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2024 Montana Primary elections
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

As His Term Ends, Gov. Bullock Talks Ups And Downs Of The Job

Gov. Steve Bullock
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio
Gov. Steve Bullock

Gov. Steve Bullock will leave office January 4th after serving two terms as governor and one term as state attorney general. Bullock spoke with Sally Mauk about his time in office, what he accomplished, what challenges remain and what comes next.

Sally Mauk Your public career started over two decades ago, and I'm curious what drew you to public service in the first place? You're trained as an attorney, what drew you to being a politician instead of pursuing a legal career?

Steve Bullock Well, yeah. A couple of years after law school, I moved back home, and in the attorney general's office actually started in a cubicle. I had already practiced law, but law was often looking backwards. And being in court, as an example, defending stream access rights for Montanans. When you stood up and said, 'my name is Steve Bullock, I represent the people of Montana,' it drew me to the idea that you could really do good things in public service.

Sally Mauk In all eight years of being governor, you've had a Republican-led Legislature to work with, and that's led to a lot of necessary compromises that wouldn't have been possible, would they, Governor, without some moderate Republicans being willing to work across the aisle? If there hadn't been ... that handful of moderates on the other side of the aisle, your job would have been a lot tougher?

Steve Bullock Yes, it was great working with them. But it was also, like when we first got Medicaid expansion through, you know, it's more than the work that you do in the statehouse. I think I visited just about every rural hospital in our entire state, recognizing once you get outside of Helena, sort of the partisan fault lines are going to be a lot less stark if you really talk about what folks want in a community.

Sally Mauk Passing Medicaid expansion was clearly a major bipartisan accomplishment and a major feather in your cap as governor, but there have been some major disappointments as well, at least for some of your Democratic supporters. And one that stands out, I think, are the steep budget cuts to Health and Human Services. With the benefit of hindsight, would you have handled that any differently?

Steve Bullock Well, we did have cuts through the 2017 session that were fully restored within about a year's time. I mean, the challenge, even walking out of that session, was recognizing that there's a difference in proposed — sort of what the revenue projections were — we knew what would happen if it had to cut, but as opposed to the literally hundreds of millions of dollars of budget cuts that could have occurred if we didn't bring the Legislature back in and find some commonality. I mean, it was mitigated, and was pleased that at the end of the day, that while that was a difficult time, those cuts were ultimately fully restored.

Sally Mauk In May of last year governor, you announced you wanted to be president of the United States, and the number of people thought you had a chance, it's safe to say, were considerably less than those who thought you had little to no chance of being the Democratic nominee. The latter group turned out to be right. But what convinced you that it was an attainable goal?

Steve Bullock As we talked about at the start, we are fairly deeply divided country right now. And as literally the only person that had won a statewide reelect in a state where Donald Trump won; as someone who, I've always tried to say, let's actually bring people together, I thought it was worth actually putting my name out there. And got in late because I wanted to get Medicaid expansion in our Legislature through. Even if I'd gotten in earlier, I don't know that the results would have been any different. It was a valuable experience for me.

Sally Mauk In what way?

Steve Bullock In reaffirming where our commonalities lie more than our differences. In recognizing that this is a huge country. But you've also got to make sure that, you know, we never become, from my perspective as a Democrat, like just a party of the coasts. You know, I certainly wouldn't want to always say, well, if only I had stepped up at a time, things might have been different.

Sally Mauk As you mentioned, you got into the presidential race late and that probably hurt your chances. And then you got into the U.S. Senate race late, at the very last minute after vowing you weren't going to run. And that, no doubt, also hurt you in that race. And again, in hindsight, do you think if you had skipped the presidential run and gotten into the Senate race earlier, you might have had a better chance?

Steve Bullock I don't know, Sally. This was a, you know, an interesting year, for sure. I'm not sure that getting in any earlier would have made a difference in the ultimate outcome. I mean, we had challenges of, you know, a once in a lifetime pandemic, which I think influenced things; you know, the degree of polarization; so I'm not sure that getting in would have changed that outcome any when you look at sort of where our state and nation ended up.

Sally Mauk In 2017 governor, you wrote an editorial for The New York Times titled 'How Democrats Can Win in the West.' And your advice was this: spend time in places where people disagree with you. You did that and still you lost the Senate race by 10 points.

Steve Bullock Well, I think, Sally, that's part of the point, is that in a time of global pandemic, there wasn't the ability to actually be in communities talking to folks, going to the Rotarys, being at the coffee shop, both between my day job as governor, and this was a very different year for all electoral politics.

Sally Mauk Of course, the Republican candidates that were under the same constraint, and still they won.

Steve Bullock They sure did.

Sally Mauk The COVID-19 pandemic, as you mentioned, is, of course, coloring everything this year. And you were decisive early on in shutting things down, governor. And then we opened up and things got a lot worse. All the choices are tough for government leaders, since none are harmless. But history is not going to judge us well on how we dealt with this, governor, not with over 300,000 people dead and the numbers climbing every day.

