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Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate.

BOULDER – At a local Democratic dinner here, U.S. Senate candidate Dirk Adams doesn’t hold back when he tells the party faithful why they should vote for him – and not the newly minted Democratic incumbent, Sen. John Walsh.

Walsh takes money from many of the same corporate figures financing Republican candidate Steve Daines – and isn’t really saying much about the issues that matter, Adams says.

“If you go to (Walsh’s) website, I defy you to tell where he stands on anything,” Adams says. “Let me just mention that the word ‘environment’ doesn’t appear on his website, the words ‘climate change’ don’t appear on his website.

“So, what kind of a Democrat are we talking about here?”

It’s provocative talk in a crowd of Democrats, but Adams, a rancher, attorney and former bank executive who raises cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens and turkeys on a 10,000-acre spread northeast of Wilsall, is trying to make some waves in his first run for elected office in Montana.

He’s dropped nearly $300,000 of his own money into his campaign, has pitched himself both as an environmental standard-bearer and a pragmatic businessman and sometimes has criticized his own party for “not willing to campaign on its own ideas.”

Yet Adams acknowledges he faces a big hurdle as a political newcomer in a statewide race, and says it’s been tough convincing people he’s a serious candidate – even though he was the first Democrat to officially get into the race, in the wake of last spring’s announcement by Sen. Max Baucus that he would retire this year.

Adams, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Walsh are vying for the Democratic nomination to run for Baucus’ former seat in the fall. Walsh was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock on Feb. 7 to succeed Baucus, who resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China.

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Adams, 62, announced his candidacy last summer and has been attending local Democratic Party functions since last fall, trying to convince skeptical Democrats that he should be the nominee and can beat Daines, the likely Republican nominee.

“This is not my first rodeo, in that I’ve managed government relations for companies run by big Democrats,” he says.

Adams grew up in southeast Texas, got a teaching degree from the University of Texas and later went to law school at Harvard University, graduating in 1976. He worked as an attorney in New York before becoming a bank regulator in California, where he was general counsel for the federal Home Loan Bank in San Francisco.

Adams left the Home Loan Bank in 1987 to join Golden West Financial, a thriving savings and loan run by Herbert and Marion Sandler, who were prominent Democratic donors. He spent 13 years with Golden West, working primarily on acquisitions, as the company bought up several billion dollars’ worth of assets.

Adams later bought a mortgage bank of his own, with an investment group, in 2004: Home Savings Bank of America in Little Falls, Minn. The bank eventually failed in 2012, unable to recover from the collapse of the mortgage market in 2008-09 and regulatory steps that stalled an infusion of capital, he says.

While Adams worked in the banking industry, he also worked his ranch near Wilsall, starting with 160 acres in 1984 and slowly expanding it. His family had traveled in Montana when he was young, and Adams says he planned since he was 18 to become a rancher in Montana.

“I built up the farm,” he says. “I’ve done the work. I’m not an absentee owner.”

Records indicate Adams has had a Montana driver’s license since 1986, and he’s voted in all but two Montana general elections since 2000.

The Lazy SR Ranch, owned by Adams and his wife Miki, sells beef, pork and poultry to area resorts, restaurants and the food services at Montana State University and the University of Montana. His wife also is opening the state’s first plant that will process chicken from other operations, in Wilsall this spring.

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Adams says he got into the Senate race last year after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer declined to run, because he thought he was the type of Democrat who could defeat Republican Daines in the fall.

He says his profile and experience as a rancher and a businessman match up well against Daines, whose background is in business, and that he has the skills needed to be a U.S. senator: “I’m somebody who understands how to negotiate, the importance of creativity and the importance of good policy.”

While he touts his business credentials, Adams takes a progressive stance on many issues.

He supports gay marriage and women’s right to an abortion, he opposes the Keystone XL pipeline as a bad deal for Montana and Montana landowners, he supports a regional wilderness bill that would set aside 6 million acres of forest in Montana as wilderness, he believes a single-payer health system is the best option for health care reform.

He also is pushing a huge expansion of fiber-optic cable to create an “education superhighway” that links every Montana school, medical office and other economic hubs.

At the Democratic dinner in Boulder earlier this month, Adams encouraged folks to check out his stands on his website – and took a few more swipes at Walsh, the incumbent.

“You have a choice here,” he said. “You’ve got a couple of guys (Adams and Bohlinger), talking about the issues, not taking money from big companies. And then you’ve got two guys (Daines and Walsh) running around taking money from everybody they can get their hands on. …

“If you send people to Washington that take money from big companies, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, you’re going to get the same result you’ve been getting.”

Coming Tuesday: A profile of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Bohlinger.

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Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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