HELENA - During the frenetic moments of that pressure cooker known as the Montana Legislature, a plain-speaking lawyer has guided lawmakers through partisan stalemates over rules and legal entanglements over bills with his wise advice.
Now Greg Petesch is retiring as of July 2. He worked 31 years as a legislative lawyer, including the past 26 years as the Legislature's chief attorney and code commissioner. It's estimated he worked with about 1,500 lawmakers over that period.
His name may not be widely known outside of Helena, except in legal and political circles. But inside the Capitol, Petesch arguably has been the most powerful, influential and respected legislative staffer over the past three decades.
When a lawmaker would tell his colleagues, "The code commissioner says we can do this," that amounted to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Petesch earned the respect of members of both political parties because he played no favorites and called the legal issues as he saw them. Legislators quickly learned if they sought his legal advice, they would get his often-blunt opinion, regardless of whether it was the advice they hoped to hear.
Legislators soon realized that Petesch was usually right.
"He's a great intellect and has been around the process so long, he pretty much had the understanding of the whole codes in his mind," said Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City. "I always thought he did good work and did it good and fast. You didn't have to wait two hours for him to look it up."
Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, called Petesch "almost irreplaceable."
Williams praised Petesch's professionalism, saying: "He did it in a way that was always extremely fair and even-handed. Everybody from both parties had terrific confidence in whatever his decisions happened to be."
Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said Petesch earned the respect of legislators for several reasons: "He did his homework. He didn't pick favorites. He always maintained his integrity. He really worked hard."
Then, she said, there was Petesch's wit. His humor broke up many tense situations at the Legislature.
Petesch's influence expanded greatly after voters in 1992 passed a constitutional initiative to limit the terms of legislators. They now can serve in one chamber for only eight out of every 16 years, instead of for decades.
"I think as the staff matured as the Legislature became more inexperienced, Greg did have more authority," Story said. "He was kind of the final authority on a lot of issues. If he said that wasn't a good plan on a legal basis, he'd tell you that and encourage you to look in different direction."
Both Senate leaders praised Petesch's role in standing up for the legislative branch's equal constitutional authority to that of the executive and judicial branches. However, the Legislature meets only 90 days every two years here, while the other two branches operate year-round.
"He was kind of the main force, I believe, in pushing for the power of the Legislature in relation to the executive branch and the judiciary," Story said. "He understood that very well, which many legislators do not. It's supposed to be an equal relationship and it's not."
"He came along at a time when governors and executives of other departments had an enormous amount of authority," Williams said "He was an advocate for the Legislature being involved in decisions and hanging onto the constitutional role of the Legislature. It's the branch that's closest to the people."
Those voices of the people wouldn't get heard, she said, without Petesch and others "demanding always that the constitutional role of the Legislature is upheld."
It was Williams, an avid New York Yankees' baseball fan, who found a legislative committee's perfect going away gift for Petesch, an equally fervent Boston Red Sox fan. Williams bought it from a New York dealer who looks out for Yankee's memorabilia for her and was stunned that she wanted something commemorating the hated Red Sox.
"I saw a picture of Curt Schilling doing that awful fist pump," Williams said. "I remember it well."
Pitching in pain, Schilling pumped his fist after winning the second game of the 2004 World Series. His Red Sox went on to capture their first world championship since 1918.
"I thought it showed how Greg might have felt going out of the Capitol after he retired," Williams said.
Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Missoulian State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at email@example.com.