HELENA – On a mostly party-line vote of 26-23, the Montana Senate on Thursday refused to confirm former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams as a member of the state Board of Regents.
The tally showed 26 Republicans and no Democrats voting against the former Democratic congressman’s confirmation. All 21 Senate Democrats and two Republicans – Sens. Dee Brown of Hungry Horse and Jim Peterson of Buffalo – supported Williams. One other Republican senator was absent.
Williams had come under attack for his use of the word “thugs” in an interview with the New York Times to describe certain members of the University of Montana football team. Williams said he was referring to only a half-dozen student-athletes charged with assault, burglary, rape and other crimes. But others said Williams failed to make that distinction.
On Thursday, Williams sent a letter, distributed to senators, apologizing that his comments about some UM football players “were so easily taken out of context.”
Senators said they had received several thousand messages from Montanans for or against Williams’ confirmation.
Williams has served on the Board of Regents for the past year. Then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed him to a term expiring Feb. 1, 2019, but it required Senate confirmation.
After the vote, Williams said, “I am disappointed in the partisan nature of the Senate vote. But I am not surprised that the same Senate, which voted today to legalize and encourage our students to pack heat on our college campuses, does not want me as a member of the Board of Regents." (See sidebar for Williams' full comments.)
Afterward, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statement praising Williams.
“Pat Williams is an outstanding Montanan who has done incredible things for our state and for higher education across the country,” Bullock said. “I’m proud to call him my friend.”
With tension in the air, the Senate debated for about a half-hour whether to confirm Williams.
Peterson, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, presented Williams’ nomination, saying, “I think it’s probable and possible that there’s no man better qualified for this post.”
Williams is a former K-12 classroom teacher who taught at the University of Montana after he retired from Congress, where he served nine terms. As a congressman, he chaired the U.S. House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education and Labor Management.
But Peterson, alluding to Williams’ “thug” comment, added: “This is a classic example of why God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.”
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, praised Williams’ long work on behalf of American Indians.
As for Williams’ controversial comments, Windy Boy said, “Shoot, if I was judged for all things I’ve said on the Senate floor, I wouldn’t even be standing here.”
Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, said he’s known Williams for 40 years and has had great admiration for his long service to the state of Montana. But Lewis said he couldn’t believe Williams as a regent made the “thug” comment, published in the New York Times and picked up by local media, when a jury was being selected in the rape trial of UM quarterback Jordan Johnson. A jury found Johnson not guilty.
“That showed to me that he was not thinking clearly or he would not have said that,” Lewis said. “That’s not acting in the way we’d expect a regent to act. I think it’s time to make a change.”
At the committee hearing last month, Williams said he was interviewed for the New York Times story weeks before it ran, and he had no idea when the story would be published.
Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, said Williams had spent a career working on behalf of children and students and their families in Montana and was eminently qualified to serve on the regents.
“His commitment to the university system is deep, it’s genuine, it’s unwavering,” Phillips said. “I don’t think anyone would doubt that … Throughout his distinguished career, Pat has always talked straight. He challenges assumptions and authority when needed and always strives to speak the truth.”
Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, said the critical event for him was when Williams’ former congressional chief of staff, Jim Foley, opposed his former employer’s confirmation.
“When the former chief of staff for Pat Williams came up here and testified against Pat Williams, that to me was the telling statement,” Brenden said. “People he was affiliated with are saying no.”
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, defended Williams, calling him a “staunch supporter” of UM athletics and saying there’s “no greater football fan than he.”
He said Williams’ comments were taken out of context but did cause pain. Williams sincerely regrets the damage his comments caused, Sesso said.
“We’ve got a guy who has stood up for all of us in this room, all of us in the state so many times,” Sesso said. “I cannot think of a better person to have on the Board of Regents to stand up for education, to ask the hard questions and to be a great representative of a team that has to lead our university forward.”