Taylor Brown: How The Voice Of Agriculture Found His Senatorial Voice
Of all the people on the Montana Senate Agriculture committee, there’s one who always seems to be having more fun.
“To me,” said Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, “that’s like recess.”
Brown, in his second Senate term, serves as the committee’s chair. He knows the issues and the people, and the people know him. For many years his voice reported farm news to every corner of the state for Northern Broadcasting System, which he now owns.
Now, he’s become the go-to guy for agriculture at the Capitol – and one of the so-called “Responsible Republicans” who isn’t afraid to reach across the aisle to get things done.
Brown grew up on a ranch in Sand Springs, Mont., between Winnett and Jordan. After high school in Lewistown, he studied animal science at Montana State University and was active in the student government. He served as student body president a year before his current office mate Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville.
When he graduated, he went home to the family ranch. By that time, former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns had started Northern Broadcasting System, a radio network that produces radio for stations in South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
“I’d been on the ranch for a little while and was thinking that maybe I’d go try something else before I committed to going back to the ranch forever,” Brown said.
Burns said Brown came to him and said he wanted to try radio. As Burns tells it, he told Brown: “It’s plum easy. Just get your material, hit the switch and you’re on.”
Brown started by producing reports for the station that ran about five minutes long. People came to know his rhythmic, gravelly voice.
“In eastern Montana, everybody knew him,” said House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson. Knudsen first met Brown in high school, through the Future Farmers of America.
Brown’s work on the radio turned him into a promoter of agriculture, and the voice of the industry. That recognition landed him speaking gigs. He spoke at agriculture events and high school graduations around the state.
But he wouldn’t hide behind the microphone forever.
Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and other members of the Republicans’ legislative campaign committee convinced Brown to run for Senate District 22 against incumbent Democrat Lane Larson in the 2008 election. Essmann was in the Senate then, which had been controlled by Democrats since 2005.
“The whole future of the legislature was at stake,” Brown said.
It wasn’t going to be an easy race to win – the district included Colstrip and Forsyth – what
Brown called “labor union towns.”
Brown admits he wasn’t a union guy, but the committee felt he was the one who could win.
Essmann said Brown’s name recognition made him a viable choice.
Burns agreed. “Wherever he goes he’s liked, and he’s got name ID,” Burns said.
As it turned out, Essmann and the Legislative Campaign Committee bet on the right guy. Brown and two others – state Sen. John Brenden and current U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke – flipped former Democratic districts to give the Republicans control of the Senate for the 2009 session. They’ve held control in the Senate since then.
Brown started going to “recess” right away, being appointed to the Senate Ag Committee in his first session. The only bill he carried that Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed was a bill that transferred certain powers of the Department of Livestock to the state’s Board of Milk Control.
Recently, he sat in the Senate chambers and thought back on the bills he brought in the previous sessions. He remembered that bill being a bit of a fight.
In his next session, he helped negotiate a deal with the Montana University System that led to performance-based funding. With performance-based funding, part of each university’s funding depends on graduation and retention rates. He’s proud of that measure, saying it gives the university’s more accountability.
“Now a little bit of their money depends on whether they advise kids right,” Brown said.
In 2013, his third session, he demonstrated his willingness to find compromise with the opposing party.
That session, the split in the Republican party came to a head. Some moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to pass major legislation, like a school funding bill, pension reform and a state employee pay plan. Brown was one of those who joined with Democrats on those bills.
“He was very helpful,” said Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula. “I admire those five people who were willing to stand up for us.”
Essmann, who was one of the more conservative Republicans who stuck by the party line, wouldn’t comment on Brown’s votes.
Brown doesn’t see it as him joining with Democrats, but rather that he voted for good policy.
“It’s that we found middle ground,” Brown said.
He said preserving private property rights is one of his top concerns, and added that he supports the concept of transferring federal lands to the state. He said he’s pro-rural, pro-family and thinks the country has become an “entitlement nation.”
Sen. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, said as likable as Brown is, everybody comes to the Legislature with a party and a lineage that affects the way they vote.
Brown’s history of working for Conrad Burns is something that worries some Democrats. Burns lost his Senate seat to Democrat Jon Tester after being linked to Jack Abramoff in a political corruption scandal.
Brown said he learned a lot from Burns about many things, but his votes on the Senate floor and in committee are separate from his former employer.
“We’re such different people now,” Brown said.
Some have said he might be a viable gubernatorial candidate in 2016. He thinks that conversation stems from his past of working with Conrad Burns, who went from county commissioner to U.S. Senator with no steps in between.
A group of high schoolers organized a small movement to convince him to run in 2012, but he turned them down. He wouldn’t say never, and still won’t. When asked about running for governor, he shook his head and looked at the ground.
“I don’t have great political ambitions,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I never will run … If I really felt I could make a huge difference, it’d be really hard not to do it.”
He said he’s focused on doing a good job at the Legislature – where he’s the go-to guy for all things agriculture. With Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, Brown is leading an agriculture caucus. It’s a bipartisan group of legislators from both houses that meets once a week to talk about upcoming bills and industry issues. He’s also the one people seek out for explanation of agriculture policy.
After a recent floor session, Sen. Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls, came over to Brown, pointing to a complicated bill revising reporting dates for per capita livestock fees.
“I can articulate it in a way our urban friends can understand,” Brown said of being the expert on agriculture policy.
After a few minutes of Brown’s gravelly and rhythmic explanation, Hoven understood and went on his way.
-Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.