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Chuck Johnson's impact; Rosendale & white supremacists; Who will challenge Tester?

The Capitol Talk team remembers a dear colleague. Rep. Rosendale keeps hanging out with some bad guys. The Legislature buckles down on budget work. And Sen. Steve Daines may back an unknown Bozeman businessman to challenge Jon Tester for his Senate seat

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Chuck Johnson, Sally Mauk and Mike Dennison
William Marcus
Chuck Johnson, Sally Mauk and Mike Dennison

Sally Mauk: Holly and Rob, this has been a tough week, losing our friend and colleague Chuck Johnson, who passed away last weekend. I met Chuck in the mid-eighties when I first covered the Legislature and he was already well on his way to being anointed the Dean of Montana Journalists. And Chuck was part of the very first Capitol Talk team in the early 2000s, along with Mike Dennison. Chuck was a print guy, but I think he loved doing radio and sharing his insights and phenomenal institutional memory with the radio audience. And the listeners loved him back. No one knew or cared more about Montana politics than Chuck. And, Holly, his passing has left a huge shadow over the State Capitol.

Holly Michels: It has Sally. It's a pretty massive loss for us Capitol reporters and for people who read the coverage here, too. One of the things I wanted to share about Chuck is how generous he was with his time and knowledge for us who work in the Capitol. It's easy to get stuck being really busy all the time in these kinds of jobs, but Chuck always made sure to make time to mentor those around him. And it wasn't just people who worked under him, but everyone in the Capitol. He guided generations of Capitol reporters and journalism students through covering the legislative sessions. He'd do that in the building as things were happening, and he'd also have these dinners and breakfasts he'd had people too, ready to share this knowledge. And something that also struck me is when he was sharing it, it was never preachy or pushy. It was just exactly what you wanted to hear, how you needed to hear it. In a room full of reporters, like you said, Sally, with Chuck's institutional knowledge, he was always the best informed in the room, but it always just felt like he was there to help you out in this pretty special way.

For people who listened to this show, they probably know how Chuck was forced out of his job, and that later led to the position that I have now. And, you know, when I started this role it would have been very understandable if Chuck didn't extend that mentorship to me, but he was the very first person in town to reach out when I started and was never anything but kind and encouraging and helpful. And we'd had breakfast, we had one just at the start of this year with other reporters. He was sharing tips and tidbits and it was just, always made you excited about the job. And I never felt more special as a reporter when we'd be leaving those. And he'd walk out and follow me toward my car and share some extra tip or a little bit of gossip he heard that was up my alley. So, I think it's like you said, leaving a huge hole and pretty impossible to say how much we've lost.

Sally Mauk: Rob, I know political scientists like yourself relied a lot on Chuck's expertise. I think the impact of his impeccable reporting is hard to measure.

Rob Saldin: Oh, for sure, Sally. You know, Holly, you noted how he mentored generations of journalists. You could say the same thing about political scientists. I certainly learned a tremendous amount from him. I'm just grateful that I had the chance to work with him on this program for a few years, including spending a couple of election nights with him in the studio. You know, that's how I initially got to know Chuck, and I was fortunate to get to know him even better in the years since. Among other things, he came to my class a couple of times, including just last semester, and he was just always so good with my students.

I'm especially thankful that I got to see quite a bit of Chuck last summer and fall. I was involved with various events marking the 50th anniversary of the state Constitution, and Chuck was one of the stars of those events. He, of course, had covered that constitutional convention as a young man fresh out of the J-school here at UM. And at all these events last year he was just really in his element and in top form. And it was all on display, his professionalism and his absolutely unparalleled knowledge of Montana politics and government, but also his character, just the basic decency, his gentle nature, his generosity and selflessness. It's a huge loss and I'm sure going to miss him.

Sally Mauk: Yeah. Chuck would want us to carry on, hard as it is.

So, Holly, let's turn to the week's headlines, which included a photo of Congressman Matt Rosendale posing on the steps of the Capitol with a bunch of neo-Nazis.

Holly Michels: Yeah, so this image circulated all around social media. And after a few days of that, the Billings Gazette put together a story on it where Rosendale called the photo a mistake. This photo was taken in front of the U.S. Capitol. It shows Rosendale with four people. Two of which were identified; one as Ryan Sanchez, who is in a white supremacist gang, and the other is Greyson Arnold, who's a Nazi sympathizer who was at the January 6 insurrection and has called Hitler "misunderstood." So in response to the Gazette's questions about the photo, Rosendale said he condemns violence and he has no tolerance for these types of hate groups or hate speech or violence. And Rosendale and the staff said he didn't hold a meeting with these people, but he was stopped and asked for a photo when he was walking from one meeting to another. And that's something he generally does when people ask him for a photo.

Arnold posted the photo to his Instagram page and called Rosendale a "real America first" representative. So there's different context you can take "America first" in. it can range from a policy of U.S. isolationism, but it's also something frequently cited by white nationalist groups. And the Gazette story points out, you know, Rosendale has done things that these groups have liked before. He opposed when Congress made Juneteenth a federal holiday. He also voted against election results from some of the states that Trump lost in the 2020 election. And those are both things white nationalists have supported.

You know, and anybody who is on social media and follows politics is likely to know this isn't the first photo Rosendale has gotten fire over. There was one last year where he was wearing body armor made by a Montana company whose owner advocates for Montana's seceding from the rest of the country. Then there's the photo, I think a lot of us have seen, of Rosendale in front of a table with an Oath Keepers banner when he spoke at one of the group's events in 2014. Though he said he was there to talk about the Second Amendment.

