Mr. Tester Goes to Washington

Montana Magazine

by Jennifer McKee

BIG SANDY — Nowhere does Jon Tester's recent induction into the most powerful legislative body in the world seem more unreal than right here.

Standing on the back porch of his white farmhouse, Tester – that's Senator Tester – scans a view remarkably unchanged from the scene his grandfather saw when he homesteaded this same flat ground in 1916. It is here on a farm twelve miles from the grain silos and empty streets of Big Sandy that the truth of Jon Tester is best revealed:

Jon Tester is not a rich guy. He drinks Shasta pop. He drives a 1995 Cadillac he bought from his mom. On the weekends, if there's not something to be done around the farm and there usually is, Tester likes to watch a ball game on T.V.

He married a girl from Box Elder whom he met at church and he can count on one hand the number of times he's left the state of Montana.

Jon and Sharla Tester are the kind of people Montanans quickly recognize as two of their own. But what's unreal, Tester said, is that an ordinary guy like him can still run and win a seat in the United States Senate.

"This may be one of the only states left where someone who does not have a ton of money in the bank, who works for a living, could win a U.S. Senate seat," said Tester, a few weeks after his hair-thin victory over three-term incumbent Republican Conrad Burns. "Most people have a bag of money they can live off of while they're campaigning. We didn't and that's amazing."

That Tester won over a Republican in a state long thought to lean red is all the more remarkable. Now, national pundits who, if they know anything at all about Montana, know it as a dreamy, mountainous place where Robert Redford made a fishing movie, are saying Tester and Democrats like him may be the future of the national Democratic Party.

But Tester is no coastal Democrat. By now, certain macho tidbits of Tester's life are well-known. As a kid, he ground off three fingers of his left hand in his father's meat grinder. He's a third-generation, dryland farmer, has a flat-top haircut and drives a full-size truck. He likes to shoot guns.

(Tester's stance on guns is unique: During the campaign, he said at a debate that laws like the Patriot Act that give the federal government more power are all the more reason for America's citizenry to be well-armed.)

During the campaign – and during his seven-year stint in the Montana Senate – Tester talked a lot about ordinary people he said were forgotten in today's America. Soldiers who, although they may fight willingly and bravely, do not have the tools to do their job safely and don't have leaders who know how and when to get them out of harm's way. He talked about farmers who could be weaning this country off foreign oil by growing oily seeds to be refined into fuel, but don't because America's energy policy favors Mideast oil and gas hogs. He spoke of people from small farming towns like his who don't have any realistic way of making a living there and people in Montana's bigger towns who work all the time, never see their kids and can't afford health insurance.

But just as notable were the things Tester rarely, if ever, talked about: gay marriage, abortion, gun control – traditional fare for some national Democrats, but issues that Tester either patently opposes, like gun control, or evidently did not have an activist's heart for.

Jon Tester was born in Havre on Aug. 21, 1956. He grew up in a little yellow house next to big, classic red barn amid miles of flat farmland. The Testers were dryland farmers, which means they depended on the good Lord, rain and a little bit of luck for their livelihood. The youngest of three boys, Tester knew he would be a farmer even as a kid.

Tester went to the University of Great Falls, about an hour and a half down U.S. 87 from his hometown. It was during college, where he earned a degree in music – Tester plays the trumpet despite missing three fingers – that he met Sharla. She was just 18. They were married the beginning of his senior year.

Tester graduated in 1978. They moved back home, where Jon taught music at Big Sandy elementary school and the two took over the Tester farm.

Their daughter Christine was born in 1980. Shon, their son born in 1985, was the second to the last baby born in Big Sandy.

That next year, the Testers seeded part of their 1,800-acre farm in organic crops. Within a few years, they converted the whole place.

Organic agriculture suits them. Gone are the chemical-coated seeds Sharla used to stand hip-deep in during seeding. Plus, they make a little extra money with organics and the buyers are quick with praise.

Get Jon and Sharla talking about organic agriculture and it's obvious they believe in its benefits. But neither will criticize a fellow farmer for sticking with conventional methods.

"There as many different ways to farm as there are farmers," Tester said, and if you're making money, you must be doing something right.

For 20 years, the Testers farmed their piece of ground. At first, they lived in the same yellow house Jon grew up in. Later, they built their new white farmhouse.

Between raising kids, farming, butchering meat and fixing farm equipment that always seems to need fixing, politics was not something either of them thought much about.

In 1997, the Montana Legislature did away with the web of laws that governed the old Montana Power Co. Convinced that the technology-based "new economy" could reap untold riches, the leaders of the Montana Power Co., sold off it's "old economy" assets like hydroelectric dams, coal-burning power plants and power lines and turned into a fiber optic company called Touch America.

That company eventually filed for bankruptcy, while many Montana Power pensioners were wiped out and consumers paid higher prices as Montana suddenly bought its power on the open market – not from the old regulated monopoly.

Utility deregulation teed off Tester. He ran for the state Senate in 1998 and won. Initially part of the minority party, Tester pitched a lot of agriculture bills and slowly worked his way up to leadership. By 2005, with Democrats suddenly in control of the Senate, Tester became Senate President and pushed bills calling for wind power and other renewable energy, along with a bill that created a new program to help Montana seniors pay the deductible of the new Medicare prescription drug plans.

The first whisper of a U.S. Senate bid came before the 2005 Legislature, Sharla said.

"Then, we got really, really serious after the 2005 session," she said.

Sharla said she never let her brain get too far ahead of her.

"I just did this one day at a time," she said.

And, at first, the odds seemed pretty slim. Before they could even think about running against Burns, they first had to take on a formidable opponent in the Democratic Senate primary.

State Auditor John Morrison had already run for statewide office. He had more money and more name recognition. He was smart and ambitious and seemed to have the blessing of at least some Democratic leaders.

But Morrison's efforts were largely dashed when it was revealed he had an affair with a woman who married a man later investigated for fraud by the auditor's office, the office overseen by Morrison.

Even with a decisive victory over Morrison, Tester still faced Burns – an incumbent with more money and the down-to-earth, everyday Montanan image Tester himself exuded.

Burns came into the campaign weakened, but by no means crawling, over his alleged involvement in a Washington, D.C., lobbying scandal.

By the end of the campaign, both Burns, Tester and the television viewers of Montana, were weary, but Tester thought he would probably win.

"I was surprised it took until 10:30 the next morning before we knew (the outcome,)" he said. As for the narrow, 3,000-vote margin of victory, Tester said he "didn't know what to think."

Now, the two of them will move to an urban environment unlike anything they have ever lived in before. And, as has already happened three times in the Tester family, their daughter Christine, her husband Jacob, and their two small children will move back to the same land that Testers have farmed for 90 years and take it over.

"They're both hard workers," Sharla said. "They want to raise their kids out here. It's important to them."