Schweitzer Talks to MSU Students

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer talks to a group of Montana State University political science majors on campus Thursday afternoon. 

Former governor Brian Schweitzer may have been able to thread the needle of Montana politics but he knows that in the arena of national politics, his particular breed of dog ain’t gonna hunt.

“In Iowa and Florida, those Democratic voters would ask me about things like gun control and I’d say things like, ‘You control yours, I’ll control mine,’” Schweitzer said. “That’s not going to sell in a Democratic primary.”

Schweitzer explained his lack of presidential ambition to around 70 Montana State University political science students in Wilson Hall on Thursday. Over the course of an hour, students asked a range of questions, which Schweitzer answered with his usual candor.

Schweitzer wove detailed stories around each answer, including parables from his early years at MSU and working in Libya to his grandmother’s immigration to America.

Asked what he was most proud of as governor, Schweitzer said it was the changes he oversaw in the state’s university system, such the creation of a common course numbering system that could allow students to more easily transfer between schools.

He said he tried to make education more accessible, affordable and relevant. High school students were offered dual college credit, and distance-learning courses and equipment were added.

Schweitzer said he was baffled at one point when university presidents balked at freezing tuition, even though he promised a sizable chunk of state money in return.

“Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: accountability,” Schweitzer said. “If the state was investing in those universities, then you would have (legislators) asking all those questions about graduation rates and job placement, and they would demand a response.”

Schweitzer is well known for his VETO brand, which he said he registered with the Department of Livestock. He used three sizes to emphasize his 96 vetoes: calf-size for the “inconsequential, stupid” bills, yearling-size for the “silly” bills and bull-size for the unconstitutional bills.

“They’d pass these bills that were unconstitutional on their face. It was theater of the absurd. So just signing your name to say no… is that enough?” Schweitzer said. “You know what the VETO brand did? It got people listening and watching.”

Schweitzer’s omnipresent smile is now wreathed with a beard and mustache, and he stood to interact with students rather than sit on the stool with a sign proclaiming, “The Honorable Brian Schweitzer.”

Schweitzer said he still keeps up with Montana happenings. He said has strong opinions, but that he’s also a people person. And people always played in his decisions, he said.

“State governments incarcerate, medicate and educate,” he said. “Get it right in each one of those areas and you become the most competitive state in the union.”

Schweitzer left office in January after eight years as governor and has spent much of the time since traveling internationally.

But he’s also thrown his hat into the ring to help run the Stillwater Mine, which he said he’s pursued because of Montana history.

Schweitzer pointed to the Anaconda Company, which employed 10,000 but made the mistake of buying a copper mine in Chile in the 1960s. The deal went wrong and Montanans lost jobs.

Montana Power made a similar mistake in the 1980s, Schweitzer said, when it invested in fiber-optic cable and then went broke, causing Montana’s energy rates to climb.

Now, the board of the Stillwater Mine, which employs almost 2,000 and is the only U.S. source of palladium and platinum, has decided to spend $487 million to buy a copper asset in Argentina.

“They have risked everything over this purchase. It was crazy,” Schweitzer said. “What would have happened if someone had stepped in and stopped the Anaconda Company? With the Stillwater, if not me, who? If not now, when?”

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.