Sally Mauk: Well Rob, we'll take Congressman Rosendale on his word that he didn't know these guys were Nazis. But it's not, as Holly pointed out, the first time he's been photographed with racist extremists. And at some point, you are the company you keep.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, I think that's right, Sally. You know, his statement on this particular incident struck me as what you'd expect and hope for. It was unequivocal and whatnot. But, right, the problem is that this kinds of thing keep happening.

You know, I do find it plausible that Rosendale didn't know who these guys were and thought they just wanted a photo with the congressman. That kind of thing happens frequently. Though there were some red flags here with these guys. You know, one of them was wearing almost in a costume-like manner, a coat that looks awfully similar to the kind of thing Nazi officers used to wear. And, you know, that's not the kind of outerwear that you see in contemporary Washington very much.

But to your point, Sally, perhaps the thing that really stands out here, is that regardless of what Rosendale thinks about them, these guys really like Rosendale and view him as a fellow traveler. And of course, there are some rather obvious reasons for that affinity. You know, Holly mentioned a number of them, but Rosendale, he's a big "stop the steal" guy. He said efforts to look into January 6th were a partisan witch hunt, he's one of just a handful of members who voted against honoring the Capitol police officers who responded to the insurrection and, in some cases, were injured or died as a result of it, and so forth. So, while it's believable that Rosendale didn't know what exactly was going on in this case, to the extent it's part of a larger pattern of crossing paths and rubbing shoulders with far right types, you know, neo-Nazis, secessionists and the like. That's a real problem, particularly for a guy who seems very interested in running statewide against a popular incumbent in what's going to be one of the country's most watched and scrutinized Senate campaigns.

Sally Mauk: Well, Holly, the second half of the legislative session has begun, and the focus is on the House Appropriations Committee, which is tasked with figuring out the state budget for the next two years. And as we've mentioned before, they have a lot of money to work with. Here's how House Speaker Keith Regier thinks they should spend it.

Kieth Regier: We have a huge amount of surplus. We have more than enough money to take care of the infrastructure and the needs of the state that there still could be some left over to still send back.

Sally Mauk: Minority Leader, Kim Abbott has a different idea.

Kim Abbott: We have a generational opportunity right now to invest in real problems in our communities, in child care and affordable housing.

Sally Mauk: But in the end, Holly, both Republicans and Democrats usually get some of what they want in the final budget. But the Republican majority is going to get more of what they want.

Holly Michels: Yeah, I think if the budget process to this point is any indication, that's what we're going to see. You know, when lawmakers got back from their transmittal break, the only thing going on their first day back in the Capitol was the House Appropriations Committee taking up the budget. They're going to spend their next several meetings going section by section, looking at different areas of government, sort of reviewing the work subcommittees have done where, you know, a lot of Republican changes were put on to the budget. They make those recommendations for the full Appropriations Committee to consider. We got an early example of that with the start of the state Health Department budget, which is this $7 billion beast that makes up the largest chunk of the overall state budget by far. And we hear in these meetings, groups asking for additional funding to pay for things like a provider rate increase for Medicare providers. Things that Republicans were supportive of, some increases there, but not fully. While Democrats want to see much more money put there.

We're also hearing the governor's office make asks for things that Republican legislators didn't fund, or have indicated they won't fund and they'd like to see restored. But like we heard from the speaker there, you know, a lot of Republicans had their eyes on this surplus. it's this massive amount of money, pretty uncommon, and it's just still swirling around. Republicans did pass bills dedicating about $1 billion of it, and it's estimated the surplus could be up to $3 billion that's already spent in account of … bills that are reaching the governor's desk soon. But we heard from Republicans that they might want to do more things with that surplus, such as more property tax or income rebates for people. But like we heard from Abbott there, Democrats really want to see this money put toward things they say could be transformational changes in the state, like, you know, we heard, you know, child care systems, services for people with disabilities. That's where they would really like to see that directed and are hoping that some of the budget conversations include that. So, it can be pretty interesting to see. But like you say, given supermajorities for the Republicans in both chambers, I think what Republicans would like to see done is most likely how that budget will look in the end.

Sally Mauk: Rob, The Washington Post and Axios had articles this week about the tightrope Senator Steve Daines has to walk as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And in those stories, they report that Daines is not excited about Matt Rosendale possibly challenging Jon Tester for his Senate seat next year, as you mentioned earlier. And in fact, Daines may have someone else in mind.

Rob Saldin: That's right, Sally. So, there's definitely been some chatter in recent weeks about Tim Sheehy, a businessman in Bozeman — that is according to Josh Kraushaar and Axios. The candidate that Daines seems to have in mind, he looks the part. He has a prominent military background. He's apparently sufficiently wealthy to self-fund or at least partially self-fund a campaign. On the other hand, not a household name, he's a virtual unknown. He's only been in Montana for about 10 years. He doesn't have a political background either, which is a plus in some ways, but also a negative in others. For one thing, it raises a question of whether he'd be ready for the kind of spotlight he'd get in this race.

You know, the other thing, Sally, that stands out here to me is that there's no mention of a potential Zinke candidacy. And I'm a little surprised by that. These opportunities don't come around often, and Zinke has always been super ambitious, but this reporting definitely indicates that he might pass.

And then finally, I don't think this is going to necessarily scare off Rosendale. He has his own well-established brand, and so, this could be not quite the Republican primary that we anticipated, but still one that will gain a lot of attention.

Sally Mauk: Well, that's for sure. And as I said at the beginning of the show, it's been a tough week. But I want to close with something Chuck Johnson told me in an interview not long ago. And I had asked Chuck how journalists could foster trust in an increasingly skeptical public. And here's what he said.

Chuck Johnson: I think reporters just need to keep doing their job and hope people will listen and watch and read.

Sally Mauk: And so Holly and Rob we're going to keep doing our job. Thank you. And I'll talk to you next week.

Holly Michels Thanks, Sally.

Rob Saldin Thanks, Sally.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

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.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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