My decision to see Montana Governor Steve Bullock was made at the last minute. It came at a busy time, and I have to admit that I didn’t know much about him. I had to jump onto Wikipedia to find out some details, and I saw that he’s a current two-term governor of Montana and chair of the National Governors Association. He’s not as high profile as other candidates, but his credentials are as solid as Bill Clinton’s were when he ran for president. So, sure, why shouldn’t he dip his toe in and see if he likes the water?
Of course, the main takeaway from Bullock’s Wikipedia page was that he and I are the same age. That seemed pertinent because this was the week that the actor Luke Perry (of Riverdale and Beverly Hills 90210 fame) died of a massive stroke. I hadn’t realized until reading his obituaries that Luke Perry and I were the same age. Reading Wikipedia, I saw that Gov. Bullock, like Luke Perry and I, was born in 1966. That all seemed to point toward me going to see the Governor speak.
Okay, the fact that he was speaking at Octopus, my favorite off-campus bar, also made this choice a little easier to make. Octopus is the live music bar on College Hill that is known for its craft beer selection. It also has recently become a watering hole for politicos because of an upcoming special election.
A long-serving Democratic state senator in our area unexpectedly stepped down in the middle of his term, setting the stage for a special election pitting a Republican former State House member against a Democratic candidate currently serving on the Board of Education. Full (and unsurprising) disclosure: the Democratic candidate, Eric Giddens, is a friend and I’m contributing to his campaign.
All of this matters because apparently the word has gone out to Presidential candidates that they are welcome to make an appearance to help campaign for Eric. I have to think this announcement was well received by Presidential campaign managers who must be racking their brains to figure out how to have events that will attract likely Iowa voters in the middle of the worst winter we’ve had in decades. Hey, this works! Candidates get to speak to a friendly crowd who, if they are going to vote in a state Senate special election in March are sure to caucus next February. They also get to show how they can help Iowa rather than just asking for Iowa’s help, so candidates have started popping up all over. It’s an interesting wrinkle in the whole process. I mean, even Rachel Maddow name checked Eric, so things are taking a turn for the surreal.
I also have to think that one of the major differences between this caucus cycle and previous one is how many bars with good beer there are now, and politicians have been gravitating to them like, hmm… what’s the right metaphor? Maybe “like college students to beer” would work.
Anyway, I got to Octopus and ordered a delicious sour. I was surrounded by college students with beer, so I guess that metaphor works. This isn’t a huge bar, so basically we all sat around chatting in conversation clusters while the Governor worked the room and Eric talked to people about his State Senate campaign.
I hung out with a colleague and it turns out we both have an interest in hybrids and electric cars. I get that this confirms basically every stereotype about my being an English professor, so I might as well fess up now and embrace my stereotype. Yes, I now have an electric car; yes, I am tempted to correct the errors in your text messages; yes, I know how to use a semicolon. There you go. Come at me!
There was a small but respectable crowd by the time Eric took to the stage to say a little bit about his campaign and then to introduce Steve Bullock. I live posted the first few minutes of Bullock’s speech, and then I expected to sit back and listen to the rest of what he had to say. But I captured almost his entire speech. I guess because this wasn’t a regular campaign event, it was considered bad form to give a 20-minute talk.
But the abbreviated stump speech was enough time to get a sense of where Bullock stood and why he wanted to run. Though there are policy difference separating the candidates I’ve seen so far, the main difference between them is strategic, and the strategy matters a lot to voters. Basically, it comes down to how to run against Trump. Is the best approach to expand the base by appealing to young and other infrequent voters? Or is the key to bring back one-time Obama supporters who voted for Trump in 2016? Or, is this a false choice, and is it possible to do both things at the same time? But if you try to do both things do you squander resources and risk losing? These are not easy questions to answer in advance, but they are the kind of things that haunt campaigns in retrospect and look like easy decisions (i.e. “why didn’t Hillary campaign in Wisconsin?”).
Gov. Bullock is clearly on the side of bringing Trump voters into the fold. And, fair enough, that is his wheelhouse. He’s the governor of a red state and won re-election by four points at the same time that Trump took the state by over 20. In a state like Iowa with a large rural population and more than its fair share of Obama/Trump voters, it’s an argument that may have some merit.
But really, the whole speech didn’t take more than five minutes and then we were back to our conversation clusters. The governor began working the room, starting with a group of college students near the stage. At that moment, when I saw a sitting governor struggle to lure reluctant undergraduates into participating in a discussion, I fully felt his pain. It ain’t easy.
Eventually, Bullock made his way over to where my colleague and I were standing. We talked a little bit about the campaign, and he came across as a very personable guy who was not at all uncomfortable chatting up a room of strangers. I informed him about my discovery that he and I and Luke Perry were all the same age. The governor did not seem particularly impressed by this information, though it later occurred to me that he may simply not have known who Luke Perry was.
When the conversation moved to energy policy, he was on steadier ground. He was eager to embrace renewable resources both for tackling climate change and because it was becoming more and more economically feasible to do so. I decided to throw him a tougher question, channeling my inner Chuck Todd. I pointed out that once the easier-but-by-no-means guaranteed solutions like maximizing renewable energy are done, the remaining sources of greenhouse emissions are harder to tackle.
“For example,” I asked. “What about methane?”
“Methane?” he asked, looking puzzled. “You mean, like, cattle?”
Methane, from cattle as well as other sources like natural gas leaks, is responsible for about one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, so, yeah, like, cattle.
The governor wasn’t going there with me and he implied that until you had people on board with renewable energy, you would only scare off potential supporters by even discussing something like this. And, fair enough, I didn’t expect the governor of a cattle state like Montana to announce a campaign to reduce beef consumption at a bar in Iowa. Still, it would have at least have been to see that he’d given the subject some thought. But no. Other than that, it was a pleasant conversation, and we shook hands when he moved on to talk to more people. Pretty soon the bar started to empty out. When the governor left, I realized that his entourage included all the best haircuts in the bar.
I left hoping that maybe my conversation would cause the governor to do some research on methane emissions and to think about how to tackle some of the thornier issues surrounding global warming. But, realistically, probably that most I could hope for is that he would look at Luke Perry’s Wikipedia page.