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Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill participates in a debate against Democratic candidate Steve Bullock on Sept. 18 in the Helena Middle School auditorium.

LEWISTOWN – For nearly two years – since the Monday following the November 2010 election – Rick Hill has been running for governor.

He’s driven 82,000 miles around the state in his white GMC Silverado truck and a previous vehicle and flown an undetermined number of miles.

As the Nov. 6 election approaches, the Helena Republican is now campaigning six days a week, speaking at least two or three times a day. His opponents are Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock of Helena and Libertarian Ron Vandevender of Craig.

Hill’s chief message, from the start, has been this: he wants to unleash Montana’s vast economic potential and create more and better-paying natural resource jobs. Doing that requires breaking down Montana’s legal and regulatory barriers and bringing the state into the mainstream nationally to make the state more business friendly. Contrary to what critics say, Hill insists he is not calling for changing or reducing Montana’s environmental standards.

He’s also called for reforming Montana’s K-12 education.

Hill wants to see public charter schools started in Montana and favors giving tax credits for donations to foundations that give scholarships so low-income kids can attend private schools. He also favors reforming teacher tenure.

“We need tension in the system to push toward excellence,” he says.

Bullock accuses of Hill of wanting to “defund, devalue and dismantle public education,” a charge that Hill denies.

In addition, Hill wants to change how the state sets budgets for government programs to “priority budgeting,” which bases spending on how well individual programs have met predetermined performance standards.

Hill participated in a dozen debates and forums in the Republican primary, and his staff estimates he’s been to 250 other campaign events, including fundraisers, roundtable discussions and meet-and-greets. And that’s not counting two years’ worth of Lincoln-Reagan Day dinners at counties across the state.

In June, Hill won the seven-candidate Republican primary with 34 percent of the vote.

***

Traveling the state and making public appearances is old hat to Hill, 65, who was elected as Montana’s lone congressman in 1996 and 1998 but didn’t seek re-election for health reasons in 2000.

“When I was in Congress, in my first term, we did 100 town hall meetings,” Hill says. “I really like talking to people and answering their questions. You probably notice, I don’t need a binder.

“After doing that a lot, I do think you gain some experience and some self-confidence. The message I have is the one I have in my heart. It’s not something some consultant told me. It comes naturally to me because it’s what I believe.”

On this day, earlier this month, Hill unveiled his property tax and school funding plan before a friendly audience at a Montana Taxpayers Association meeting in Helena. He calls for using some revenue from natural resource development to go toward funding K-12 schools and reducing property taxes.

Then he drove to Lewistown to speak at the Montana Tavern Association convention and then to attend a fundraiser at an unusual hangar at the Lewistown airport. The hangar, owned by contractor Jack Morgenstern, is filled with refinished cars, planes, tractor, an old filling station and a 1950s-era soda fountain.

Hill tells the bar owners the same story about his humble beginnings that he’s highlighted in his TV ad. He grew up with three older sisters in a one-room apartment behind his father’s tire repair shop in Aitkin, Minn. His mother took in ironing to help make ends meet. She would heat water on the stove and bathe the kids in a galvanized tub.

At age 4, Hill was temporarily paralyzed with polio but later gained strength by hauling around tires from his dad’s shop. Twelve years later, he was elected captain of the high school wrestling team.

“From that, I’ve learned that you have two choices you can make in life with hardships,” Hill says. “You can become a victim and wallow in it, or you can take responsibility for your future.”

He changed tires in his father’s shop for 50 cents an hour and saved the money for college. When his father came down with pneumonia, Hill took two weeks off school to run the shop.

Hill and one sister were the first in in the family to attend college. He pumped gas and wiped windshields at a filling station while attending what’s now St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, graduating in 1968 with a degree in economics and political science.

After outlining his school funding proposal to the tavern owners, Hill vows: “I’m not going to support tax increases anywhere.”

Hill also tells the bar owners he doesn’t favor expanding legalized gambling, saying Montana is at “a settled place with respect to gambling (laws) and we don’t need to tinker with them.”

