ABOVE LEWIS AND CLARK COUNTY — As the small plane flew just north of Canyon Ferry Lake, returning to Helena after a recent Monday morning trip to Fort Belknap, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock scrolled through photos texted to him on his cellphone.
The images were of Bullock with families and officials from the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes and the trip he was returning from, to celebrate a new law that should open up health care options on reservations around the state.
A few days earlier Bullock had been on the campaign trail in Iowa, talking with a different tribe but touting the same program he was lauding on this windy day up on the Hi-Line.
He’d been in the Democratic presidential primary battleground state much of that prior week, family in tow. He went to the state fair, stood on the soapbox and in front of the butter cow, consumed fried foods and made the cable TV circuit.
He also spoke at the Wing Ding Dinner, where nearly all the candidates in the crowded primary showed up to give their stump at the major party fundraiser. He was on stage again with the majority of the field Saturday at the Everytown Gun Sense Presidential Forum.
Then he hopped a plane back to Montana’s capital city to make this early flight. And that’s how the summer has gone for the governor who is also running for the Democratic nomination for president.
The job Bullock has now is a 24/7 undertaking, something he says he learned years ago and hasn’t changed since he began his long-shot presidential bid in May.
“I tried my first year to completely disconnect from the job. That was the Fourth of July and that’s when the Capitol got shut down for (a biological threat). From that point on it’s every single day whether I’m at home or traveling,” Bullock said. “This has never been a 9-5 job. There is rarely even one day a week, and not just in the last two-and-a-half months, where there’s not some connection to the official office.”
The governor’s detractors — mainly the state Republican Party with a website that launched fundraising off Bullock's presidential bid — have been critical of his out-of-state travel.
Lee Banville, a professor and political analyist at the University of Montana, said knocking an office-holder and candidate for looking for their next job is essentially Campaigning 101.
“It’s a classic shot at a sitting public official running for another position, to accuse them of being derelict in their duty,” Banville said. “It is more of a political argument than a substance argument.”
Since Bullock announced he was running for president on May 14, he’s spent about 42 days in Montana, according to information collected by Lee Newspapers. That compares with about 21 in Iowa, with the rest of his time in states like New Hampshire and major media markets of New York City and Washington, D.C. He's also spent three days in Utah for his last meeting as head of the National Governors Association.
On the day Bullock went to Fort Belknap, the flight left a bit earlier than it normally would have, a product of trying to fit as much as possible into the limited hours of a day. As he spoke about balancing his time as governor and a candidate, Bullock divided his duties as the executive into the reactive and active.
As episodes like the removal of 27 children from a private residential treatment program accused of abuse and neglect arose while he was doing debate preparation, Bullock said he was connected each step of the way.
“I knew about every piece of that going in. I knew what was going to happen that morning. I got updates throughout,” Bullock said.
In the active category, Bullock said he is working with department directors to set objectives through the next 18 months before he leaves office. Since declaring his candidacy, he’s appointed two more District Court judges, which is a rigorous process involving hours of resume review and interviews.
“Every single nominee that’s ever been advanced to me, I want to personally interview,” Bullock said. “There’s no autopilot. Every press release that you see coming out of my office, that’s not that first time that I’ve seen it when you see it. Every letter written to a constituent under my signature, I will see it before we ever put it to paper.”
Banville said the engine of state government can generally drive along without the executive at the wheel. And things are arguably smoother in the state this summer, without a legislative session pending. It also doesn’t feel like the entire state is on fire, like it did in 2017, and agencies aren’t on the doorstep of lackluster revenues leading to $76 million in budget cuts like they were two years ago either.
While other candidates have left the campaign trail to deal with emergencies or tragedies — the recent mass shooting in El Paso drew Beto O’Rourke to his hometown, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg returned after the fatal shooting of a black man there, Bullock has had a quiet summer on the home front.
“There are times when you’re really looking for that governor, the figurehead of the state, to be doing specific things, but honestly the bureaucracy of a state runs regardless of any one individual,” Banville said. “… There are times and issues that need to be dealt with, but there are lots of opportunities for the governor to do that regardless of whether he’s physically here or he’s teleconferencing in or he’s talking on the telephone."
