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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Judy Martz, Montana's First Female Governor, Dies At 74

Judy Martz, Motnana's 22nd governor.
Judy Martz, Motnana's 22nd governor.

Judy Martz, Montana’s 22nd governor, died today after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. Edward O’Brien has this look back at her life and career.

In the final days of her administration in 2004, Martz told Montana Public Radio’s Sally Mauk that she would miss the job.

"I have no regrets. It’s been wonderful," Martz said.

Martz broke a lot of barriers during her 74 years.

As a speed skater, she and Sylvia White were the first Montana women to ever make an Olympic Team in 1964.

Marc Racicot selected Martz to be his lieutenant governor during his successful gubernatorial bid in 1996; making her the first woman to ever hold that post in Montana.

Four years later she would be elected governor; again, Montana’s first woman to serve in that office.

Longtime statehouse newspaper reporter Chuck Johnson says Martz had the charisma of a world class athlete.
"She was very friendly. She laughed a lot. I would say there was not an artificial bone in her body.”

Martz was born in 1943 in Big Timber to working class parents who would eventually move the family to Butte. Her parents taught their daughter the value of a strong work ethic and that lesson influenced the rest of her life. Chuck Johnson says Martz was never afraid to get her hands dirty.

"She was what I would call a 'Blue Collar Republican'. She and her husband ran a garbage disposal business. They didn't run it from an office. They actually did shifts; going out and getting the garbage."

Martz was actively involved in both local Republican politics and creation of Butte's U.S. High Altitude Speed Skating Center; a project also supported by the late Republican Senator Conrad Burns. Burns would eventually hire Martz to be one of his field reps, which essentially launched her political career.

13 years later Martz would narrowly defeat Democrat Mark O'Keefe in the 2000 gubernatorial race, despite being outspent by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.

"Late in the campaign some business groups ran ads against O'Keefe. Mark O'Keefe in response told me, 'I’ll be those businesses worst nightmare'," Reporter Chuck Johnson says.

This didn’t go over well in the business community. And that, says Johnson, was an advantage for Martz, who until then was widely considered the race's underdog.

"The campaigns couldn’t have been more different," Johnson says. "O’Keefe had a huge campaign staff in a house they owned. Judy Martz and her running mate, Karl Ohs, were upstairs in an insurance office, had two or three staff and that was about it. It was definitely a case of those with the least winning the race."

Martz’s first year in office was bumpy to put it mildly. First, Montana was in the throes of a years-long drought which devastated the state’s farmers and ranchers. The dry conditions also fueled significant wildfires. But a few key unforced errors dogged her administration in the early days.

"She made some statements that would come back to haunt her," Johnson says. "A reporter asked her if she was going to be a 'lapdog for business'. And she said, 'I certainly will be' and that was a damaging comment, at least for some people."

Matz’s top policy advisor, Shane Hedges, would later be charged with negligent homicide in connection to a drunken driving crash that killed Paul Sliter. Sliter was then the state House majority leader and a rising star in the state Republican party.

"Shane Hedges was taken to the hospital. Governor Martz took him out of the hospital and took his clothes home to wash, saying it was the motherly thing to do. Some law enforcement said they still hadn't determined who was driving the vehicle and that might have been destroying evidence."

Martz was never charged with any crime.

Hedges would avoid jail time but spent six months at a Helena pre-release center as punishment for the fatal accident which took the life of his best friend.

Years later, Martz would tell Montana Public Radio’s Sally Mauk she considered Hedges to be a son, a brother and a friend:

"Personally it was very hard for me because I was accused of things that were not true, so you had to deal with that mentally. Then you’re dealing with the loss of someone’s life, which is something else you deal with mentally and physically. Then Shane just departing company, his sentence and his departure from the state of Montana and departure from a friendship that was so very close. It was difficult and it hurt."

Martz would eventually pledge her support to remove both the Milltown Dam east of Missoula as well as the arsenic and heavy metals in the sediment behind it.

She also used Montana’s single so-called "silver bullet" with the Environmental Protection Agency to put Libby's asbestos cleanup on a fast track. That "silver bullet" privilege allows each state to expedite one Superfund project. That means cleanup can start without the normally mandatory public comment periods.

"What could possibly be worse than what’s happening to the health of the people in Libby from asbestosis? I couldn’t figure there would be anything else of that nature unless it would be some natural disaster. This is probably one of the worst health risks that I could possibly think of. And that’s what really drove me to my final decision."

When MTPR’s Sally Mauk asked Martz what she believed to be the most important lesson to be gleaned from Libby, Martz responded, "Keep good tabs on a major company."

The Martz administration made significant across-the-board budget cuts going into fiscal year 2003, which Martz herself described as painful.  Those cuts would, among other things, reduce welfare benefits and freeze wages for state workers.

"Yes, I realized that they hurt, but they’re not the only ones who got hurt. It was not fun doing that. It was not fun having people hate you for what you had to do because you had a job to do that I saw was the right thing to do for the time that we governed. I think very few people could have done what we did at the time and taken the heat."

The Martz administration supported a major tax reform package that was passed during the 2003 legislative session. Reporter Chuck Johnson says it lowered the income tax rate for a number of high income earners, provided a tax credit on capital gains and consolidated the number of tax brackets.

"Critics today say that’s one reason why we're in a fiscal crisis; we lost perhaps up to a billion dollars of state revenue. Defenders of the tax cut said it made Montana’s tax code more comparable to neighboring states. It remains controversial," says Johnson.

Judy Martz never made a secret of her faith; it was perhaps the one constant among all the highs and lows of her four years in office.

"It’s a guiding light for me," Martz said." Do I think everybody should believe like I do? No. But I do have a peace. And that’s where my peace comes from. I’ve been asked, 'How does that faith enter into your decisions?' My faith enters into my decisions in a great way; the same way an atheist's beliefs would enter into their decisions. It's who we are, it's our principles. It's our philosophies."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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