Evan Barrett

Much has been written about the appointment of John Walsh to the U.S. Senate, including comparisons to Montana’s earlier Senate appointments.

It’s interesting to look at the actual historical facts of the earlier situations.

Most recently, 36 years ago, Paul Hatfield, Montana’s new Supreme Court Chief Justice, was appointed by Gov. Tom Judge to replace Sen. Lee Metcalf, who had passed away. I recall this process well, having been an aide to the governor and a friend of Hatfield.

Believing he had electoral strength, Hatfield naively accepted the appointment though then-Congressman Max Baucus had been actively preparing a run for Metcalf’s seat, as the senator had been clear that he would not run again. As a result, Hatfield was only in the Senate for a little over four months before Baucus overwhelmed him in the primary election by more than a 3-to-1 margin.

The appointment before that was more nefarious. In 1933, when Sen. Thomas Walsh unexpectedly died on a train to Washington, D.C., to become President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attorney general, Gov. John Erickson was just beginning his third term, the only Montanan elected governor three times. Erickson ambitiously seized the opportunity, resigned the governorship and got his lieutenant governor to appoint him to the open Senate seat, though Erickson only held it for two years.

However, the earlier saga of Montana Copper King W.A. Clark’s naked ambition for money and power, including five separate tries for a U.S. Senate seat, is a true Montana melodrama.

Right after Montana became a state, its first Legislature did not actually convene, but the Democrats and Republicans each separately “elected” two senators. W.A. Clark was one of the Democrats so “elected” but when he presented his credentials to the U.S. Senate in January 1890, the Senate, controlled by Republicans, turned him down and seated the two Republicans.

Clark’s second unsuccessful attempt came when Montana’s third Legislature refused to support him because of his feud with Marcus Daly, and no one was selected. Governor John Rickards then appointed Lee Mantle, a Republican, but the U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, refused to seat Mantle, leaving Montana without a senator for two years.

Clark’s third go at getting to the Senate was in the sixth Legislature, an effort that featured the outright bribery so well-documented in Montana history books. But after taking the Senate seat, four months later on May 15, 1900, Clark resigned while a vote was pending on a resolution to remove him from office because of the blatant bribery.

But Clark’s “resignation” was not really a capitulation. Clark forces in Montana had concocted a scheme that drew Gov. Robert Smith to California. While he was gone, the lieutenant governor, a Clark ally, appointed Clark to the open seat that had been created by his own resignation – and did so on the very same day that Clark had resigned.

When the governor heard what happened he immediately returned to Montana and rescinded the Clark appointment. Thus Clark’s fourth attempt to get a Senate seat failed. Governor Smith then named a different Democrat to the Senate seat, but the Senate declined to seat him, again creating a vacancy in the Montana U.S. Senate delegation that lasted for a year.

The seventh Legislature finally elected Clark to a six-year Senate term in 1901, in his fifth attempt; this time successful because, among other things, his Copper King rival Marcus Daly had died. According to noted Professor Ellis Waldron, “the Legislature again elected William A. Clark to the U.S. Senate and he served an undistinguished term that satisfied his political ambitions.”

The Clark quest was quite the Montana melodrama. Notwithstanding the dramatic storyline, I suspect it was never made into a movie because there was no happy or heroic ending. Essentially, the villain of the piece finally got what he wanted.

Now, these events at the turn of the 20th century were some real shenanigans regarding U.S. Senate appointments here in Montana.

To me, there is a huge difference between the naked ambition for power of Clark or the nefarious ambition of Erickson and the 32 years of public service by Walsh before he became a senator, including leading our National Guard in battle overseas. Any suggestions of similarity are unfair to Walsh, historically inaccurate and probably politically motivated. Historical facts are stubborn things.

Evan Barrett, of Butte, is currently the director of Business & Community Outreach and an instructor at Highlands College of Montana Tech. These are his personal views. Much of the historical information comes from the Ellis Waldron/Paul Wilson book, “Atlas of Montana Elections, 1889-1976.”

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