A Freshman Senator Answers: What Now?

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is part of a group of freshmen Democrats from Western states who helped tip the balance of power in Congress last November. Now that he's sworn in, he talks about his plans for the new session, and how his views fit with those of his party.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

You might not know the name, but you probably know the haircut. Jon Tester is the junior senator from Montana with the trademark buzz cut. He beat incumbent senator Republican Conrad Burns by a narrow margin last November. He's one of a growing number of plain-talking, cowboy boot-wearing Democrats in the western United States.

If you have questions for Jon Tester about his politics, his party or the rise of Rocky Mountain Democrats, give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

And Senator Tester joins us now by phone from his office in the Dirksen building here in Washington, D.C. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, sir.

Senator JON TESTER (Democrat, Montana): Yeah, it's good to be here, Neal. Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And you have your first great ceremonial tonight - the State of the Union message. You looking forward to it?

Senator TESTER: Yeah, I am. I am looking forward to it. I look forward to see what the president has to say, particularly in the areas, I mean, I think we've heard what he has to say about Iraq, but I'm particularly looking forward to hearing what he has to say in the areas, energy and healthcare in particular. And so it'll be fun to witness the festivities in the theater.

And it'll also be interesting to hear what he has to say as far as the content goes. And then, of course, you know, talk is cheap. It'll be interesting to see what happens with reality in the end. Hopefully it'll be some good positive steps we can take for this country in both areas of healthcare and energy, and then hopefully it'll be backed up with some good policy.

CONAN: Now, the state of Montana has elected two Democratic senators, a Democrat governor, a Democratic-controlled State Senate, Republicans have the State House by one vote, and this from a state that reliably votes Republican in presidential elections. What gives?

Senator TESTER: Well, I think part of it is the fact that the presidential candidates on the Democratic side don't show up in Montana. And if you don't show up you usually don't make a very good showing in the polls, whether that's at the local level or the national level.

But, you know, I mean Montana's had a long history of some pretty darn good Democratic senators. You know, probably the most notable would be Senator Mike Mansfield and Senator Lee Metcalf in the '60s and '70s. And those folks, you know, followed a long tradition and then kind of hit a low spot in, you know, in the '90s, but I think Democrats are coming back in the state of Montana.

But I really think, you know, getting to the crux to your original question, you know, Democratic candidates for the presidency haven't shown up. I mean when Clinton showed up in '92, he won. And I don't know, I can't say for absolutely sure, but I know the last two cycles they haven't shown up. And I'm not sure one's shown up since then.

CONAN: I wonder, though, somebody from Montana and they see a candidate from back East, a John Kerry or looking ahead to the next cycle, perhaps a Hillary Clinton, perhaps a Barack Obama and, well, they can't look at a woman and a black man and say same old, same old, but in terms of the politics they might say that.

Senator TESTER; Well, I think that the key is that they've got to reach out and talk about policies that Westerners are concerned about and I think everybody's capable of doing that. But if you don't show up and you don't give people the opportunity to ask the questions, if you don't give people the opportunity to see you in action, it's kind of, they kind of feel slighted and they react accordingly.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Our guest is Jon Tester, the junior senator from Montana. And let's talk with Jeff. Jeff's with us from Wichita in Kansas.

JEFF (Caller): Well, thank you for having me on here. Senator Tester, you and Harold Ford, Jr. are my two favorite Democrats. My question for you is, it seems to me, and I'd like your comment about this, that you and Barack Obama and even a Harold Ford represent a new generation of Democrats who weren't brought up in the sort of the '60s cultural wars that have so defined our politics.

You know, Clinton and Gingrich they didn't just - they didn't oppose each other, they hated each other. And it seems, you know, how much of this, you know, with the western Democrats and you a representative of the West and this post-Baby Boomer Generation.

Senator TESTER: Yeah. Well, first of all, thanks for the kind remarks. Harold Ford is one heck of a good fellow and I like him a lot too. You know, I think, you know, and it's probably my strength in the State Legislature - especially early on when the work term limits, you could really see this between the Democrats and the Republicans where they developed interpersonal relationships. And quite frankly, they could disagree without being disagreeable. And really, and really move forward on agendas without getting personal about it and without, you know, being you know, being against the person rather be opposed to the policy.

And I am, you know, I'm going to take those kind of workability type values here to Washington D.C. And I think that, you know, as I - and even it doesn't matter if you're talking about the folks on the street in Montana to the people who are regular folks. When you're talking to the folks here - I mean, it just happened this morning. We had a little bipartisan caucus and talked about budget and how important it is to have a budget that works for people and this balanced.

