Don't Mess With Tester

Men's Journal

by Joshua Green

It's Saturday morning, and the United States Senate is grumpy.  Harry Reid, the diminutive majority leader of the Senate Democrats, has declared a rare Saturday vote, which has not endeared him to his colleagues, who prefer to spend weekends in their home states or running for president in someone else's.  Normally deserted on weekends, Capitol Hill is swarming with journalists, staffers and senators, none of them happy to be here – except, that is, for the most junior senator of them all, Jon Tester of Montana, a cheerful populist upon whom good fortune frequently smiles and is about to do so once more.

Tester was elected in an upset last November, a Democrat in a heavily Republican state who wasn't even his own party's preferred candidate.  Then his Democratic primary opponent self-immolated in a sex scandal, and the Republican incumbent, Senator Conrad Burns, became ensnared in the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption affair.  Tester's narrow victory – no one was certain he'd won until two days after Election Day – helped hand Democrats control of the senate.  And it made the burly organic farmer from Big Sandy, Montana (pop. 710), one of the most popular guys in Washington.

Tucking into a plate of fish and chips in a dark Irish pub that doesn't see many senators, Tester is talking animatedly about his favorite subject, renewable energy, and how he plans to push it from his new perch.  Suddenly he's interrupted. "This was a mistake, a Harp beer," a waitress says, holding aloft a frothy pint glass.  "Anybody want it?" Tester flashes a big grin, and without missing a beat hollers, "Sold!" Things just seem to break his way.

He hardly fits the modern profile of the Senate, a virtual millionaire's club these days.  Tester has never earned more than $30,000 a year raising organic wheat, barley, peas and lentils on his 1,800-acre farm.  He doesn't quite fit into his three brand-new suits, either, since he purchased them a size too small as incentive to shed the weight he gained on the campaign trail.  At six feet tall and pushing 300 pounds, with a flattop haircut and three fingers missing on this left hand (lost to a meat grinder at age nine), Tester resembles a Midwest wrestling coach on a field trip to Washington, an impression heightened by his habit of addressing staffers by their last names.

On the farm Tester would go two weeks at a stretch without laying eyes on another human being besides his wife Sharla.  On Capitol Hill he's recognized everywhere he goes, at once a hero and a curioustiy.  "Hey folks, welcome to Washington," he says somewhat sheepishly, opening a door for a visiting family that has recognized him outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building.  When Arkansas's two Democratic senators, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, spot him boarding the private subway that runs between there office building and the Capitol, they call out, "Hey Jon!" and scoot into his car just as the door closes.  Is he going to try to plant crops this year, they wonder?  "Yeah," Tester says with a smile, "I'm going to try to get out over Easter break and spend a couples weeks in the fields."  Even President Bush has asked him for organic lentils for the White House.

Tester ducks onto the Senate floor to cast a vote and emerges a moment later, chuckling.  He has once again made sport of Chuck Schumer, his tightly wound Democratic colleague from New York. "I told Chuck I voted 'yes,'" Tester laughs, about a bill that he and other Democrats has in fact opposed.  "You should have seen his face!"

Later on, back in his Dirksen office, Tester clicks on the large plasma TV he inherited from Burns.  Flipping past the live feed from the Senate floor (which plays in every other Senate office) to the warm-ups for the Daytona 300, he settles in to return a call from his wife.

Tester's arrival in the Senate doesn't quite square with the red/blue stereotypes that have framed national politics recently.  His regular guy good cheer comes with razor-sharp political instincts.  His struggles as a farmer led him to a belief in organics and a suspicion of agribusiness.  During his campaign he made a point of letting it be known that Hillary Clinton "doesn't do much for me," and he is undoubtedly the only senator to arrive in Washington with 50 pounds of beef and pork that he slaughtered himself, now stuffed into the freezer of the Capitol Hill townhouse he and Sharla rent.

Democrats owe their newfound power in part to unorthodox figures like Tester.  He is part of an emerging group of western Democrats, including Montana governor Brian Schweitzer and the state's other senator, Max Baucus, who champion a rural environmentalism that stresses conservation, preserving hunting and fishing land, and greater reliance on clean, renewable fuels.  With the war in Iraq serving as a daily reminder of the national security implications of foreign oil dependence, not to mention global warming, these issues have never seemed more urgent.  Even Hillary Clinton has hopped aboard, making renewable energy an important theme in her presidential campaign.  Montana's newest senator plans to be at the forefront of this movement.

In an election year full of surprises, Tester was one of the biggest.  But his arrival in Washington should not come as so much of a shock.  His life story and experience in Montana politics make him sort of a walking rebuke to the current culture of scandal and war.  Tester's combination of ethics, accountability, and rural horse sense are all qualities currently lacking in the nation's capital.  As the leader of Montana's Senate, Tester won over nearly as many Republicans as Democrats with a practical streak that didn't let partisanship get in the way of progress.  He has come to Washington intent on doing the same.

Contrary to public perception, the life of a freshman senator is anything but glamorous.  You get stuck doing the shit jobs no one else wants to do, such as presiding over the Senate floor, which sounds important until you realize that most of the time the floor is nearly empty.  Senators wander in at their leisure to deliver impassioned speeches to the C-SPAN camera.

When I first visited Tester in the Senate gallery he was enduring the ritual torture of presiding over a John Kerry speech.  He looked bored out of his skull, leaning backing his chair, cleaning his fingernails, and seeming to drift off into a trance, the body's natural defense mechanism when trapped listening to John Kerry.  When he finally came off the floor, though, he was seemed as cheerful as ever.  "You know, these are some pretty good guys here," he says of his new colleagues, betraying a hint of surprise.

During orientation new senators, like fraternity pledges, are informally paired with "big brothers" (or sisters) wise in the ways of the institution.  As if to underscore his fish-out-of-water status, Tester ended up with West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, a man with whom he could hardly have less in common.  Rockefeller became the first in a succession of colleagues to be won over by the third-generation farmer.  "You and I got off to different starts in life," Rockefeller told his charge, "but we ended up in the same place."

Tester's knack for winning friends was key to his unlikely political career in Montana.  Born in 1956, he grew up 12 miles west of Big Sandy on land homesteaded by his grandfather in 1916.  Despite having only seven fingers, he majored in music at the University of Great Falls, playing the trumpet, and taught public school.  He met his wife Sharla, also from an agricultural family, at a church social, and they took over the Tester farm in 1978.

At the time, organic farming was practically unheard of, at least in central Montana, but a popular seed treatment they used called Vitavax caused Sharla severe sinus problems.  "Anytime you sprayed you figured on being sick for a week with the flu," Tester remembers.  "And this was just weed spray.  As far as chemicals go it was fairly benign stuff."

One day a friend invited Tester to meet a woman named Ann Sinclair who was visiting from Eden Foods in Michigan.  "She said, 'If you'll convert your place to organic, I'll give you seven bucks a bushel for durum,' which was around twice was what I was getting paid for anything else," Tester said.  The encounter was, as he puts it, "pure-ass luck."  Sinclair agrees.  "Jon and I took an immediate liking to one another, mainly over our sense of humor.  We sat down on his porch and cracked open a couple of longneck beers and just started talking."  Within four years the Testers had gone completely organic, and Sinclair remains affixed in Tester's large constellation of friends, even attending his swearing-in ceremony in Washington.

Tester liked being a "dirt farmer" who no longer relied on harmful pesticides.  But he's quick to point out that it wasn't altruism that prompted him to go green; it was his pocketbook.  "My conservation came to me from the value of the land as a farmer," he says.  Early on he looked into installing wind generation on the farm.  "We never could get the coin together, and the technology wasn't quite good enough," he says.  "But as a farmer, energy is a big item in your budget, and you're always interested in becoming more independent."

When he first became involved in organics, Tester organized seminars for fellow farmers to discuss oilseed crops and alternatives to the chemicals and pesticides most farmers relied on as a matter of course.  "When I was a kid," says Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, who grew up in Big Sandy, "I remember people saying the Testers were kind of weird farmers because they were doing safflower, sunflower, starting to do organic stuff.  Everybody else was a straight wheat and barley farmer."

Once Tester taped promo spots touting organic farming for a Great Falls radio station.  "I turned on the radio the first morning and there I was," he said.  "I turned it on the second morning, and there was nothing on.  So I called the guy and he said point blank, 'I will deny this if anybody asks me about it, but an advertiser–an agribusiness giant–called us up and said, "If you run this next promo we're pulling our ads."'  There's still that culture in Montana today.  It hasn't changed a bit."

Similar corporate bullying ultimately prompted Tester to run for public office.  In 1997, the Republican-led Montana legislature voted to deregulate the state's electricity industry.  Lawmakers and industry reps claimed that energy rates would drop (Montana's were already among the lowest in the nation).  Instead, Montana Power Company sold its hydroelectric dams, coal-burning plants, and power lines to out-of-state companies and tried to become a telecommunications company, investing all its money in fiber-optic cable.  Electricity rates skyrocketed, and Montana Power plunged into bankruptcy; Tester calls it "an Enron situation a few years before Enron."

