MELVILLE — Of all the campaign donations Dennis McDonald has received, none touch him more than ones like this.
An elderly disabled veteran from Missoula stuffed three one-dollar bills into one of McDonald’s campaign envelopes and wrote on it: “I live on $900/mo. so can spare little cash. However, I am disabled so have lots of time. Here’s a few $ anyway.”
It’s donations like this that keep McDonald going.
“When I get something like this, believe me, I don’t lose one second of sleep over the fact that I don’t have the money to run the campaign I’d like,” McDonald said. “This is an incentive to drive as far as I can and work as hard as I can.”
As moving as these small donations are, the blunt truth is that McDonald also could use some bigger denomination checks in his race to unseat five-term Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg for the state’s lone congressional seat.
With a month left, McDonald knows he’s the decided underdog to Rehberg, the five-term incumbent, in what appears to be a strong Republican tide nationally this year. Rehberg, a former lieutenant governor and legislator, is much better known around the state than McDonald, a rancher and ex-chairman of the Montana Democratic Party making his first run for office.
As of June 30, Rehberg’s campaign had more than $660,000 left in the bank to spend in the rest of the campaign than McDonald’s $18,300. The next reports are due in mid-October.
Although McDonald has never run for office before, he’s no stranger to politics. He worked for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign in California, but then concentrated on raising a family and building his law practice.
He got back involved in politics 37 years later in Montana when Gov. Brian Schweitzer recruited him to run for state Democratic Party chairman, and McDonald won a four-way battle. During McDonald’s tenure as state chairman, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester unseated three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006. Two years later, Democrats captured every statewide office but one — the House seat held by Rehberg.
McDonald’s campaign is a family affair. His wife, Sharon, is keeping the books and designing the graphics for his signs. His small staff works out of an office in Livingston.
After McDonald won the four-way primary in June, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wanted to help McDonald financially — provided he replace his staff with the people it wanted.
“I told them to take their money and put it where the sun don’t shine,” McDonald said.
McDonald is unfazed by his odds in the race.
“I’ve been an underdog all my life,” said McDonald in an interview at the kitchen table in his home on the ranch. “I’ve been an underdog in creating R-Calf (which represents cattle ranchers on marketing and trade issues) and reinstituting the Montana Cattlemen’s Association and making it through college and law school.”
McDonald believes there’s an anti-incumbent force he hopes will work in his favor.
“There is a lot of unrest and angst among voters in Montana,” he said. “There’s huge dissatisfaction with politicians and government. Wherever I go, I hear the theme: Let’s throw the rascals out.”
McDonald is hoping one of those rascals is named Rehberg.
“The absolute truth is he’s a professional politician who’s been eating out of the public trough for 20 years, and he’s done absolutely nothing for Montana,” McDonald said. “The sum total of his accomplishments is naming three post offices.”
Rehberg defended his record, saying: “From raising pay for our troops and pushing through country of origin labeling to helping Montanans deal with federal bureaucracies and passing legislation to keep folks working at the Stillwater Mine, I’m proud of my accomplishments and will put my record up against anybody’s.”
McDonald, a former trial lawyer from California who now ranches full time in Montana, is not afraid to call it like he sees it.
Over the course of the interview, he criticized how Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have overseen aspects of the U.S. economy, taxes and trade.
“As I travel Montana, I’ve never seen the angst in Montanans’ eyes that I’ve witnessed over the last 18 months,” McDonald said. “It’s one of the reasons why I decided to run. We need to rebalance the economic scale.”
McDonald said he’s frustrated over the Obama administration’s handling of the economy. He said he’s “thrilled” that Larry Summers, director of Obama’s White House National Economic Council, has resigned and hopes Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is the next out the door.
“When you keep selecting these people from Wall Street to steer economic policy, it shouldn’t be surprising to any of us that it gets us where it did,” he said.
McDonald is critical of trade policies that have driven U.S. manufacturing overseas and outsourced so many jobs to China.
He is an outspoken opponent of the “irresponsible” tax cuts for the wealthy that passed under President George W. Bush that he said had cost several trillion dollars over the decade.
