Early in Steve Bullock’s career, he got some advice about what the job description should be for an elected official. The guidance has shaped his work significantly in the years since.
It came from Democratic Attorney General Joe Mazurek, who framed things outside the power struggles and maneuvering that can leave fingerprints all over state government.
“It was never about just the politics. It was actually about ‘Are you going to be able to leave things better?’ ” Bullock said in a recent interview at the governor's residence in Helena.
Bullock, at the end of two terms, leaned forward in a deep leather chair, reflective as he cataloged the work his administration has done in the name of boosting the Big Sky state.
Under his watch, Montana expanded Medicaid, connecting 90,000 adults with health insurance. Rural hospitals found stable-enough financial footing to not be at risk of closing in a pandemic.
The budget spends $175 million more annually on public K-12 schools and has a more accessible higher education system because of the the dual enrollment program.
There are more apprenticeships connecting people with better-paying jobs. A diversified economy has led to the sixth-fastest wage growth in the nation over the last decade.
The state park system is thriving and plays a major role in the Montana's $7.1 billion recreation economy.
“In most of the areas, from higher education, to overall K-12 to what I hoped to do with helping work on diversifying the economy, to the natural resources issues, most of the things that I came in saying I’d love to be able to somehow do … got done,” Bullock said.
In an interview earlier this month as Bullock and his family were in the process of moving out of their home for the last eight years, the outgoing governor said he was “in a good place” upon departing what will likely be the defining role of his life.
“Eight years in this job is probably about as much as anyone should do,” Bullock said. “You need to make sure to bring intensity and energy and excitement every single day. It always helps when you’re surrounded by really good people, which I have been for eight years. I don’t lose the sense of marvel when I still walk through the rotunda instead of just going through (the side door to the governor's office). But it is, to put it mildly, a fairly intense job.”
When Bullock won election in 2012, Democrats took all but two of the statewide seats on the ballot that year. Republicans, however, held their majority in the state Legislature, creating a division of power that characterized his entire time in office.
Being dealt a Republican-majority Legislature wasn’t necessarily a bad hand, Bullock said.
“Durable change means you have buy-in beyond just your immediate ideology or party,” Bullock said. “Because if not, you are going to just end up flipping back and forth.”
Bullock was attorney general for four years before being elected governor, and he carried into his new job a fight he started as the state's top lawyer to shine a brighter light on money spent in Montana's elections.
By his second legislative session Bullock partnered with a Republican to bring the Disclose Act, which increased transparency in election spending. He also found Republican lawmakers that, like him, were the subject of false statements spread by groups that didn't disclose their donors. The bill passed with bipartisan support — as would every following policy his administration brought that succeeded.
Also in 2015, the governor successfully worked, again with a Republican bill sponsor, to expand Medicaid in the state. Though views have softened some from the GOP on the program after four years, at the time it was a very heavy lift that required an aisle-crossing coalition.
“While I had the opportunity to help steward and guide it, they were bigger than partisan accomplishments,” Bullock said. “So from that perspective I’m somewhat optimistic that some of them, most of them actually, will survive the test of time."
There’s already efforts afoot in the upcoming legislative session to undo some of Bullock’s legacy, from a bill to eliminate the office that enforces campaign finance violations to discussions about ways to alter the Medicaid expansion program.
Even with challenges, Bullock believes the houses he built will stand long after he leaves office, mostly because he didn’t construct them alone.
“Most of those accomplishments, they were grounded in at least two things, one of which was bipartisan efforts and two of which was stakeholder buy-in was bigger than the politics of the day,” Bullock said. “So many of those things, they should stand the test of time because they weren't about me.”
That optimism extends to things like an executive order on net neutrality and campaign finance disclosures required by businesses that want state contracts.
“I would think a free and open internet’s pretty damn important, so rolling that back or rolling back our efforts on disclosure and campaign finance, those are things that are important to Montanans more than just me as an individual governor or a political party.”
