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Teacher-leaders carve Montana legacy

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What do Mike Mansfield, Pat Williams, Jon Tester, Bob Brown and Angela McLean have in common?

Sen. Mike Mansfield, Majority Leader longer than anyone in history, led a U.S. Senate that was arguably the most productive in U.S. history.

Congressman Pat Williams, elected a record nine straight times, recorded legislative accomplishments in many areas, including labor, education, the arts, public lands access and wilderness.

Sen. Jon Tester has a demonstrated ability to deal with contentious issues by bringing together people with strongly divergent views; he also brings Montana common sense to the dogmatic debate of Washington D.C.

Bob Brown, a 28-year state legislator and former Secretary of State, had a long record of legislative accomplishment built on across-the-aisle solution-seeking.

Angela McLean, our new lieutenant governor, chair of the Montana Board of Regents under two governors, helped freeze tuition for Montana’s students and made higher education more affordable and accessible.

What does this diverse group have in common?

All were teachers. All were educators. All inspired students before they inspired policy-makers and citizens to come together for the common good.

The recent lieutenant governor appointment of Angela McLean, a world class teacher, brings to mind the things that good teachers bring to the public arena, things that distinguish them from the everyday politician. Angela brings a bright shining light into the world of politics where darkness so often overwhelms enlightenment.

All these teachers-turned-leaders respected both their students’ minds and the voters’ intellect. They dealt in facts and sound logical ideas for voters to critically evaluate and consider — unlike so many of today’s politicians who do not enlighten their constituents but actually try to manipulate their thinking.

In today’s political world, dogma has replaced reason, beliefs have replaced facts. You don’t have to rationally justify a position if that position is divinely inspired. And those who challenge divinely inspired positions must be evil.

In today’s political world, there is no real battle of competing ideas for voter/citizens to consider. There is no way to find common ground and solutions to move ahead for the benefit of overall society. In politics, when you cannot compromise an “article of faith,” democracy cannot function.

It’s different with teacher-leaders. When facts and circumstances change, teachers ask students to re-evaluate based upon the evidence. As leaders, they may even modify their position.

Example: when Mike Mansfield, a true internationalist, observed the reality of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he was compelled to move from support for that war to opposition, even though it meant a major break with his principal benefactor and friend, President Lyndon Johnson. Compare that with today’s neo-con true believers who still try to justify the death and destruction of an Iraq war built upon a fabrication.

Pat Williams was raised in Butte where mining paychecks sustained families for generations. Economically, it was politically easy to turn a blind eye to the environmental devastation from old mining practices. But, the facts about that devastation were unchallengeable to an open mind and an observant eye. So Pat stood for human health and safety. Contrast that with the rigid right, “deniers” who unanimously condemn the EPA and any environmental and health enforcement.

Jon Tester could just as well have been guiding a class discussion when he asked long-standing opponents in the wilderness-jobs debate to confront facts and commonalities in an effort to break a multi-decade logjam that stalled both wilderness and jobs. As a teacher, he asked all parties deal with the facts, seek solutions not blame, dialogue not shouting, flexibility not stridency, to open the door for finding common ground.

Bob Brown as teacher, legislator and Secretary of State believes in a democracy with clean elections based upon factual positions — elections not tainted by dark money, elections that are validated by the vote of the broadest citizen participation. To Brown, it is the people who legitimize our democracy, a position that is in contrast to so many today who seek to limit citizen voting to give them a political advantage.

And none of these teacher-leaders followed the warped political practice of telling a lie long enough and often enough that the people begin to believe it is the truth.

Yes, teachers like Mansfield, Williams, Tester, Brown and now Angela McLean give us hope that this grand American experiment in Democracy can continue to be a guiding light to the world.

Evan Barrett, Butte, has spent the last 45 years in Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is the director of Business and Community Outreach and an instructor at Highlands College of Montana Tech. These are his personal views.


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