McDonald supports Obama’s proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts for couples making less than $250,000 a year and singles making less $200,000 a year, but not for people making more.
“I would not continue the tax breaks for those in the high-income brackets,” McDonald said. “I think we have to ask those folks to sacrifice a bit for the good for the country.”
Rehberg, who voted for the tax cuts, supports extending them for all taxpayers, saying: “We shouldn’t be raising taxes on anyone. Period.”
McDonald said he likely would have voted for the financial reform bill that became law this fall, but fought for amendments. He wishes that it would have restored the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that restricted the financial activities of banks, brokerages and insurance companies. Clinton made a big mistake by approving the repeal of this law in 1999, McDonald said.
Its repeal basically turned some major banks into Las Vegas casinos with reckless investment decisions that caused the national financial crisis, McDonald said.
McDonald said he would have backed the federal stimulus law, but is unhappy that more money wasn’t targeted to help regular people. He would have liked to have seen Obama follow President Franklin Roosevelt’s example in the Great Depression by putting unemployed people to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.
If McDonald has a mantra in this campaign it’s this: “Invest in ordinary people, and you’ll realize an extraordinary return.”
McDonald condemned Rehberg for showing up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects funded by the stimulus bill that he voted against.
“In my neighborhood, that’s like branding a calf that you don’t own,” McDonald said. “It’s pathetic. If I ever show up at a ribbon cutting for something I didn’t vote for, I hope someone kicks my tail.”
Replied Rehberg: “America’s staggering debt has to be addressed. I’ve supported a few Montana projects that ended up in big bloated federal spending bills that, on the whole, I opposed.”
McDonald scoffed at what he believes is Rehberg’s newly found concern about the federal deficit after supporting the Bush tax cuts and putting two wars “on Uncle Sam’s credit card.” He compared Rehberg to a drunkard who worries about his drinking “the morning when he walks up with a hangover.”
Rehberg said he’s always supported spending reforms, including zero-based budgets and a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
Jim McGarvey, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, praised McDonald as someone who relates to working people and “is the next best thing for working families and the labor movement since (former Rep.) Pat Williams.”
“He understands working people,” McGarvey said. “By that, I mean he understands our issues as well as anyone I’ve seen run for public office. … He understands how health care is taking the country down and that it has to be fixed. He was one of the first to speak out for single-payer.”
McDonald announced his support for a single-payer, or Medicare-for-all health care system, after visiting Taiwan and learning its single-payer system costs 5 percent of that country’s gross domestic product, while the U.S. system costs 16-18 percent of the GDP.
Congress, however, gave scant consideration to the single-payer notion and instead passed the controversial health bill that is today law.
“In the final analysis, I don’t see anything in the bill that will hold down health care spending,” McDonald said.
Rehberg opposed the health care law and criticized McDonald’s support of a single-payer system as “a bad idea” that “would drive up costs and reduce quality and accessibility.”
McDonald was raised and educated in California but always dreamed of living in Montana, where he had hunted as a boy. As his trial practice became more successful, McDonald bought his first ranch in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana in 1972 and worked there during lulls in his law practice.
By 1988, he gave up his California law practice to move to Montana where he’s ranched full time since.
The McDonald family now owns the Open Spear Ranch, a spacious cattle and horse ranch in Sweet Grass County.
One of McDonald’s past legal clients may be an issue that Rehberg or the state GOP will bring up in the waning days of the campaign.
In the late 1970s, McDonald represented Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, a killer and the acting boss of the West Coast Cosa Nostra crime family. He was the highest-ranking Mafioso to ever turn state’s witnesses in the 1970s when McDonald was his attorney and one of the highest mobsters ever to cooperate with the government.
“I took a career criminal,” McDonald said. “I turned him into a government witness. I worked with (then federal prosecutor) Rudy Giuliani and I put 26 high-ranking criminals in prison.”
Replied Rehberg: “That’s certainly the version of events Dennis McDonald would like folks to believe.” But Rehberg said there are two well-researched books about the matter with facts that “directly contradict Mr. McDonald’s story.” He said Giuliani has no recollection of McDonald.
Republicans already ran TV ads about the McDonald-Fratianno link in March 2009.