An often-heard rallying cry in Montana around election time is a pledge to keep public lands in public hands. Though it’s a line heard from both Republicans and Democrats, Bullock said there was real risk over the last eight years, though never actuated, to the lands residents hike, hunt, fish and lease out for natural resource development. A leader of the lands transfer movement held a seat in the Montana state Senate for the last four sessions, he pointed out.
“It wasn’t an idle threat of what could happen to public lands,” Bullock said. “If you think of the last eight years, we had a real movement to get rid of these lands. It wasn’t just politics, it was on-the-ground efforts that we saw in our state Legislature and across the West.”
The movement has not gone mainstream, Bullock said, again in part through removing partisanship from the issue.
“It wasn’t playing defense on public lands, it was underscoring the importance of them to all of us and then starting an Office of Outdoor Recreation and making sure that people recognize that it is one of our great equalizers, so it became an economy offense,” Bullock said.
Lee Banville, a political analyst and professor at the University of Montana, said Bullock’s administration will go down in the books as a productive one able to cobble together coalitions.
“In many ways he was an able steward of the state for eight years and that’s going to be his legacy — the pragmatic policies that he could hammer out with Republicans,” Banville said.
It’s a very quick answer for Bullock when asked what he didn’t get done that troubles him most: a statewide public pre-kindergarten system.
“That’s the one I wish I’d nailed down,” Bullock said.
He was able to pass a pilot program, and used the data from that to build an argument for a permanent one, but in the governor’s final legislative session a Democratic bill was killed procedurally and a GOP proposal that also included funds for private programs was too much of a compromise and died with opposition from Bullock’s regular supporters.
While the Legislature dominates headlines, most of the governor’s time governing comes outside that 90-day mad dash every other year.
Bullock remembers, a few years into his term, a New York Times article about Montana's economy. The first paragraph is stuck in his mind nearly verbatim, about Silicon Valley getting all the credit but the “real hotbed” of entrepreneurial activities just “a few hundred miles” away in the Treasure State.
The story may not have gotten the distance between California and Montana right, but the governor said the growth achieved under his tenure is real, and reaches beyond just Bozeman to companies like SoFi in Helena and ClassPass in Missoula.
Some of his initiatives that led to those successes, like the Main Street Montana program followed by Main Street 2.0, were ideas Bullock had before entering office. Other approaches were developed over time, from calls with business leaders asking what else they needed.
“At the higher level, pre-pandemic (this was) probably the longest period or greatest period of economic growth in certainly our lifetime,” Bullock said.
On his way out the door, Bullock said he believes he’s left the next Legislature and governor an economy and budget that’s more diversified than ever, and because of that “if they don’t mess it up, the tools to continue stability in both government and our economy. And that’s even at the tail end of the biggest public health crisis and economic crisis we faced in a century.”
While just 10 months out of his eight years as governor were consumed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, odds are it's the thing most Montanans will think about when Bullock's name enters the conversation, at least for the near future.
From a month-long stay-at-home order, to a mask mandate and shaping how $1.25 billion in federal aid was distributed, 2020 has been the time when Bullock has had perhaps the most power to act unilaterally with the highest-stakes outcomes for Montana. To say his decisions were a matter of life and death, and of economic survival, isn’t hyperbole.
“The approach was always,” Bullock said before one of the longest pauses of the interview. “ … You’re dealing with the biggest public health crisis we’ve had in a century and the biggest economic crisis, and step one was always actually talking to the public health experts about what should we be doing.”
Every night, Bullock saw the number of new cases recorded that day. He also got the updated death tally. While many Montanans followed public health precautions and did all they could to care for one another through the pandemic, the magnitude of the situation never left Bullock.
“The gravity of that, knowing that there are additional things that could be done collectively, is something a bit unique to this role,” Bullock said. “ … Both the fatigue and the lack of national leadership made it that much more difficult, for sure.”
