Sen. Jon Tester says ‘putting folks back to work’ is priority

Montana’s senior Senator focuses on infrastructure, public lands and economy in Q&A

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, says he believes that there are some issues a Republican Senate and Democratic White House can agree on, such as infrastructure. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

After a year many would like to forget, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is among those optimistic about 2021.

Speaking from Washington, D.C., in mid-December, Montana’s senior senator in a one-on-one phone interview with the Daily Montanan discussed his hopes for how a closely divided Senate can work with President-elect Joe Biden. 

He also talked about balancing industry with the environment and what Democrats must do to compete in rural states again.

Despite the partisanship that has defined Congress in recent years, Tester, a Democrat, said there are plenty of issues that unite members of Congress. A Biden administration could successfully move an ambitious infrastructure agenda even if Republicans hang on to the Senate by winning at least one runoff election in Georgia this month, he said.

If Democrats and a Republican Senate majority can’t find common ground, though, his party must figure out how it can stay relevant and keep the government operating, he said.

One of few Democrats from rural states left in Congress, Tester said his party should stay away from divisive social issues and the positions activists on the left pushed this year, including defunding the police. 

Democrats running in 2020 didn’t distance themselves from “all that garbage,” allowing Republicans to paint them as out of touch, he said. To win back states like Montana, Tester said his party should focus on “kitchen table issues” like education and jobs.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Daily Montanan: After recess, when you all get back, what’s your focus going to be? What are your priorities going to be?

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester: I think it still needs to be on putting folks back to work. Be sure we got a small business economy that’s going to be able to survive and get through this pandemic. This pandemic’s not going to be done with, economically, until well after next summer. 

The economy is going to recover as people get vaccinated. And the quicker the vaccinations happen, the quicker the economic recovery. But it is going to lag behind vaccinations. There’s no doubt about that.

So, making sure that folks get back to work, making sure that our schools are able to continue to educate K-16 (through college) in particular, making sure that vaccines are getting out the door because it’s going to be four, five, six months. That’s a start, where I think everybody’s priorities should be. Making sure we get our economy back on track should be our number one thing that we do.

I can tell you on a personal basis, I’ve got — talking about public lands — my Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act I think is a good bill because it’s got all three, or four, legs of the stool.

I’m going to be working on trying to do something for affordable/workforce housing. I’m looking forward to my conversation with [U.S. Rep.] Marcia Fudge here, probably later this week … who’s going to be the next secretary of HUD.

DM: Obviously, there will be a new president. We don’t know yet what the Senate will look like but I’m kind of under the working assumption that Sen. [Mitch] McConnell will still be the majority leader. If that’s true, my next assumption is that Majority Leader McConnell will not want to confirm Biden judges all day every day. So what does the Senate do next year? How do things look differently with a new administration in town?

JT: It’s kind of like the first day of baseball season, Jacob. I’m full of hope and optimism. If Mitch doesn’t let the judges get confirmed, then we’re going to have to do something about that. Quite frankly, we’ve got to figure out what we’ve got to do. I don’t think we can sit back and let that happen.

I’ve watched Mitch pump judge by judge by judge through the Senate. Hell, in the lame duck, it hasn’t stopped and that’s very unusual to have these guys work during the lame duck.

And then to hear President [Donald] Trump tell President-elect Biden now in one of the debates, ‘Jeez, you left 300 judges on the table, shame on you.’ Well it was done because of what’s going on in the Senate right now—very partisan.

So I don’t know, I’m going to hope Mitch puts the judges through. I guarantee you that there’ll be some good judges we should get a chance to vote on. And if he doesn’t, I don’t know what our options are, but we can’t sit back and just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to let the system lock down, we’re not going to do our jobs as U.S. senators.’

DM: Well, in the minority what options do you have? You can’t change the rules, right?

JT: As far as I’m concerned, we can stay here 24/7. Every day, every night, have votes till hell freezes over. I don’t know what our options are but we’ve got to have some [inaudible] in the minority. We’ve got to.

DM: Are there policies that a Republican Senate and Democratic White House can agree on?

JT: Heck yes. Take a look at infrastructure, for example. That absolutely can happen. And it needs to happen, by the way. And Joe being a product of the Senate, I think that folks in the Senate will be able to be behind some of these things if we can get them to the floor.

I think making sure that we have good public lands issues, especially when it comes to things like good restoration policies in our national forests. I think there’s a lot of things out there that we can work together to get done that would help with wildfires, it would help with getting folks back to work, it would help with habitat. All of those things are important.

