BILLINGS – Former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns died at home in Billings on Thursday. The folksy Montana Republican icon was 81.
A former livestock auctioneer, traveling salesman and agriculture news broadcaster, Burns skyrocketed from political obscurity to the U.S. Senate in 1988 unseating Democratic incumbent John Melcher.
He had been elected Yellowstone County Commissioner only two years before winning his Senate seat, where for 18 years, he became a powerful lawmaker.
Shortly after being elected, Burns told the capital press “it was only a matter of bigger zeroes” separating his old Yellowstone County budget and the $1 trillion federal one. The difference was actually six zeroes.
Prone to chewing tobacco and occasionally picking his teeth with his pocket knife, Burns stuck out in the Senate.
“He was an underdog, without any question, but of course Conrad was an auctioneer. He was a farm broadcaster, and he knew people all over the state," said Jack Ramirez, Burns' original chief of staff. "If you ever met Conrad, he knew you and you knew him.”
Burns had been a mainstay of AM radio in Montana for years before running for office. His Northern Ag Network played across Montana and into neighboring states.
It was impossible to go anywhere with Burns without running to someone he knew, said former Congressman Denny Rehberg.
Rehberg praised Burns for his work on telecommunications legislation in the early 1990s, focusing on rural access. He described Burns as a man of faith, an active advocate for youth and a loyal personality.
In 1994, he was the first Republican U.S. Senator in Montana to be re-elected.
“He taught me a lot,” said Rehberg. “One was to have fun, work hard and enjoy yourself.”
Rehberg said that many in the nation’s capital, from police to maintenance, have asked him in recent years how Burns was doing. He always had an anecdote to tell, Rehberg said, even if they weren’t always appropriate.
“He had a sense of humor that would allow him to enjoy life to the last moment and that’s what people knew Conrad best for,” Rehberg said.
Burns’ strong personality earned him regard among his followers, though sometimes his comments preceded apologies. He had been quoted at times saying inappropriate things about African Americans and Native Americans, women and people from the Middle East.
His comments to a wildfire crew fighting a fire near Billings in 2006, in which he told them they’d done a poor job, hurt him politically.
In 2006, Burns mounted his final campaign for the Senate. He was hit hard by his opponent, Sen. Jon Tester, for his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of conspiring to bribe public officials, among other things.
Throughout the 2006 election, Burns’ opponents suggested that the incumbent also would be investigated. However, he never was.
Burns did return $150,000 in contributions from Abramoff, clients and friends.
Burns lost the election by 3,562 votes.
After the election, Burns took a lobbying job with Gage Business Consulting in Washington, D.C.
In 2009, Burns suffered a stroke at his home in Virginia. He was 74 years old. More recently, those who saw Burns noticed that his mobility was fading. He'd use a cane and eventually a wheelchair, but he was still very much himself.
Rehberg said that he saw Burns a couple weeks ago at a fundraiser, looking well and still sharp.
Ramirez thought the same when he met with Burns at his home in Billings last fall. He said that he would remember Burns for his jokes and for his patronage.
“He lost a daughter years and years ago," Ramirez said. "And before he became a senator, long before, whenever he would see an article in the paper or hear or learn about someone who had lost a child, he would write them a letter. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Maybe of the last people to see Burns alive was Dwight Mackay, a former chief of staff. Mackay had coffee with Burns in Billings on Thursday morning. Afterward the senator returned home to rest in his living room easy chair. His wife Phyllis made Burns a sandwich. He never awoke to eat it.
“Thank God he didn’t have another stroke,” Mackay said. “I miss the hell out of the old guy. He was a wonderful friend, one of the best I ever had.”