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George Ochenski crop

It doesn’t take a long memory to recall Governor Bullock’s rather infamous appointment of his former Lt. Governor, John Walsh, to fill the Senate seat left when Max Baucus resigned to become ambassador to China. Instead of simply telling Montanans and the press corps that he intended to appoint Walsh, Bullock played coy, saying he would make the appointment when there was a vacancy, even though it was rather common knowledge that he’d already decided on Walsh. Bullock should have learned from that experience and should not repeat it with the recent, unexpected resignation of Lt. Gov. Angela McLean.

For a governor who has repeatedly pledged transparency, his evasive action on Walsh did Bullock no favors. Not only did he anger the press by refusing to answer directly and honestly, he left Montana’s citizens on the sidelines in a tremendously important decision to appoint half of our state’s representation in the U.S. Senate, often referred to as the “greatest deliberative body” in the world.

Moreover, not telling the public about what he was doing resulted in an embarrassment that to this day plagues Bullock’s term as governor. Thanks to a sloppy job of vetting Walsh, it was later revealed by the New York Times that Walsh had plagiarized significant portions of a final paper he submitted to the Army War College for his master’s degree. Walsh then dropped out of the election for Baucus’ seat, his name was ground off the brass plaque at the Army College, and Republican Steve Daines took Baucus’ seat, which had been held by Democrats for a century, but which Daines will now hold until at least 2020.

The blowback also spurred a wide-ranging call for more involvement by Montanans in any such future decision-making by governors and rained criticism on Bullock for his prevarication in communicating honestly and openly with Montana’s citizens.

One would think the Walsh incident would perfectly fit the old saying “the once burnt child fears the fire” when it comes to Governor Bullock and how he deals with such issues both internally and with the public. But that, sadly, does not appear to be the case.

First, Lt. Gov. McLean decided to make her resignation announcement public last week while Governor Bullock was off on a junket in Texas. That was not a politically savvy move if, for no other reason, it gets tongues and blogs flapping about what the real story might be. In that regard, it has definitely achieved that unfortunate effect. The rumor mill is running rampant now, aided and abetted by the lack of plausible explanation from either McLean or Bullock on the real story behind the resignation.

Second, it doesn’t help the situation one bit that McLean’s father-in-law – and partner in her husband’s Anaconda law firm – was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison days after her resignation announcement for embezzling $465,614 from his clients and stealing $62,325 from the American Board of Trial Advocates while he was the local chapter’s secretary/treasurer.

While it would be terribly wrong to even suggest Lt. Gov. McLean had anything to do with the actions of her father-in-law, it is certainly a possible political embarrassment for Governor Bullock in his re-election bid.

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Third, McLean’s sudden resignation does not bode well for Bullock’s position as chair of the national Democratic Governors’ Association because it carries the appearance of Bullock not knowing what’s going on in his own office. While some think the lieutenant governor’s seat is a fluff position with no real independent power, the fact remains that in the case of the governor’s demise or inability to fulfill the duties of his office, it is the lieutenant governor who will step into the state’s highest leadership position – not something to be taken lightly.

So far neither Bullock nor McLean have offered the public or press a thorough and reasonable explanation for the sudden resignation. McLean says she did what she came to do and is moving on. Meanwhile, Bullock has been like a deer in the headlights, stunned by being totally blindsided and unprepared to offer realistic reasons for McLean’s departure.

The bottom line is that Bullock is now left with finding what will be his third lieutenant governor in three years – and presumably his running mate for his re-election bid. But before he can move on, Bullock must drop his prevarication and honestly and openly resolve the reasons for McLean’s resignation or it will likely dog him into his political future.

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