Great Falls Tribune: Jon Tester book chronicles senator's trek from Big Sandy to Washington, D.C.

by Phil Drake

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said writing a book was never on his to-do list.

But then again, never had being a U.S. Senator.

The Montana Democrat had just come through a tough campaign in 2018 for a third term and said he thought to himself “It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

He said it was time to work on how to make the political system better and maybe now was the time to do it.

His book, “Grounded: A senator’s lessons on winning back rural America,” came out in mid-September and offers insight as to what drove this farmer into politics, what keeps him there and what Democrats need to do to win in America’s hinterlands.

He said it’s a book that offers suggestions to not only the national Democratic Party, but Montana Democrats as well.

Tester, who said he is the only working farmer in the Senate, said he did not write the book to get people to agree with him. He wrote it to say if the country is going to work and work well, “we will need to change what we are doing here.”

The 355-page book, written with former chief of staff Aaron Murphy – “He did the bulk of the hard lifting,” Tester said – takes readers from the open farmland several miles outside of Big Sandy to Washington, D.C.

It begins with the battle that pushed Tester center stage into national politics in 2018 when, Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, spoke out against the President Donald Trump’s nomination of Dr. Ronny Jackson to head veterans affairs.

Tester writes that he had received information about Jackson, enough to convince him that he was not right for the job and unleashed the fury of the president.

That Trumpian rage included four trips to Montana by the president to campaign on behalf of Republican candidate Matt Rosendale, who Tester defeated in his re-election bid for a third term.

“And today, I am one of the few citizens of this nation who has successfully held Donald Trump accountable without suffering politically for it,” Tester writes.

The book also gives the reader a front-row seat to Tester’s campaigns for public office, a look into his family life, his parents, his wife, Sharla, and children and grandchildren. It also looks as his life as a farmer, educator, basketball referee and local elected official and state lawmaker.

Details of early life, decision to run for U.S. Senate
And it recounts in vivid detail the meat grinder incident in which a 9-year-old Jon Tester lost three fingers and his mom having to drive him to the hospital.

Tester, who other than farming also taught music, writes about his time playing “Taps” at military events. He also writes about his early career in public service as part of the conservation district, on the Big Sandy school board, in the Montana state Legislature and eventually the state senate.

He details his decision to run for a U.S. Senate seat and takes the reader on the campaign trail, detailing the endless hours of politicking. Tester is not especially kind to his Republican political foes, Conrad Burns, Denny Rehberg or Rosendale in his book.

“I just tried to tell it like it was,” he said. “I didn’t milquetoast it, because it’s not my style.”

More: Sen. Tester says MANG excluded from new C-130J aircraft

However, it shows a softer side of politics as well. The book has a passage about Burns’ wife inviting Tester to Conrad Burns’ funeral in 2016. Tester attended, and in the book called Phyllis Burns’ invitation “one of the warmest gestures I’ve ever experienced in politics.”

“It still brings tears to my eyes now,” Tester said Thursday.

He said Rehberg, “despite his faults, is a good man” and Rosendale will be serving as part of Montana’s congressional delegation in the state’s lone House of Representatives seat.

“You never know what turn life is going to take you in,” he said.

A message for Democrats
The book, which has a note of praise on the back cover by fellow Big Sandy native, Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, contains suggestions for Democrats on how to win back rural America. The book, released in mid-September, seemed to foreshadow the election.

He said it speaks to Democrats, not just in Montana, but everywhere. Tester said the election shows Democrats have to start doing something different.

“You have two ears and one mouth, act accordingly,” he said, adding those in public office or seeking public office should listen first.

Sen. Jon Tester looks out to his supporters during his 2018 victory rally at the Holiday Inn in Great Falls.
He also said candidates need to campaign in places where they didn’t get votes, as well as the places where they did.

“We’re not listening and we’re not going everywhere,” Tester said

Tester said candidates also need to keep the message simple and not drown people with acronyms and wonky details.

His book also has other suggestions for Democrats from “a little farm in northcentral Montana.”

The include, reclaiming fiscal responsibility, noting Democrats are “too quick to spend far too much money …” without demanding accountability. He also said he has given voters a reason to vote for him: good public education, affordable health care, accountability and freedom.

They include holding Trump accountable, saying the country could lose democracy or the Republican Party. He also calls for reforming campaign financing, not ignoring the national debt, and, in these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, to trust science.

University of Montana journalism professor Lee Banville said Tester’s argument is that Democrats need to reengage that they still have the interests of rural America at heart and aware of the issues unique to places in flyover country.

“And if you do that you can defeat somebody who is very popular on the other side of the aisle, which is his whole argument,” Banville said. “Donald Trump singled him out for defeat and was unable to defeat him not because Jon Tester is some magical unicorn in politics, but that he’s somebody who represents and is authentic in representing rural America.”

Banville said Tester speaks with an authenticity that most Republicans and Democrats cannot beat.

While Tester’s argument can resonate with areas that have gone Republican in recent elections, Banville wonders if Tester’s persona would carry over to other Democrats who do not have that grounded, practical reality.

“Can they make the argument on the issues or do they actually have to be a farmer from Big Sandy, Montana?” Banville said.

Harvest on the Bahnmiller Family Farms south of Big Sandy.
And he said that Tester’s authenticity, speaking truth and not using the words of politics, is what Donald Trump is, too.

“It’s not shocking that a state that would go 20 points for Donald Trump … would also vote for Jon Tester because they are both plain-spoken and ‘I’m not going to play the political game’ kind of folks. And maybe more Democrats need to learn lessons like that,” Banville said.

He said most national political profiles depict Tester on his farm, fixing a tractor and then cursing at the machine.

“And that’s fine, but I think that what the book is trying to say is that ‘I am more complicated than that,'” Banville said. “‘I’m not a caricature of a Democratic politician in rural America. I am a real person and that is frankly why I won.'”

Reflecting on his book and on life in office
Tester said completing the book brought mixed emotions. He said he has talked to several people who have written books and they talked about the thrill of when it was done.

Tester said he was glad it was done and considers it a project completed, “but quite frankly it was a little depressing.”

He said he was hit with the thought of “I’ve been on this Earth 63 years and this is it?”

Several politicians who have written books go on to run for higher office. Tester laughs when asked if the book is a stepping stone.

“That is not my intent,” he said, but added if asked 20 years ago he would not have said being a U.S. Senator was on his bucket list.

“Did I write this book to run for higher office? No, but you never know what life will deliver for you,” Tester said. “I certainly didn’t write this with that in mind at all.”

He said he doesn’t know how the book is selling, but said he has gotten letters from people all over the country about it, even from some folks who consider themselves a conservative.

“I can tell you what a bushel of wheat is worth, but don’t know how many copies I have sold,” Tester said.

Tester said he doubts he will write another book, “but you never know.”

He said he does occasionally get hit with the thought the he should be writing things down, because he may want to include it in a book someday.

Rock singer Meat Loaf.
So who should play him in a movie adaptation of the book, if that should ever happen?

He offers the name of a rock star/celebrity who he said a young passerby in Missoula had confused him with.

“Meat Loaf, I guess,” he said.