to the defeat of Al Gore and John Kerry in Montana in 2000 and 2004. Both were disliked by the NRA.
“The only gun control we have in Montana is to hit what you’re shooting at,” says Mr Schweitzer. “I have more guns than I need and fewer than I want. I can break a colt, brand a calf, throw a rope, drink whiskey while I’m fishing – I can even drink whiskey in the saddle.”
Yet there is much about Mr Obama’s platform that appeals to people in states such as Montana. The Democratic nominee, whose task is made harder by the fact that his opponent, John McCain, is from Arizona, also touts a strong alternative-energy platform.
And although Mr Obama describes lobby groups as “special interests” rather than “skunks”, he holds similar views to Mr Schweitzer on ethics reform. The governor of Montana, who, in spite of his earthy reputation, is a trained agronomist who speaks Arabic and worked for years in Saudi Arabia, says Mr Obama’s chances of winning states such as Montana have been sharply improved by the recent candidacy of Bob Barr for the Libertarian party.
The last time a Democrat won Montana was in 1992 when Ross Perot, the third- party candidate, split the Republican vote and allowed Bill Clinton to win. The same, he believes, could happen again if Mr Obama plays his cards right.
Mr Schweitzer humorously deflects a question on whether he would accept the vice-presidential slot. But he has advice for how Mr Obama should treat the presidency if he is elected. “The next president will have 100 days to turn the big picture around – after that the skunks will take over,” he says. “If he wants to push through healthcare reform and take down the multinational oil companies he’s got to be quick and tough. There should be dead skunks in the middle of the road.”