I think there’s a lot of things out there that we can work together on moving forward, as long as we keep politics out and keep the American people as number one. Work to make small businesses as vibrant as they can be. So yeah, I think there’s a bunch of stuff.

DM: So speaking of public lands, I want to ask if there are specific issues you think will come up? Great American Outdoors Act implementation, Land and Water Conservation Fund funding, National Parks backlog—I know that’s important for Montanans. Sorry I just kind of answered my own question there but what do you think?

 JT: Well, but you’re right. The Land and Water Conservation being fully funded and mandatorily funded and we saw [Bureau of Land Management acting Director William Perry] Pendley try and screw it up but I think the next secretary of the Interior, whoever that is, will be able to fix that.

I think making sure that that’s done the way Congress intended is good. Making sure we have confirmed people in these agencies is really important. And I say that because you have Pendley in Interior for a position way, way, way past what the law allows.

I think that there’s a lot of things on our public lands. I mean, you mentioned the parks. Parks are very important. There’s a lot of deferred maintenance in the parks, but we can deal with it, some forward-looking stuff in transportation in particular that because we passed that Great American Outdoors Act we’ll be able to get done.

Like I said, we’ve got the Blackfoot Clearwater bill that I think is a great bill and we should be able to push that forward. I’ve got Montana Headwaters Legacy Act that is a possibility to try to get done.

So there’s a number of things I think we can do with our public lands – help improve access, help improve the experience in our public lands.

DM: You mentioned that parks backlog. One estimate I saw said it was a $12 billion maintenance backlog. How do we start to fix that?

JT: You do it just like anything: You get each park superintendent to come in with a list of things they want to see done and you get folks together in leadership and you prioritize, and you go to work and do it. And you try to depoliticize it as much as possible. Go where the demand is and start rebuilding infrastructure. You got to walk before you can run and that’s the first step.

 DM: Is there a way to get Congress or Washington, D.C., generally to prioritize this more? To care about this?

 JT: I think the challenge in the parks is the same challenge that you have with infrastructure overall. That is, I haven’t heard a peep about debt over the last four, five, six years. You’re going to hear debt being talked about every step of the way. And all I will tell you is you have to make the investment if you’re going to get the dividend when it comes to infrastructure.

So whether it’s taking care of our National Park infrastructure, whether it’s broadband infrastructure, whether it’s highways, bridges, water, sewer, whatever it might be, you have to make that investment if you’re going to keep that economy moving forward.

That’s how you get people to buy in, is you get them to buy in by showing them what the need is.

And if you don’t invest in this stuff, if you don’t invest in infrastructure it goes to hell. And then you’ve got nothing, then you’ve got no economy, then you become a third-world country.

DM: What do you think of what you’ve seen from President-elect Biden and his team so far on these issues?

JT: I think he’s doing his due diligence. Denis McDonough — I serve as ranking remember of Veterans’ Affairs. Denis McDonough has been put forth as secretary for the VA. Denis got ahold of me, we had a nice visit. We’re going to visit some more in depth this week, I hope. Hopefully the schedules work out so we can do it.

I think he’s been doing good.

DM: How’d that conversation go?

JT: I knew Denis when he was chief of staff for President [Barack] Obama, so I had the chance to [inaudible] a few times then.

I think he’s a good guy and certainly got plenty of smarts to do this job. We’re going to be talking to him about how he’s going to put veterans front and center and how he’s going to deal with electronic health records and that roll out and what he’s going to do with the presumptives that we just passed with the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act]. So there’s going to be a lot to talk to him about. But in the end, I think he can do the job and I think he can do it well. 

If he gets confirmed, we’ll be pushing him to do things right and we’ll be holding him accountable and I told him that and he agreed that’s what we need to do.

DM: In kind of a campaign vein here, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve seen a trend where the parties are shifting more along urban-rural lines. Even in a state like Montana that has not been as ruby red as some of its neighbors, your party did pretty poorly this cycle. I’m not breaking any news there. But what do you attribute that to?

JT: Well, I mean, there’s a lot of things I can attribute it to. I can go down the nuts and bolts and talk about how the polling was off so there was no opportunity to really determine what was going on. I can talk about the pandemic not leading Democrats to get out as much because they were concerned about the pandemic, and rightfully so.

But in the end, I will tell you, I don’t think we talked enough about what we believe in, and that’s jobs, public education, making sure we have affordable education, higher education. I just don’t think we did a good job of talking about those issues. And those were overshadowed by things like socialism, defunding the police and all that garbage.

