Tester plays major part in new book

Lee State Bureau

by Charles S. Johnson

HELENA – Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a key figure in the pivotal 2006 election that catapulted Democrats into control of the U.S. Senate, is featured prominently in a new book.

In his book, "The Upper House," Terence Samuel devotes a full chapter to recreating the dramatic 2006 election night and morning after in Montana. Tester, headquartered in a Great Falls hotel, was locked in a razor-thin battle with three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns that was too close to call.

"The political world was about to shift on its axis, but Jon Tester was tired, so he went to bed," Samuel writes. "It was the early hours of Nov. 8, 2006. Triumphant Reaganism, as represented by the conservative presidency of George W. Bush and the 12-year GOP dominance of the U.S. Congress, was about to meet its Waterloo in Big Sky Country."

The outcome wouldn't be known until morning until some late returns came in. The final results showed Tester finishing with 199,845 votes to Burns' 196,283 votes, enough to eke out a 3,562-vote win.

Tester's victory gave Democrats a 51-49 margin in the Senate, as independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders caucused with Democrats.

Trying to assess the new senators, Samuel says: "Perhaps the freshmen of 2006 and 2008, and even of 2010, will go on to greatness; perhaps their names will one day resonate through history like those of (Edmund) Muskie and (Philip) Hart and (Eugene) McCarthy and (Robert) Byrd and (Edward) Kennedy and (Daniel) Webster and (John) Calhoun and (Henry) Clay."


Samuel discusses the role that Tester and his new colleagues will play in the Senate, which he calls "one of the grandest political states anywhere in the world."

"In a very basic way, the real value of the U.S. Senate is its ability to produce failure and frustration in the guise of good and prudent government," Samuel writes.

Tester and his Democratic classmates experienced that failure. All had run wanting to bring an end to the war in Iraq, but it continues to this day, although the number of U.S. troops has been reduced.

The Senate also is a place where one person can make a difference, Samuel writes. Tester made his initial contribution by increasing the mileage reimbursement for veterans.

As a new senator, Tester was often frustrated was the pace of the Senate, which Samuel summed up as "too much talk, not enough action."

Still, Samuel says, Tester remains convinced the Senate can play a major role in finding solutions to the country's problems.

"This is absolutely the place to fix it," Tester says. "I think it is. Why – if you weren't serious about getting something done – would you be here?"

During the Easter congressional break in 2007, Tester and his wife, Sharla, returned to their farm near Big Sandy to miserably cold weather. Although the Testers had turned the farm over to their daughter and son-in-law, Jon Tester couldn't wait to getting on the tractor for spring planting.

"When you're running a tractor, you can clear your head," Tester tells Samuel, who traveled to the farm to see whether the Testers came from. "If you just turn off the radio and relax, you can go amazing places."

Samuel describes how Tester had spend much of one day replacing a clutch in the tractor.

"In many ways, the tough, gun-loving, down-to-earth, unapologetic Democrat that Tester is stood as the prototype for the party," Samuel writes. "The sense is that it would be Democrats of the interior West and border South that would bring while and male working-class voters back to the party."

When Samuel left the farm in a blizzard, Tester had to use the tractor to pull his car out of the snow. Samuel, huddled in his car, says he spent the time "contemplating what it would be like to die cold and alone in Montana."

The book also has some anecdotes about the Tester's lighter side in the Senate.

Tester and fellow Democratic Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Claire McAskill of Missouri constitute what they call the Redneck Caucus. At one point, Tester traveled to Iraq with Webb, one of his closest friends in the Senate, but McCaskill was unable to join them.

The Montana senator says he never made more than $30,000 a year in net income as a farmer. Now he likes to joke now that he now makes the same $165,000-a-year salary as Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, whose net worth exceeds $125 million.

Rockefeller bought Tester a new tie, a gift to spruce up the new senator's wardrobe, which Webb joked features glow-in-the-dark ties. But Tester insists the new tie is ugly.

"Rockefeller may have money, but he's got no taste," Tester jokes.