Bullock also has a staff in place he’s worked with for years, including Chief of Staff Ali Bovingdon, who has been with him since his days as attorney general. He said that lends stability when he is away from the office.
“Senior staff, some of them like Ali, I’ve worked with the last decade,” Bullock said. “ … And without a legislative session, I think after 6.5 years it’s going to naturally slow down some in some areas no matter what."
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The lull works for Bullock, whose campaign strategy at this point is to go all in on Iowa. He is unlikely to qualify for the September debates organized by the Democratic National Committee because of the higher threshold to make the stage.
Bullock has been sharply critical of the DNC’s handling of the debates, but his opinions don’t change the fact he probably appear in them. That leaves him with the retail politics route, which requires as much time in Iowa as he can get.
“It’s always been the case where a large field gets winnowed down by the early states,” Bullock said. “And while the debate rules sort of throw a curveball into that, traditionally that’s always been the case where those folks (in Iowa) take this very seriously. The rules are what the rules are, so I’m just going to do what I can.”
What he’s not going to do is discuss what comes after this, if he’s not the candidate to emerge from the large field.
“I don’t know. I don't know. I mean, I really don’t know,” Bullock said. “And I didn’t know what it was going to be before I got into this whole thing. To be honest, I haven’t even given that a thought,”
Already the other two governors, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, have dropped out. Hickenlooper has launched a bid for U.S. Senate. Bullock has aggressively denied rumors he may do the same.
But Banville thinks there’s still a path for his entry into the Senate race, where he’d be the presumptive primary winner and run against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.
“There is a field of candidates for the Senate nomination, but most of them don’t have particularly wide name recognition nor a substantial fundraising base. Bullock walks in with both,” Banville said.
“Although he would face a deluge of emails from Republicans seeking to raise money and pointing out he said he wasn’t going to do this and now he’s flip-flopping, he would walk into that race as a serious candidate and probably the default nominee and then a serious candidate statewide.”
Because Montana has such a late primary, Bullock’s options will remain open for some time. Candidates can file up until mid-March, meaning Bullock could stay a presidential prospect clear through Super Tuesday and still run in Montana.
Last Monday, a campaign event, the first-ever presidential form to focus solely on Native issues, ran up against one of Bullock’s firm lines in the sand for official-side business he won’t attend any other way but in person — the monthly state Land Board meeting.
“I make sure I’m physically present at every Land Board meeting,” Bullock said. And he’s missed only once as governor, having the lieutenant governor take his place.
This election cycle every member of the Land Board, of which Bullock is the only Democrat, is running for office. Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox are the only two termed out, and superintendent of public instruction Elsie Arntzen is the only one seeking re-election and not looking for a different job.
“Part of the point is everyone seems to be able to run and do multiple jobs,” said Bullock, who attended the Land Board meeting last week and video-conferenced in to the Native issues forum.
As arguably the highest-profile Democrat in the state, alongside U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Bullock said he will lend his voice and support to the party's candidates in 2020 Montana races.
“I plan on being actively involved in trying to make sure that the governor’s office and second-tier races (are won by Democrats), just like I was actively involved even in these midterms even when it came to a number of Democratic legislative races and Sen. Tester’s race,” Bullock said.
Though Bullock has shifted to the left on some of his policies, he’s solidly in the moderate column of Democrats running for president. But some of his views, like a well-publicized policy shift to support universal gun sales background checks and a ban on assault rifles, have changed since his 2016 re-election. Banville doesn’t think that’s likely to hurt any candidates he backs in the coming year, however.
“The typical set of Republican arguments against a Democrat in Montana is they’re secretly closet liberals who are far-left and pretending to be moderate,” Banville said. “They make that argument about every Democrat. Could it work? It might. That argument may resonate with more voters now than before Bullock ran for president, but I don’t think it’s going to ultimately change the dynamics of any of these races.”
One thing Bullock isn’t ready to do is start talking about the end of his term, up in January 2021. As he often says on the campaign trail, he grew up delivering papers to the governor's mansion and now he lives in it. And he’s not quite ready to move out yet.
“Even during the legislative session, media and others were starting to want to write the ending story of, you know, measuring the drapes, but my expectation is everybody that works for me, including myself, is going to run hard all the way to the end of this,” Bullock said.