Former Public Service Commissioner John Driscoll filed as a Democratic candidate for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House on March 6 – the filing deadline.
He will face John Lewis, a former top aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, in the Democratic primary election on June 3.
Born in California, Driscoll grew up in Hamilton and earned master’s degrees from Columbia University, the University of Montana and Harvard University. He spent 28 years in the Army National Guard before retiring as a U.S. Army colonel. He now lives with his wife in Helena.
He served in the Montana House from 1973 to 1979, and lost bids for the U.S. Senate in 1978, 1990, 2000 and 2002. Driscoll won the 2008 Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat over Jim Hunt, but went on to lose to Denny Rehberg in the general election.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Missoulian editorial board Monday, Driscoll outlined his top priorities.
He listed public education, cleanup of the Berkeley Pit in Butte, the Malmstrom Air Force Base nuclear missile wing near Great Falls, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Bakken oilfields and partisan politics as issues foremost in his mind.
The main problem with the public education system today is a lack of appreciation for teachers, according to Driscoll.
“I really have a problem with people who are trying to take apart the public education system,” he said. “It’s not that the school system can’t be improved, but they are attacking people who are unable to defend themselves. I feel teachers need to be defended. You’ve got to put more effort into creating teachers. They are everything. You have to make it a priority. Money is important, but it’s about being appreciated. Basically, it’s just appreciating people.”
Driscoll said he plans to tour the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota to see the full extent of the environmental impacts there and to gather facts about the Keystone pipeline.
“It doesn’t have to be a national sacrifice area,” he said. “The Keystone pipeline was supposed to make us energy independent, but it seems like they’re anxious to get it to the Gulf Coast to ship it out of the country. I have a lot of questions. It seems like there’s a bandwagon effect. I’m open to moving stuff by pipeline, but I want to get some answers to my questions.”
Driscoll said he also wants to understand why nine officers were recently removed from their posts at Malmstrom after a cheating scandal was revealed in the U.S. nuclear missile program.
“My heart goes out to the people that have to go into silos every day and their families,” he said. “That’s a tough job. I’ve never been a big fan of nuclear missiles. As far as nuclear storage, we need to get an environmental impact statement made.”
Driscoll said he has a lot of family from Butte and considers cleaning up the Berkeley Pit, the former open-pit copper mine that is now a heavily polluted Superfund site, a priority.
“It’s time to deal with the Berkeley Pit,” he said. “There needs to be some leadership there. All the potentially responsible parties need to work together. It’s an important issue to the whole Columbia River downstream.”
Driscoll said he considered running as a Republican, but ultimately decided against it.
“I want to expand the base of the party, because how can you have a political party if there’s no people,” he explained. “What we’re talking about is two big brands, or maybe more with the tea party brand. It’s an aggregation of single issues instead of from-the-ground-up interest in how we govern ourselves. And the money that is chasing these brands does not care about representative democracy. If they can’t get their issue, it’s very obvious. I believe in preserving representative democracy and getting the debt down.”
If he is elected, Driscoll said one of the first orders of business will be to try to change the name of the Democratic Party.
“I’ll try to change the Democratic Party to the Democratic/Republican Party.” he said. “It’s time for a change. There’s been such a loss of vision on both sides. I think I have more in common with a Republican precinct committee person or a Democratic precinct committee person, the few that are left. I have more in common with their broader interests than the single-issue people. ”
Driscoll said he has been traveling to Republican events to voice his opinions on gay marriage.
“I went to eight Republican things, which caused quite a stir, because I went to see what it would be like to ask them to get rid of the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman from their party platform,” he said. “I’m trying to create the conditions for thinking people to take over their own party.”
Driscoll said he hasn’t met John Lewis, his Democratic primary opponent in the race to replace current Rep. Steve Daines, who is giving up the House seat to run for U.S. Senate.
“I haven’t met my opponent, but I saw him on television once,” Driscoll said. “He obviously has a lot of support, but I have credentials. I have college credentials, environmental credentials and a blue-collar background. I know what’s right with me. It’s not about running against somebody. I don’t agree with denigrating other candidates. It causes people to turn away.”
Still, Driscoll made it clear that he hasn’t been pleased with Daines’ job performance.
“Representative Daines seems like he’s way out there as far as the tea party goes,” he said. “People worked together to bankrupt our government. Daines is part of the problem. People want our government to work. I’ve thought about that a lot.”
Driscoll said his strength lies in quiet negotiations.
“Trying to find common ground between people is very important in a legislative environment,” he said. “You have to have credibility with voters and you have to have credibility when you get to the legislative environment.”
Driscoll said he decided against running for the U.S. Senate because of a long conversation he once had with the late Sen. Lee Metcalf, who served from 1960 to 1976.
“He felt that he had made a mistake by running for the Senate because you could get so much more done in the House,” Driscoll said. “I always remembered that.”
In 2008, Driscoll pledged to not raise or spend any money for his campaign, a pledge he kept. He said he won’t raise any donations for his primary campaign this year, but he will accept funding if he moves on to the general election.
This time around, he says he is posting every expenditure on his Facebook page so people can keep track of it themselves.
Although he’s lost four Senate bids and one U.S. House race, Driscoll is still optimistic about his chances.
“I don’t think this is a losing proposition I’m in right now,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from those experiences. I’ve never faulted anyone for continuing to persevere.”