HAVRE DAILY NEWS: From the fields of Chouteau County to the floor of the Senate
Jon Tester's rise to national leadership
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., probably spent his time during the congressional August recess differently than most senators.
Tester, the only active farmer in the U.S. Senate, used the break to harvest crops on his farm west of Big Sandy.
Tester found time to give the Havre Daily News an interview Sept. 3. But when the reporter and photographer arrived, he was busy loading grain and had no time to talk. He invited the reporter to ride with him in the grain truck and conduct the interview as he hauled the grain down gravel and paved roads to Fort Benton.
Tester is a native of north-central Montana, growing up west of Big Sandy on his family farm, which was homesteaded by his grandparents Fred and Christine Pearson in 1912. Over the years, he has worn many different hats, including those of teacher, farmer and politician.
But his love of farming and agriculture is always what he identifies with the closest, he said.
“I just like the work. I just like doing it,” Tester said. “People say, ‘Is the U.S. Senate the best job you’ve ever had?’ No, it isn’t. Being a farmer is the best job that I’ve ever had.”
The role of a U.S. senator is a very important, honorable and crucial job, he said, but his heart has always been with Montana and agriculture. He added that since the young age of 8, he knew he wanted to take over the family farm. Tester said he is much younger than his two siblings, and his father, David O. Tester, was much more mellow with him and made farming a good experience for him.
Tester said that his father was much more of a mentor to him than to other siblings and gave him a number of responsibilities on the farm at a young age. At the age of 9, Tester was already operating equipment by himself, baling and haying on the farm. That was also the age Tester lost three of his middle fingers on his left hand in a meat grinder accident.
“But when you’re on the farm, you work,” he said. “I didn’t look at myself as a kid when I did this. I didn’t do it because I was a stupid little kid. You know, accidents happen and mistakes are made.”
He added that it was a hard lesson, but it was a mistake he made sure never to do again.
It is similar to firearms, he said. He said he grew up around firearms, but his father taught him from a young age firearms are dangerous and leave very little room for errors or mistakes.
He said his father told him, “You don’t shoot things just because you want to shoot something. If you shoot something there has to be a reason for it. If you shoot a gopher it’s because that gopher is eating your wheat. If you shoot at a deer, it’s because you need the food.”
The making of a politician
Tester said that the first time he was exposed to politics was when he was a junior at Big Sandy High School in 1973. His school took a trip down to the state capital in Helena to watch the legislative session. He added that he enjoyed his time there and spoke with a few of the lawmakers. He said he walked away from that experience saying, “I want to do this.”
The same year, he and two of his neighbors decided to throw their hats in the ring for student body president at the high school, he said. Tester said he had never been elected before or had any real involvement in student politics, but he was able to win. He added that it was a good experience and he got a lot of positive feedback which motivated him to want to do more in the political realm.
“It was pretty serious,” he said.
He added that he would eventually run for student body president at his college, but lost the election.
The lesson he learned while student body president in Big Sandy is that if someone wants to effect change and make things better for the next generation, they need a platform, whether it’s student body president, city council or U.S. Senate, he said.
“If you are going to live in a place, you don’t just (complain) about things, you get in there, roll up your sleeves and try to make things better,” he said.
He added that he also falls back on the wisdom of his parents. He said that his parents always told him, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth, act accordingly.”
“That’s really important if you’re in any level of public service, because you’re there to listen; you don’t have all the answers,” he said.
Another word of wisdom his parents gave him is that too much of anything is not good for anyone, he said, whether it is food, alcohol or work.
He said one of the biggest influences on his thoughts on politics came from his grandmother and mother, who often discussed political issues when he was younger. He said his grandmother and mother would often discuss current issues on national and local levels.
“To be honest with you, for the most part it was pretty boring to me as a kid, but looking back on it, it was pretty influential, Tester said.
After graduating from high school, Tester said, he was focused on, attending a diesel tech school in Helena, because he knew he wanted to take over his family farm. But one of his teachers had talked him into trying for a music scholarship at the College of Great Falls – now the University of Providence. His teacher told him he should try to diversify his portfolio and Tester ended up receiving the scholarship. While at the University of Great Falls he obtained a degree in music and got his endorsement for teaching.
He added that his instrument of choice was the trumpet, but after becoming a teacher he became proficient in a number of different instruments.
Tester then became a teacher for Big Sandy Public Schools and moved back to his family farm, he said. Once he moved back, his parents retired and moved to Idaho to be closer to his brother.
While teaching, he said, he learned the importance of education and children.
“I learned in short order that those kids were literally the most important thing on earth,” he said. “They were going to be what makes or breaks this country moving forward.”
He added that he learned a great deal from his time in the education system.
His family farm also had a butcher shop, and after a few years teaching, he said, he decided to quit teaching and focus once again on the farm and opened the butcher shop full-time. He added that he could make more money operating the butcher shop than he could as a teacher. Tester and his family operated the butcher shop full time until he started to get involved in the state Legislature, and during that time he and his family butchered about 150 to 160 head of cattle and 100 hogs for his neighbors in the area.
“We are not the biggest farm out here; we weren’t then and we still aren’t,” he said, adding that the extra money from the butcher shop helped them stay alive.
Although Tester had left teaching, he still wanted to be involved with the community, he said. He added that he later served nine years on the school board, and also served on a conservation board and the International Organic Certification Board.
Starting in state politics
Tester said that he wanted to be able to create change and serve in the community, and, 25 years after first visiting the state Legislature for a class field trip, he announced his candidacy for state Senate.
He said he announced his candidacy in January 1998, shortly after long-time family friend and neighbor state Sen. Loren Jenkins, R-Big Sandy, stepped down in December of 1997.
He added that he would have never had run against Jenkins, but after he announced his candidacy he and his wife, Sharla, made quick work in campaigning.
Montana Transportation Commissioner Greg Jergeson, who was a long-time state senator before terming out in 2002, said he first met Tester in the fall of 1997. Jergeson said that former state representative Ray Peck, D-Havre, had called him and told him he had recruited someone to run for the other Senate seat representing Havre.
Jergeson said that he and his wife, Barb, went to go see Tester and his wife at their farm, to meet him and take a measure of the kind of person he was.
His first impression was Tester was cordial, affable and current on a number of issues which were taking place in the state, such as the electricity deregulation, which was passed in the ’97 legislative session, Jergeson said.
“I couldn’t help but to like him. He was friendly, but it wasn’t because I was, at the time, a powerful politician in the state, but genuine friendship,” he said.
He added that he remembers the night ended with Tester playing on his trumpet for him and his wife.
Tester ran a strong campaign that year and succeeded in winning the election, Jergeson said.
Tester said that people have two options when they decide to run for office. They can either file the paperwork and put their name on the ballot or they can take a step further and go knock on peoples’ doors and discuss the issues. It’s important for any campaign, whether it is local or national, to listen to what is on people’s minds and “let people know what you think is important.”
“That’s how you win, that’s how you win county commission, that’s how you win school boards, that’s how you win state Legislature and, in fact, that’s how you win U.S. Senate races,” Tester said.
During his eight years in the state Senate, he served in leadership roles for six of them, Democratic whip, Montana Senate minority leader and then Senate president. He added that his first two years in the state Senate he learned a number of important skills which would help him later on in life when he started serving as a U.S. senator.
While at the state level, he said, he learned the bill-making process and how it needs bipartisan support if it is going to be passed. He added that he also learned how the urban and rural parts of Montana are divided, as well as the importance of saying “thank you.”
“It’s a small group of people who meet for 90 days on odd years and you got to get stuff done,” he said. “It was a very, very good experience.”
Jergeson said that Tester made a lasting impression on the state with his time as a state legiaslator. He added that once Tester was elected he paid close attention to how things were done and how the other senators behaved and acted, quickly catching on.
Tester’s work for Montana State University-Northern and his work on the North Central and North Eastern Water systems will be a long lasting improvement to the area and the state, Jergeson said.
“That’s part of his legacy that won’t ever go away,” he added.
He said Tester also acted as a mentor – similar to how he treated Tester in his early years – to former state Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem.
Hansen later played a major role in securing funding for Northern’s new Diesel Technology Center, Jergeson said.
“You can really trace a straight line back to Sen. Tester for what I think is a capstone of infrastructure for the campus,” he added.
He said it was obvious early on Tester was quickly moving into leadership roles.
“Jon was able to cultivate his colleagues based upon what was their skills, their backgrounds, their expertise and stuff, including the people on the other side of the aisle,” Jergeson said.
Rising to U.S. Senate
Tester said that he eventually wanted to run for U.S. Senate because a number of people approached him and encouraged him to run. He said that he had to run against former Montana State Auditor John Morrison in the primary. But he and his wife ran a good campaign and were able to win the primary as well as the election against incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., in 2006.
Since then Tester has been re-elected two times to the U.S. Senate He is now serving his third six-year term.
Tester said that he sits on a number of the same committees he started off with when he was first elected, with only a few changes. He sits on five committees, Veteran Affairs, on which he is the top Democrat, or ranking member; Indian Affairs, which he chaired in 2014-15; Appropriations; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Commerce, Science and Transportation. He also sits on a number of subcommittees, including being the ranking member of the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
He added that he also wanted to thank his wife, Sharla, who has acted as a key to his success, whether it was the farm, butchershop, school board, state Legislature or Congress.
“She has been the rock on which I lean on,” Tester said. “She is always there to let me know.”
He added that she is a strong woman who was a working mother and has strong opinions of her own, which he appreciates. He said he seldom says that he has done something, instead saying “we,” including his wife because they are a team.
She can often be found in the crowd wherever he goes, he said, adding that she also often gives him feedback on debates or discussions he has in the Senate.
At the time of the interview, Tester and his wife were celebrating their 41st anniversary.
Who is Tester?
Jergeson said Tester fascinates people across the country because Tester is able to meld his superb intelligence with an incredible ability to be down-to-earth, which allows people to have confidence in him and his decision making.
He added that Tester is also a good, genuine friend. Although their political paths no longer cross, Tester, he and their wives still try to get together for dinner on his birthday every year.
State Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, said that he first met Tester while he was in middle school and it left a lasting impression on him. Bachmeier said that as he got more and more involved with politics he got more opportunities to meet Tester. He has a very big presence and he tends to light up a room, Bachmeier added.
“It’s almost overwhelming how normal he seems to be,” he said. He treats you like you’re on the same level as he is.”
He added that he doesn’t agree with Tester on everything, but the fact he is willing to work with Democrats and Republicans is admirable and he hopes to be able to accomplish as much as Tester.
“I think that Sen. Tester has been a role model to me as a young legislator and politician,” he said.
Tester taught him the importance of getting involved with his community, Bachmeier said, adding that Tester was the one who taught him to ask people the question, “What is on your heart?” regardless of what party lines they are on.
Tester said he believes it is important to be good to people as well as stay connected, which is one of the reasons he also loves to farm.
“It’s important to keep that connection with the working people,” he said.
A lesson his father taught him is that “life is only worth living because of the fun you can have,” he said, adding that he wants to be able to leave the Senate knowing he has left a positive impact on the country as well as the people of Montana.
He said that he wants to think back to his time in Congress in a positive way. Anything worth doing is a lot of hard work, he added, and he plans to keep working hard for the people of Montana.
“When I leave the earth, it is 100 percent just one thing: it’s in better shape than when I got here,” Tester said.