Ron Marlenee

Ron Marlenee

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Former U.S. congressman Ron Marlenee, who represented eastern Montana for eight terms, died Sunday in Bozeman.

Marlenee, 84, was a farmer and rancher from Scobey. He served in the U.S. House from 1977 to 1993, making him the state’s longest-serving Republican congressman.

He had lived in Bozeman for many years. Friends said he had been sick for a long time, but an exact cause of death was unavailable.

In Congress, he was a member of the House Agriculture Committee and the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.

Former staff members remembered him as an advocate for farmers, ranchers and small business owners. They said he spoke up for limited government, a balanced budget and Second Amendment rights.

He was often at odds with conservation groups. He worked to block plans for restoring wolves to Yellowstone National Park, supported the Bush administration’s proposal to eliminate citizens’ rights to appeal timber sales and was one of the few congressmen to vote against the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

“He was a multiple-use guy,” his son-in-law Peter Helland said. “He is seen as an enemy of the environmentalists, but he was the first person I knew who recycled back in the 80s. He loved the outdoors.”

Marlenee was an avid outdoorsman, spending his free time hunting, fishing, skiing and camping.

Marlenee helped get President Ronald Reagan to nominate Charles Lovell to U.S. District Court in Montana in 1985. Lovell went on to handle numerous cases related to bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Marlenee also had quieter accomplishments like helping set up a veterans’ memorial in Miles City, said Cy Jamison, who worked for Marlenee on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and went on to direct the Bureau of Land Management under President George H.W. Bush.

“He did a lot of things that didn’t make the headlines but were important to Montanans,” Jamison said.

Marlenee’s political career began in 1966 when he helped with Gov. Tim Babcock’s unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Lee Metcalf, Helland said. In 1976, he decided to run for the U.S. House even though he was relatively unknown.

Marlenee captured the seat and went on to win seven more elections.

The 1990 census eliminated one of Montana’s two House seats. In 1992, Marlenee lost the new statewide district to Democrat Pat Williams who had long served as the congressional representative for the state’s western district.

Will Brooke, a Bozeman lawyer, worked for Marlenee for several years and managed his 1992 campaign. He remembers reporters from NPR, the Chicago Sun-Times and The Times in London joining them on the campaign trail.

“It was a clash of the titans in terms of ideology,” Brooke said. “Ron was a conservative from eastern Montana and Williams was a liberal from western Montana. People from all over the country were watching the race because they saw it as a bellwether. ... It was quite a fun and exciting experience.”

Crisscrossing the state was challenging, but Marlenee didn’t tire of it.

“Ron loved to campaign,” Brooke said. “He loved getting out on Main Street in small towns and just talking to people.”

Marlenee carried that connection to Washington, D.C., where he read the majority of his mail. He liked to send original responses and insisted on personally signing his letters. One of his campaign slogans was “One of us in Congress,” and his former staff members said he took the tagline to heart, striving to be a voice for Montanans.

Throughout his time in Congress, Marlenee mentored young Republicans.

Long-time Montana politician Denny Rehberg got his start working for Marlenee in 1979. Over the following years, he worked for Marlenee in Washington, D.C., and on the campaign trail.

Rehberg said the lessons he learned from Marlenee led to his successful campaign for the state House in 1985. Rehberg went on to serve as the lieutenant governor to Gov. Stan Stephens and was Montana’s congressman from 2001 to 2013.

“He was my first mentor,” Rehberg said. “I couldn’t have done any of this without Ron and the knowledge he gave me.”

After his congressional career, Marlenee became a lobbyist in Washington, D.C, representing groups like Safari Club International.

He later co-founded the Western Tradition Partnership — now the American Tradition Partnership — with former state Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman. The group pitched itself as an advocate for issues like water, forest management and energy development but played a larger role in Montana politics from 2008 to 2012. The group sent attack fliers against moderate Republican legislative candidates and filed lawsuits against Montana campaign laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Montana’s century-old law limiting corporate spending after American Tradition Partnership argued the state law went against the court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United.

A state election regulator later found the group had provided illegal contributions to state Republican candidates.

Marlenee spent his later years in his home near Bridger Bowl, which he had purchased in the 1970s. He built a Sherwood Forest replica in the yard for his grandchildren. As a joke, he would hide fake insects for them to find.

“He was so serious in the political world, but he had a funny side,” Helland said.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at or at 582-2648.

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