HELENA - Former U. S. Rep. Ron Marlenee and state Rep. John Sinrud have formed an election-year issue advocacy group to promote the use of Montana's natural resources, protect property rights and stop "radical environmentalists."
The two Bozeman Republicans have launched Western Tradition Partnership and are soliciting money and memberships from industry and business executives.
Although the group seeks to provide good-paying mining, logging and other natural resource jobs for blue-collar workers, it also has a tie to Montana's right-to-work movement. Right-to-work laws ban the so-called "closed shop," which makes union membership a condition of employment. Unions have successfully fought efforts to pass these laws in Montana for decades.
The new group is targeting local and state issues, not national ones.
"The fact is, right now, the anti-development/anti-growth crowd controls the governor's mansion, has a razor-thin majority in the state Senate and is only one seat away from taking control of the state House," they wrote in an April 21 letter. "Not only that, but over the past few elections, the radical environmentalists have been steadily increasing their support on county and city commissions and councils all over Montana as well."
That letter, sent to 5,000 business and industry executives, said they should join the partnership because "quite simply, you and I cannot afford to ignore what's going on here in Montana." The letter added:
"When it comes to frivolous environmental lawsuits, business taxes, licensing requirements, industry and labor regulations, energy development and a host of other issues critical to Montana businesses, decisions made at the state and local level can often be more important - and more damaging - than those coming out of Washington, D.C."
Marlenee, 72, was Montana's eastern district congressman from 1977 to 1993. When Montana lost one of its two congressional seats, the conservative Marlenee lost an epic 1992 battle against U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, the liberal Democrat who represented the western district. After leaving Congress, Marlenee has lobbied for Safari Club International.
Sinrud, 40, a three-term legislator and current chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, chose not to seek re-election in 2008. He's been one of the Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's toughest critics.
Last fall, the state Board of Architecture ordered Sinrud, who owned an architectural design firm, to quit practicing architecture without a license. Sinrud, who said he never held himself out as an architect, charged that he was the victim of a political witch hunt by the Schweitzer administration because of his criticisms of the governor. Schweitzer dismissed Sinrud's charge as "delusional."
Sinrud and Marlenee formed what the Internal Revenue Service calls as a 501(c)(4) organization. It can engage in issues advocacy, but not speak out for or against candidates.
These groups typically raise an issue via television or radio ads and urge people to call their senators, representative or governor to urge them to support or oppose an issue or bill.
As a 501(c)(4), Sinrud said, "The income coming in is not taxable. It doesn't have to be disclosed."
The partnership plans to advocate on such issues as forest management, energy development, water issues and Montana's lack of coal and coal-bed methane development compared to Wyoming, he said.
"It's getting back to our roots in the state of Montana this state was created," Sinrud said. "It was created by using the treasures we have to make this state prosperous."
Marlenee said the partnership will not be affiliated with any political party, but added:
"Because we've got to move back to the basics in Montana, we've got to also move back to our conservative roots. I and others in the nation are disenfranchised. We can't allow extremists to run the country."
Marlenee said the group won't raise its money from political parties.
"Been there, done that," he said, predicting the partnership will raise money a new way: "Build it, and they will come."
It seeks to help blue-collar workers get good-paying natural resource industry jobs, Sinrud said, because "not everyone's going to be a Ph.D. or be a doctor or lawyer."
"That's the concept behind it," he said. "We've really got to help these people out. If we help these people out, we can help our state."
However, the partnership also has a link to Montana's right-to-work movement.
When asked in a telephone interview who else was helping with the Western Tradition Partnership, Sinrud mentioned Christian LeFer of Livingston.
Asked if that was the same Christian LeFer of Livingston who is executive director of Montana Citizens for Right to Work, Sinrud said, "That's a totally separate group. He's not part of the group. I'm just working with him for advice."
Montana is surrounded by right-to-work states. With unions leading the opposition, repeated efforts to enact such a law here have failed, even when Republicans have controlled the governor's office and the Legislature.
In a later interview, Sinrud said LeFer is just working as a consultant to the partnership, helping with graphics and Web design work.
Asked about the connection, LeFer said, "Yeah, I do a little graphic design work for my friends. I volunteer in my community. I do graphics for my church."
LeFer emphasized his issue is right-to-work, and he vowed to pass it in Montana.
On Jan. 16, Sinrud out sent a right-to-work mass mailing that included a letter of introduction on LeFer's behalf that asked recipients to join them in fighting "forced unionism."
Montana Democratic Party spokesman Kevin O'Brien isn't buying the partnership's denial of ties to the right-to-work movement.
"This is just another attempt by John Sinrud and Ron Marlenee and their out-of-state big-money backers to push an extreme agenda that is focused on taking rights away from Montana workers," O'Brien said. "This is a wedge issue. What they're trying to do is split environmentalist and labor."
Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a leading environmental group, hadn't heard of the partnership and questioned its need.
"It certainly looks backward and not forward," Jensen said. "Montana's environmental laws have resulted in dramatic protection of private property and improved public health for our communities and our families. Montana currently has an environmentally sensitive governor and Legislature, and at the same time, the lowest unemployment it's had, the healthiest economy for many years and a healthy state budget.
"If Sinrud and Marlenee want to take us back to the copper collar and robber barons and the days in Butte where you couldn't see the sun because of smoke and air pollution, they're going to have a tough time convincing Montanans that those days were better than today."
Don Allen is executive director of the Western Environmental Trade Association, a generally pro-development group that includes both industries and some unions.