Our system misses three great men
Mike Mansfield would have been 112 St. Patrick’s Day. Our political system misses him. Mike’s unifying and fair approach to leadership resulted in the enactment by Congress of a galaxy of major and far-reaching legislation. He led at a time of turbulence and division. Symbolic of his great place in his time, with the whole nation watching, Montana’s Mike Mansfield, once a “mucker” in the Butte mines, delivered a movingly eloquent eulogy over the casket of President Kennedy, in the Capitol rotunda, on November 24, 1963.
Two Montana leaders of Mansfield’s era, like him, stand out as men of great character. Both from Eastern Montana, elder statesmen now, and with birthdays this spring, “Big Ed” Smith will soon be 95, Jim Lucas, 88.
Smith is big in both stature and integrity. His courageous leadership resulted in the “territorial integrity” legislation which provided a lasting settlement in what had been a long and fierce territorial dispute between rural electric co-operatives and investor-owned utility companies. I personally witnessed then State Representative Ed Smith being threatened by a utility company lobbyist who told him that the company “will ruin you both politically and personally” if Ed offered an amendment favored by the co-ops to the territorial bill. Six-five and well proportioned, Ed coolly looked his antagonist straight in the eye and dared him to try.
The territorial disputes weren’t a problem in my area, and I had no opinion on the matter until I heard the threat. Then I had an opinion. Montana Power Company wielded too much power in Montana back then. Ed’s amendment prevailed by one vote, but its significance was far greater than the passage of the amendment. It signaled the end of the corporate domination over the Montana legislature that had extended back to the time of the Copper Kings. I’ve always enjoyed believing that the vote that enabled Big Ed to help restore power to the people of Montana, was mine.
Ed Smith went on to be the Republican candidate for Governor in 1972. He lost, but carried his home county with 85 percent of the vote. Independent to the core, “Big Ed” Smith was the embodiment of the rugged individual. Present day independent thinking State Senator Duane Ankney very much reminds me of Ed.
Jim Lucas was Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives in 1971 when I began my service there. The young Miles City lawyer was a beautifully articulate communicator. Jim’s brilliant mind and natural charm combined to make him a truly great legislator. Unlike Ed Smith, though, Jim Lucas was an advocate of tax reform including a sales tax. Jim argued that this tax would hold property and income taxes down, and put education on a more adequate and equalized source of funding. Montana voters didn’t agree, however, and respecting that, Jim quietly withdrew from politics.
Lucas was the leader of the regular Republicans of his day. He was a gallant defender of eastern Montana coal development as it was just beginning. His debate on coal with Great Falls lawyer and Representative John Hall is considered by those of us who saw it as probably the greatest legislative debate of our time. The bright young lawyer and present day Speaker of the House, Austin Knudsen, reminds me of Jim Lucas.
I knew Mansfield, Smith and Lucas. There was a natural greatness about them. What came across from each was character. Not gamesmen or ideologues, their influence came from the respect they earned. They maintained it by using it honorably to achieve strictly positive results. Our system misses each of them.
Bob Brown is former MT Secretary of State and Senate President.