Steve Bullock Well, I do think that, yeah, in many respects that, look, from the beginning of this nationally, we said that this would be federally supported and state managed, and at many times, federal support wasn't there. And the idea that a global pandemic and health care could become part of the political polarization was really unfortunate. I also saw incredible people in every corner of the state doing the right thing along the way.

Sally Mauk The statewide mask mandate that you issued has not been uniformly enforced, and relying on "personal responsibility" isn't working in many parts of Montana. For sure the federal government has failed in many ways, but is there some other way the state could have done better as well, governor? I mean, as I just mentioned, the mask mandate has not been uniformly enforced. There are counties in Montana you could walk into a business and see no one in a mask.

Steve Bullock Yeah, that is the unfortunate part, of sort, of the politicization of all of this. I mean, Montana's not unique inasmuch as, and if you look at over the last few weeks with, you know, some additional restrictions, our numbers have actually started to plateau and go down. I mean, almost every jurisdiction in the country, red and blue, are near their peak. Yeah, we went through this saying that this is a public health crisis and economic crisis, let's let public health guide this. And, but you do also rely on Montanans to do their part.

Sally Mauk Governor, Montana has had a growing chasm between the haves and have nots well before the pandemic hit. Our wages are still low. Affordable housing is a huge problem. And we have tent cities going up to provide temporary shelter for the homeless. What's your advice to the new administration about how to address these ongoing problems that your administration wasn't able to solve?

Steve Bullock First, let's recognize, Sally, I mean, Montana had the seventh fastest wage growth in the country and annual wages over the past decade. And actually we led the nation in household income growth from 2016 to 2017. Much more diversified economy than when we came in. You know, prior to this pandemic, our unemployment rate: lowest in over a decade, 50,000 new jobs added since the end of the recession, largest labor force in the state's history. And we're seeing more and more economic diversification all throughout the state.

Sally Mauk We started from a low point, governor, and we're still not doing well compared to other states on the whole.

Steve Bullock Sally, I think we always need to do better. But I also think, like, seventh fastest wage growth in the country is something that is a platform upon which to build, not a place just to say, oh well, everything's horrible in Montana, because I really don't think that it is.

Sally Mauk Governor, Montana is solidly Trump country, and that means a number of Montanans, including apparently outgoing Attorney General Tim Fox believes something shady happened in the presidential election and that Joe Biden is not going to be a legitimate president. What's your message to those Montanans who believe that?

Steve Bullock Look, now is the time to come together. We went through as this global pandemic and this all-mail ballot election. I mean, we actually further enfranchised Montanans. You know, on the one hand, I got more votes in 2020 than I did in 2016.

Sally Mauk So did Donald Trump.

Steve Bullock Oh, sure. But the point, Sally, is that when more people are voting, when more people are exercising that franchise of their vote being their voice, I mean, it's better off all along. And I do hope that we start looking forward, as we typically have, I think, in this country of what we share, not what divides us.

Sally Mauk And you don't think the polarization right now is unbridgeable? Like, how do you reach across to someone who thinks, for example, that Democrats are cannibals and pedophiles? That's pretty hard to reach across to someone who believes that.

Steve Bullock Well, I think we have to. Meaning that you can draw the lines, but recognizing that most people's lives aren't revolved around "Campaign Beat" or politics, and we need, to as a country, to come together. And, you know, you could turn around and say, even in 2012 when Tim Fox was the only statewide office holder, Republican. 'Oh, well, that's the end of the Republicans in Montana.' I mean, I continue to have the optimism that, you know, politics certainly, and the political system, I mean, it's more than just a game in a blood sport. And our communities rely on us coming together to get things done.

Sally Mauk Your name, governor, has been floated in several news articles as a possible nominee to a post in the new Biden administration. Have you been approached and are you interested?

Steve Bullock You know, Sally, I am looking forward, in certain respects, to January 4th. I will be staying in Montana, still have kids in middle school and high school. So, I don't really anticipate doing anything in Washington, D.C. In the upcoming years.

Sally Mauk And you've not been approached about that?

Steve Bullock Some people have called, but no, I haven't had any formal discussions or an offer or anything like that.

Sally Mauk Who called?

Steve Bullock That's a great thing, Sally. I plan on, I have a son in eighth grade and a daughter who's a sophomore in high school, so we're going to continue to be based out of Montana.

Sally Mauk One final question. What was the best part of your job? What are you going to miss most about being the state's top executive?

Steve Bullock You know, I know that the difference is that we've made. Our public education still a public education system. We invest $175 million more than when I walked in. I know that people have health care and individuals lives that have been impacted. I know what we've been able to do in changing in some of the workforce, making more opportunities in Montana.

It has been an incredibly rewarding job. It's been a job that's been incredibly challenging and all consuming. But it really just has been a gift. For a kid who, you know, grew up sort of in paycheck to paycheck household deliver newspapers to the governor's house as a kid, to know that because I got to work with a whole lot of talented people, that we're leaving this place that I love better than how we found it. It's been a great opportunity and a humbling opportunity.

Sally Mauk I've been speaking with Gov. Steve Bullock. And governor, best of luck. Hope to see you out on the trails. And thank you.

Steve Bullock Thank you, Sally. Take care.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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