And you know, I looked around earlier and I saw Democrats, Republicans both nodding in their heads. So we need to get together. We may have different ways of getting there. We may have different ways of getting there, but if we understand, it isn't a problem.

CONAN: It doesn't sound, Senator, as if you're a take no prisoners Democrat.

Senator TESTER: Well no, I mean I think you got to treat people with respect and then I'll treat you with respect back. And I don't think you would compromise your values, but I do think that there's opportunities to work together and you need take advantage of those.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay. When you got assigned a committee, Senator Tester, you were assigned to the Agricultural Livestock and Irrigation Committee. That's all right up your alley, isn't it?

Senator TESTER: Well, it is up my alley, but I didn't get assigned to that one.

CONAN: Oh, you didn't?

Senator TESTER: Definitely Senator Baucus is a Democrat from, he is a senior senator from Montana. And he's on that committee already. And typically, they don't appoint two senators from the same state and the same party to any one committee.

There's a few exceptions to that, but well, agricultural, livestock and irrigation is right up my alley, Neal. It's a, you know, I'm a family farmer dry land agriculture in north central Montana and we raise a few cows, a few hogs, and it's a farm that's been in my family where we're the third generation and we're looking to make the transition to my daughter and son-in-law, which will be the fourth generation. So agriculture, family farm agriculture in particular, is near and dear to my heart.

CONAN: And who's taking care of that farm while you're here in Washington?

Sen. TESTER: Well, we're, the kids are helping and then we're getting back as much as possible, not only to do, you know, meet with constituents, but also make sure the farm is still there.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And we'll go to Sam. Sam is with us from Tempe, Arizona.

SAM (Caller): Thank you very much for taking my call. I'm a big fan of your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

SAM: I just wanted to ask you, senator, there are some things that have come up that I feel are really Democratic Party initiatives, but things that the Republican Party has over the time kind of painted as anti-Democratic, such as, you know, pro-guns. We here in the West, we like to go out hunting and especially, I would imagine, from the state of Montana.

And so I'm just wondering if you see things like that coming up, where the Democrats can really have a chance to take back those issues, show that we do support families, we do support, you know gun rights when it's reasonable. And things that could help you energize the center, people who are reasonable, about these kinds of things and get them to vote Democrat.

Sen. TESTER: Yeah. I do. I think it is particularly applicable to us in the West to, you know, that where we like to go hunting, we like our outdoor activities and we truly respect the Second Amendment. I would tell you that I had a hard time - I mean I'm, I literally made my living with the gun for 20 years. My wife and I ran a small custom butcher shop on the farm, and we were still accused, just because we are Democrats, of being anti-gun.

I don't - I really see the gun issue as being more urban versus rural than it is Democrat versus Republican in all reality, even though the parties have laid claim to, you know, if you're anti-gun, you're a Democrat. I don't see that at all. I mean I know far - in fact, I don't know anybody in Montana that's anti-gun. And I know Democrats and Republicans, so - and that's not to say there isn't a couple, but there's not very doggone many, so…

I think, you know, to get to your point, Sam, I do think there's an opportunity to take some of those issues back that make sense for regular folks.

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much.

SAM: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an e-mail we got from Brent in Montana. Great to see a new face for my native Montana and my part of state. I grew up in Harlem-Havre. Is that how it's pronounced?

Sen. TESTER: Havre.

CONAN: Havre, and have relatives in Big Sandy. My mother, Olive Watson in Havre, is one of your greatest supporters. Explain how you'll foster cooperation between parties to get things done. I love having different parties in power: one in the Leg and one in the White House - excuse me - means legislature -

Sen. TESTER: Yeah.

CONAN: But it seems, I mean do you folks in D.C. have to work harder? Can you do this?

Sen. TESTER: I think it gives us a great opportunity to solve a lot of problems that can't be solved by one party or the other, that has to be solved by working together. And one of prime example of that is, you know, a budget that is balanced that makes sense - you know, a fiscal responsibility, so to speak. It's going to be a lot of work to get a balanced budget, and it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take several budgets to get to that point because we've gone that far down. But I personally think it's going to take work from both parties to get that done.

As far as working together and what the key is to working together, I think it's respect. I think it's, you know, listening to all sides, listening to your comrades here in the U.S. Senate or U.S. House or wherever you might be in the public policy making arena, and showing them proper respect personally. And then, you know, making the arguments will keep them based in policy and not on the person.

CONAN: Senator Tester, thanks very much for being with us and we wish you great good luck in your - at least your first six years in Washington D.C.

Sen. TESTER: Well, thank you very much, Neal. It's really a pleasure to be on your show.

CONAN: Jon Tester is the junior senator from Montana, and he joined us today by phone from his office in the Dirksen Building on Capitol Hill here in Washington, D.C.

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