Yet even as the year was almost entirely consumed by the pandemic, the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council finished up its work. The forest management plan was completed. The Climate Solutions Council came up with 40 or 50 recommendations with unanimous support. Apprenticeships across the state increased.
“We were certainly able to walk and chew gum along the way,” Bullock said. Still, a brewery tour got called off and Bullock missed his first trip to Yaak and the Dirty Shame Saloon.
Bullock said he’s handing off to the next administration capacities like the ability to set up a testing location anywhere in the state within four days.
“It’s all almost plug-and-play, with the stuff that we’re wearing, with the start of a vaccination plan. ... While there will be new challenges, we had to create them out of whole cloth over the last nine months and that basic infrastructure and the systems are there ready to go,” Bullock said.
Bullock will also be remembered for another period of months, when he ran for president from May to December 2019. The governor traveled aggressively to key primary states, honed a stump speech built from his accomplishments in Montana, and painted himself as a problem-solver from a western state that President Donald Trump won by 20 points. Still, he failed to emerge from a crowded field and never gained traction in the polls used as gateways to the primary debate stage.
Montana's Steve Bullock announced early Tuesday morning that he is running for president in the upcoming 2020 election.
Asked if he had it all to do over again, would he run for president, Bullock paused for several beats before saying “yeah.”
“I thought that I had something unique to offer in as much as a time of great divides,” Bullock said. “You could do a thousand ‘what-ifs,’ like what if you had gotten in five months earlier, right? And who cares? … I think we are still a state and a country with deep, deep divides. I would have rather tried to include my voice than always sitting back and saying maybe I could have helped bridge some of those divides."
Democratic presidential candidate and Montana governor Steve Bullock campaigns in Sioux City Monday, June 10, 2019, at Bob Roe's Point After r…
During that presidential bid, Bullock denied again, and again, and again, that he would at some point run against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in this fall’s election. But that’s exactly what he ended up doing on the last day possible to get on the ballot, saying it was his family who convinced him.
Though seen as Democrats’ best chance against Daines, Bullock lost the race by 10 points. Republicans took every statewide office on the ballot, all but one by double-digits, giving the party what it’s calling a “mandate” from voters and raising questions about Montana’s future reputation as a state where Republicans reliably win the presidential race but Democrats can find success.
To Bullock, this year doesn’t mark a watershed change in the state’s electorate. Instead, he sees a fluke in a pandemic that opened the door for the GOP to nationalize the race and make it about a nation's fear and not Montana's future.
“This was a weird, you know, understatement of the times, a weird year,” Bullock said. “You had a pandemic. … Without regard to me running for Senate, I did one Rotary (meeting) and that was by Zoom. It’s easier to typecast or nationalize things when you’re actually not seeing others in the communities.”
There’s solace to Bullock in looking back to his first election as governor, when Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, who is also termed out in January, was the only Republican among the five statewide elected offices.
“There was a lot of talk about ‘Republicans are wiped out,’” Bullock said. “Or go way back when (Republican former Gov.) Judy Martz beat (Democratic governor candidate and former state auditor) Mark O’Keefe in 2000, it was like ‘This is a sea-change event.’ … It’s a long way to say I’m not sure what 2020 means, if it’s an aberration or a very divided time in a global pandemic. I’m not sure it’ll be much more than that.”
That doesn't mean Democrats don't have work to do, Bullock said.
“They need to make the connection that government doesn't do everything, but it has an impact in your life, and that’s from education to health care to helping make sure the economy’s going in the right direction,” Bullock said. “And it was a difficult year to do so because it was a year of Zooms and drive-ins and not direct connections necessarily with individuals.”
What his role in that effort will be isn't clear. Nor is what he'll do next. Bullock said he’s been approached by a few different universities to teach a seminar for a semester.
“I haven’t given enough thought to what happens Jan. 5 to really know what that might be,” Bullock said. “I want to take some time and decide what I want the next chapter to be. It’ll be in Montana.”