This past week, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced the end of an era. After 40 years in Congress, he will not seek re-election.
The announcement leaves plenty of time for Baucus to wrap up his legislative work. It also leaves plenty of time for his supporters and critics to look back over a long and storied career.
But if Montanans had to pick only one thing – a single issue that exemplifies both the politician Baucus is and the kind of politician we hope will fill his seat in Jan. 1, 2015 – it would have to be Libby.
Yes, Libby, the little northwestern Montana town of fewer than 3,000 souls that once was home to a vermiculate mine that employed many local residents. Libby, which over several decades has watched hundreds of its people die of asbestos-related diseases, with hundreds more sickened. Libby, which refused to suffer in silence and instead fought for justice until justice was won.
Baucus has been one of Libby’s most steadfast champions. In the late 1990s, he began calling for government resources to conduct asbestos testing and provide medical care to Libby residents. By January 2000, he was pledging to “use all the resources of my office to provide help and funding to protect the health and well-being of Libby residents.” He also declared that he wanted to hear from Libby residents themselves “about what they want and need.”
That same year, he met Les Skramstad in person for the first time at a meeting in the home of Gayla Benefield that included some two-dozen Libby residents struck with asbestos-related illness. Skramstad, a former Libby mine worker, was another of the town’s champions. For Baucus, the meeting would be the first of many personal visits to hear directly from the people of Libby.
These were no mere photo-ops, either. Baucus often arrived before the reporters and stayed after they left. As often as he met in public with asbestos victims, he respected their often frail health and would meet with them in private too. And he used what he heard to move the most powerful government on earth to come to their aid.
Seven years after his first personal encounter with Les Skramstad, Baucus remembered that first meeting on the floor of the U.S. Senate: “ ... although I had read the reports and briefing papers on the situation, that was the first time I had seen asbestos exposure up close. And, Mr. President, it was gut-wrenching. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Baucus recounted this meeting in memory of his friend, Les Skramstad, who died in January 2007 of an asbestos-related cancer. And he told this story in order to underscore the continued need to bring aid to Libby.
“We will keep fighting for Les and for Libby,” Baucus told his fellow members of Congress. “Les passing only furthers my resolve to try harder. To do more. We won’t let up. We will not stop. When I get tired, I think of Les. And I can’t shake what he asked me to do. In all of my years as an elected official, helping Libby is among the most personally compelling things I’ve ever been called on to do.”
Baucus often invoked Skramstad’s name as he went about fulfilling his promise to Libby. He pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct health studies and risk assessments. He pushed EPA administrators to make personal visits to the town and meet with its people. And he pushed the EPA to declare a public health emergency in Libby – which it finally did in 2009, the first such declaration ever made in the United States.
All this pushing resulted in millions of dollars in federal funding for medical care and asbestos cleanup. Today, more than 1 million tons of contaminated material has been removed from the town, and patients can visit the newly revamped Center for Asbestos Related Disease clinic.
Baucus, too, made a visit to the new CARD clinic last year. He was, after all, largely responsible for helping to secure federal appropriations for the clinic.
He was also directly responsible for a provision included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – which, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he helped write and drum up enough support to see it passed. This provision authorized a range of federal health care benefits for those with asbestos-related disease in Libby, including extending Medicare coverage to all Libby residents diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness.
Now, Baucus says he is looking forward to coming home. “Home” is Montana.
And whomever Montana picks to take Baucus’ place in Washington, D.C., we hope that person carries on the Montana spirit Baucus has demonstrated in his long, arduous and ultimately successful fight for Libby.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen