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Horse Sense - Remembering Tom Judge

Horse Sense - Remembering Tom Judge

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HELENA -- Former Gov. Tom Judge was really like a Shakespearian character, a former aide recalled last week.

Judge, Montana's 17th governor who died last week at age 71, was a study in contrasts. He was a smart, strong and bold leader for Montana in many ways, yet flawed and tragic in others.

He was an activist governor who signed into law a long list of major environmental laws and a 30 percent coal severance tax. Many of these laws remain on the books, but have been watered down.

Judge was determined that the coal mining he supported would not leave eastern Montana with the environmental scars that copper mining had in Butte.

Yet on the most significant environmental issue of his time, Judge sided with utilities and against conservationists and his own natural resources director. Judge strongly backed the construction of the Colstrip 3 and 4 power plants and high-voltage transmission lines. His natural resources department recommended instead that the coal be mined and shipped by rail out of state. The plants ultimately were built.

Inspired by his wife, Carol, a former student nurse at Warm Springs, Judge greatly increased funding for the long-neglected institutions, where the mentally ill and developmentally disabled had been "warehoused."

His administration pushed through a number of important changes to help the poor, elderly and disabled. Judge was a strong supporter of increased funding for K-12 and higher education.

Judge traveled the world searching for new markets for Montana wheat and cattle.

It was an exciting era to cover, with lively public debates over the issues of the day and Montana's future. The first four years of Judge's administration enacted as many major governmental reforms as any governor had in Montana history.

Judge surrounded himself with a bunch of young idealists and political activists, along with some seasoned pros who had worked for his predecessor, Gov. Forrest H. Anderson.

A primary task facing Judge when he took office in 1973 was to implement the far-reaching Montana Constitution that voters had passed the previous year.

Yet as historian Harry Fritz pointed out, Judge was "more conservative than the times." Perhaps the most liberal Democratic legislative majorities in state history pushed through an array of changes that the Judge administration often insisted be tempered.

By 1980, it was officially over, if not by 1976. Judge's second term, like those of most Montana governors, was lackluster. Governors tend to accomplish any major changes in their first four years when they have the momentum, energy and political capital.

Many liberals and progressives who'd supported Judge in 1972 and 1976 abandoned him in 1980. That was when Judge's own lieutenant governor, Ted Schwinden, defeated him in the Democratic primary. Some of them later rued their switch after Schwinden pushed through a bill to cut the coal severance tax.

Why did Judge lose their support?

Some felt Judge had become a governor more interested in developing Montana's natural resources than protecting them.

The young reformer also had changed. Judge become far more comfortable flying off to Super Bowls, Sun Valley and Las Vegas in the private jets of industrialists, gambling moguls and energy developers.

Judge jumped at every globetrotting trip he could line up. More and more, it seemed he had become an absentee governor. Many felt Judge was simply bored with the governor's job but was running again only because he had nothing else lined up.

After the breakup of his marriage and the later divorce, Judge was a man alone and adrift. There was a haunting sadness in his eyes.

Judge had been respected as governor, if not loved and admired by Montanans. He could be kind and generous but also brusque and arrogant.

A 1972 scandal involving unreported campaign funds wouldn't go away, even though Judge insisted it was nothing more than a bookkeeping error. To deal with the criticism, Judge pushed through the law that created the political practices commissioner's office that's still in place today.

Just 38 when elected governor in 1972, Judge is the youngest person ever chosen as Montana's chief executive.

Eight years later, his political career was over. After losing to Schwinden in 1980, Judge made an ill-advised run for governor in 1988 and lost to Republican Stan Stephens. That was the start of the conservative winds that blew threw through Montana for the next 16 years.

Judge would never achieve his dream of being a U.S. senator from Montana.

Future historians, I believe, will praise many of Tom Judge's policies as visionary, even if the man himself remains something of an enigma.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is


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