So, I just don’t think we got our message out and I think that was a killer. And combine that with the fact that we weren’t able to get out and meet with people one-on-one. I mean, I haven’t had a public meeting now probably for a year, and it’s all because of COVID.

And I will tell you what Gov. [Ted] Schwinden told me, governor in the ‘80s. He said, ‘By the time you want to run a statewide race, you will look in the eye or shake the hands of everybody who’s going to vote for you or against you.’ And I believe that. And we weren’t able to do that and I think it hurt us badly.

DM: So how do you fix that for next time?

JT: Well, hopefully the pandemic will be long gone by 2022. And then we need to talk about the kitchen table issues that are front and center. We need to do a better job of that.

DM: Do you think Democrats were talking too much about defunding the police and some of these other issues?

JT: I think the Republicans were able to blow that issue up. By the way, I don’t know of anybody back here [in the Senate] who wants to defund the police. I don’t work on the House side. But on the Senate side, I don’t know of anybody who wants to defund the police, none.

And they were able to take that and blow it up and nationalize these races. Even the local races, they nationalized. We didn’t speak up loud enough, quite frankly, as Democrats, and call [bull—-] on this stuff. We needed to do that.

DM: At the same time, I think there is some energy in the party, among younger voters and the left who are kind of enthusiastic about these things and maybe are becoming politically involved after the George Floyd killing and things like that. Is there a —  

JT: I think there’s a big difference between defunding the police and accountability. And I’m going to tell you, most places in Montana, we need more policemen, we don’t need less. And we need good ones. But [all of this] comes with training and making sure that local governments have the dollars available to get these policemen out there and get them trained so they know what they’re doing.

And we’re talking about a very, very small percentage that are the ones that aren’t acting appropriately. So, I just don’t think it’s that huge of a thing. I can tell you that where we have our most poverty, which is Indian Country, we need more policemen. I can tell you that there isn’t a county sheriff out there who probably wouldn’t like to have a few more feet on the street.

And so we need to work to make that kind of stuff happen. And then we do big work also to make sure that folks are accountable. It’s no different than a bad doctor. A bad doctor gives all doctors a bad name. A rogue policeman, they give all policemen a bad name.

These folks put it on the line every day. We need to recognize that. We need to support them and hold the ones accountable that aren’t doing the job.

DM: I’ll make this my last question: I’m kind of looking at the tension between the need for conservation and the natural beauty of a place like Montana and the extractive industries like coal and forestry and others that contribute a lot to the economy. What’s your approach to pay attention to both those things and trying to improve them? 

JT: When it comes to forestry, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think you can utilize good forest practices and build better experiences on your public lands, better habitat, cleaner water.

When it comes to open-pit mining, there are some places that you shouldn’t mine, I’m telling you. And there are other places that it’s just fine. And you have to be aware of watersheds, and you have to be aware of wildlife…

You take a look at the mine down in Columbus. That mine is a marvelous mine. It’s in pretty damn wild land. They do a great job. It’s through a discharge and they do a marvelous job. So you can do both, but you have to do it right.

So I would say the open-pit ones, that’s a different story. That’s pretty tough to make it work. All you got to do is take a look at Butte. That’ll tell you that you can create a lot of challenges and the taxpayer has to pay for the cleanup. The company, they declare bankruptcy and leave the taxpayer on the hook. They made all the money, we paid all the expenses.

So you just got to make sure you do it right up front. I think that good forest practices that put folks to work in the woods with a chainsaw, if it’s done right —and by the way, we’re doing it right. This ain’t the 1950s anymore. And if it’s done right, you can do it.

Now, there are some places where you got old-growth forests and want to keep old-growth for the sake of old-growth, that’s fine. But there are other places we need to treat. Otherwise, the forest gets the same age and a fire comes through, wipes it out.

We need to be better at it. But, as I said, you need to make this a focus so that, once again we talk about infrastructure, this could be a focus for infrastructure.

DM: When you talk about doing things the right way, what is the right way? What does that look like?

JT: Well, clean air, clean water is where you want to start. If you’re going to sacrifice water and air for short-term profits, that’s not the right way. So you got to focus there.

And then, the Earth tells you a lot. Wildlife tells you a lot. There are plenty of mines around. There are plenty of forest management practices that we know what we’re doing and we know what the folks are who are trying to game the system, too. So you just go in there and hold people accountable and you can do it.