As is the way in rural towns, Tester had already served Big Sandy in numerous capacities, from refereeing grade school basketball to sitting on the Soil Conservation Board.  "My dad was the mayor," Ament recalls, "and pretty much everything, whether it's church council or school board, Jon was always heavily involved."  The deregulation debacle prompted Tester to think bigger and run for the state Senate.

Two obstacles stood in his way:  Republicans all but owned his seat, and the current occupant was a neighbor and friend.  In a stroke of luck the neighbor retired, and Tester's plain talk and affability earned him the seat.  When the Republicans lost the state Senate in 2005, Tester was elected Senate president.  "People look at Jon Tester and think he's just a big farmer, but they don't realize how politically smart this guy is," says former Montana Senate aide Jim Messina, now Max Baucus's chief of staff.  "He went from winning a seat that no Democrat had any business of winning to being state Senate president in just two terms.

With Tester at the helm of the Senate and Brian Schweitzer newly elected as governor, Democrats balanced the budget without raising taxes, expanded health-care coverage and school funding, and pushed multiple forms of alternative energy, from biofuels to clean coal.

Tester was the main force behind a historic measure requiring Montana to produce 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015, and he finally made headway developing the wind power he'd been interested in as a young farmer.  The third-windiest state in the union, Montana ranked dead last in wind power; today it's 13th, thanks to the towering Judith Gap Wind Farm, 100 miles south of Big Sandy, with turbines so massive that each blade had to be hauled in on its own semi.

As with organic farming, the attraction was economical as well as environmental:  Wind power provides much-needed jobs in rural areas.  But Montana is still suffering through its worst drought since the Dust Bowl, making global warning more than an abstraction.  "Few people pay closer attention to the climate than farmers do," Tester noted.  (He remains something of a windmill geek: When he met freshman California congressman Jerry McNerney, a former wind-power engineer, McNerney says Tester "did a bow with his hands stretched out.")

Tester also presided over the repeal of Montana's infamous open-container law, about which he has decidedly mixed feelings.   "When it comes right down to it, a person probably shouldn't be drinking when they're driving down the road," he says.  "But it's a bummer.  I guarantee you that a beer tastes a lot better after a hot day of picking hay than a Diet Coke does."

The Montana Democrats' biggest accomplishment was changing the stereotype that they are more interested in spotted owls than in people, especially people who hunt.  From his position as Senate president, Tester pushed bills to maintain access to public lands for hunting and fishing.  Another area of particular focus was the Rocky Mountain Front, a 300-mile swath of pristine wilderness where the mountains meet the Great Plains.  The Front is home to some of Montana's largest populations of elk, deer, mountain sheep, and wolves.  It's also a major target zone for oil and gas drilling.

The dispute over the Rocky Mountain Front helped put Tester in the U.S. Senate.  For 18 years Conrad Burns had perpetrated a kind of environmental blackmail on his home state.  From his spot on a powerful Interior subcommittee he had secured millions of dollars to restore and preserve land along the Blackfoot River (made famous by A River Runs Through It).  This brought Burns reluctant praise from some environmental groups, even as he expanded tax breaks and drilling rights for oil and gas companies.

Leasing public lands deprived Montanans of access to prime hunting and fishing areas; oil and gas drilling polluted streams and forests.  By last fall, with the campaign in full swing, voters had had enough: Polls showed that 70 percent opposed more drilling.  "Out here that land is our social issue," says Montana writer and former petroleum geologist Rick Bass.  "It is a very passionately felt and deep-rooted identity and relationship."

Tester was already leading Burns in the polls, thanks to the Abramoff corruption scandal and Iraq.  Burns, like most Republicans, stood foursquare with the president on the war; at the same time, he received around $150,000 (which he later gave away) in campaign donations from Jack Abramoff's machine and steered millions of federal dollars to the lobbyist's clients.  It didn't help when the gaffe-prone Burns told firefighters they were doing a "piss-poor job" battling wildfires.

In the waning days of the race Burns changed course on the Rocky Mountain Front, declaring that he too now opposed further drilling.  Nobody bought it.  And while Burns managed to narrow the gap with Tester during the days leading up to the election, mostly emphasizing his seniority and power, Tester squeaked out a  victory by 3,562 votes.

During the campaign Tester was asked to sum up in a single sentence why anyone would vote for him.  While every other politician has a 10-point plan for brushing his own teeth, Tester replied with one word: "Honesty."  The perception that Burns and the Republicans had not been honest about lobbying abuses, the Iraq war, and a host of other issues ultimately cost them control of Congress.  And because of the premium on honesty, the Washington that Tester arrived in is very different from the one he campaigned against.

In a show of penance for the Abramoff scandal, one of the first things the new Congress did was pass a typically Byzantine ethics reform package.  Before Tester could dine out, Matt McKenna, him communications director, had to explain to his puzzled boss the "toothpick rule": To prevent lobbyists from bribing lawmakers with lavish meals, the new rules state that members of Congress can only accept hors d'oeuvres.  After some discussion it was determined that, while a lobbyist could no longer buy a senator a burger, a reporter from Men's Journal could—which was nice, because no one in Washington looks less like he wants to eat food from a toothpick than Jon Tester.

Then there is a side of Washington that hasn't changed.  A week after the election Democrats were invited to celebrate their triumph at a blockbuster party hosted by New York's Chuck Schumer.  Tester arrived to find the place crawling with lobbyists, eager to seduced members of the new majority party.  "Tester just looked absolutely panicked," recalls Jim Messina, who accompanied him. "He turned to me and said, 'There are two things I need you to do: Find my wife and find me a beer.'"

To avoid the kind of temptation that doomed his predecessor, Tester recently began posting his full daily schedule on the internet, including everything from dinners with his wife to a meeting with an Anheuser-Busch representative.  As strange as it sounds, openly revealing whom you're meeting with is considered a slightly reckless step to take in a town in which so much of what goes on—and so much of the unseemliness—depends on discretion.  Tester has even incorporated his signature flattop into his system of personal checks and balances.  He's vowed that only Bill Graves, his barber in Big Sandy, can cut his hair, forcing him to return regularly to the place he's from and not become a creature of the Senate, as Burns had.

Tester has had a harder time acclimating to the ceremonial parts of his job.  He is among the first to be notified when a Montana soldier is killed in Iraq; the furthest thing from a feel-your–pain politician, he is expected to call the families to offer official condolences, a talk that only intensifies his opposition to the war.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment was realizing just how slowly the United States Senate operates, and how little a newcomer can do about it, especially on an issue like Iraq.  "In Montana, the legislature only meets for 90 days, and we manage to get through about 1,300 bills," Tester lamented to me in the Capitol one day, after another inconclusive round of debate on Iraq.  Nearly two months in, Tester estimated that the Senate had passed only five or six bills. "[Pennsylvania senator] Arlen Specter pointed out at breakfast today that the Senate is the only body in the world that deliberates for a week about whether it's going to deliberate."

When I'd first met Tester early in the Senate term, Democrats in the House of Representatives had easily passed the Clean Energy Act of 2007, implementing new investments in renewable and alternative energy sources and closing tax loopholes for oil companies.  Tester was eagerly awaiting its Senate counterpart.  But the slow pace of the Senate pushed it back to the fall.

Tester remained enthusiastic, having decided to push for a national energy plan even more ambitious than the one he'd championed in Montana, mandating that 25 percent of the country's energy come from clean, renewable sources by 2025.  "Vegetable oil, ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol—all of that is going to be discussed," Tester says.  "I've been in meetings with the big energy companies and I don't think they feel threatened by me—and vice versa.  We need to have options, and renewables are something that's coming."

One option now open to him is throwing around the weight that comes with being a United   States senator.  Tester has already met with Canadian representatives to discuss the proposed open-pit coal mines that could pollute the pristine flathead river in Glacier National Park (see "The Threat to Montana," Men's Journal, March 2007).  "We've got the ability to put pressure on them, and I would sure try," he says.  "But if you want to get down and dirty, start with the banking industry [Tester sits on the Banking Committee] and you could apply some huge sanctions on the Canadians."

When the Senate was dismissed a few hours after lunch that Saturday, Tester embarked on a "fact-finding mission"—often a euphemism for a Caribbean vacation or a golf outing to St. Andrew's, like Abramoff used to fund.  Tester instead hopped a plane for eastern Montana and spent the week touring energy development plants in a series of rural towns.

Though he'd loyally stuck around for the Saturday vote (not every Senator did), Tester was clearly feeling a tug of homesickness.  Listening to John Kerry speeches didn't quite compare with driving his nine-ton 1986 Case International combine in Big Sandy, where his daughter and son-in-law were in the process of taking over the family farm.

While he was home, Tester had promised to appear at the Bear Paw Development Corporation's annual dinner in Havre, 40 miles north-east of his farm.  He rolled into town just before dinner in a style that seemed fitting.  The Bear Paw folks weren't clear at first why a semi loaded with several tons of peas had pulled into their parking lot, until they peered into the cab.  As luck would have it, Havre was exactly where Jon Tester needed to go to deliver a load from the farm.  And there, squeezed into one of his new suits behind the wheel of a grain trailer, sat Montana's newest senator, smiling.