One bar owner asks about Montana’s minimum wage law, with its automatic cost-of-living increases and the state’s lack of a tip credit. Under a tip credit, restaurant and bar servers can be paid at less than the minimum wage, with some tip income counted to bring their pay up to the minimum wage. As it stands, some servers making the minimum wage and pulling in tips can make more money than some bar and restaurant owners here, one person says.

Hill is sympathetic to business owners’ plight.

“My opponent gave it to you,” he reminds them.

It was Bullock who as a private attorney crafted the union-backed 2006 ballot measure to raise Montana’s minimum wage and provide for cost-of-living increases. Voters passed it, 73 percent to 27 percent.

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Hill moved to Montana in 1971 and worked in the insurance industry in Great Falls and Helena, eventually becoming a partner in a company before starting his own insurance business, R.A. Hill & Co. from 1984-92. His was selling surety insurance to contractors.

He became active in Republican politics, serving as state GOP chairman in 1991. Hill was finance director for then-Attorney General Marc Racicot’s successful campaign for governor in 1992.

Racicot appointed Hill as his legislative liaison, to lobby the Legislature to get his proposed 4 percent sales tax put on the ballot as he promised in the campaign. Racicot’s Democratic opponent Dorothy Bradley also had pledged to put her version of a sales tax on the ballot.

The GOP sales tax would have raised $310 million over two years, while reducing individual income, property and corporate income taxes by $252 million and increasing state school funding by $48 million, according to the voter information pamphlet.

Voters rejected the sales tax by 3-to-1 in June 1993.

Although Hill earlier this campaign said he would favor a sales tax as a replacement for the state income or property taxes, he since has backed away from that position.

“I don’t support a sales tax,” he says. “I’m not going to sign a sales tax. I don’t think we need one.”

Racicot also named Hill as chairman of the board of directors of the state workers’ compensation fund, which faced an unfunded liability, or potential deficit, topping $550 million. The board brought in new management and, with new laws and a temporary tax on both businesses and their employees, turned the finances around by the mid-1990s to eliminate the deficit. The State Fund lowered rates and paid dividends to companies it insured.

***

In 1996, Hill ran for Congress, winning a three-way GOP primary, and defeating Democratic state Sen. Bill Yellowtail. He won again in 1998 against Dusty Deschamps, former Missoula County attorney and now a district judge.

During his four years in Congress, Hill was a solid conservative Republican, although sometimes went against his party leadership.

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Congressional Quarterly says that Hill supported Democratic President Bill Clinton by an average of 23.5 percent over four years and opposed him 76.5 percent. His Republican Party unity score was 93.5 percent. Hill got an 85 percent average rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on its issues and an 11 percent average from the AFL-CIO.

In Congress, Hill says is he is particularly proud of his effort to obtain the federal Otter Creek coal tracts from the federal government. It was in exchange for the Clinton administration stopping a proposed gold mine in Montana near Yellowstone National Park.

In 2010, the state Land Board voted to lease the coal tracts to Arch Coal of St. Louis for a bonus bid of $86 million. In what’s become a major issue in this race, Bullock opposed the lease, arguing the state should have leased the coal for a higher price.

Hill has said he voted in Congress for a balanced budget bill in 1997 and voted to lower capital gain rates. These helped contribute to the greatest uninterrupted period of economic growth in U.S. history.

Hill chose not to run for re-election to the House in 2000 because of recurring problems after corrective eye surgery left him with cloudy vision.

After leaving Congress, Hill had numerous eye procedures done at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. While Hill said he doesn’t have great vision, his eyes have stabilized over the past decade. He is able to drive a truck, car and motorcycle and likes to drive himself on the campaign.

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Wanting to learn more about the law, Hill studied at an online law school, Concord law school, graduated with honors and passed the California bar exam, considered the toughest in the country, but hasn’t practiced law. The law school is not recognized by the state of Montana.

He managed real estate and other investments, has done some business consulting and worked with the Montana Building Industry Association in the 2009 Legislature.

Hill also has served on some boards of directors, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana and some of its subsidiaries. President George W. Bush appointed Hill to the board for Corporation for National and Community Service. He resigned from all his boards to avoid any conflicts of interest as he runs for governor.

Mostly, Hill says, “I’m a very good grandfather.” Hill and his wife, Betti, enjoy their seven grandchildren.

Hill, who will turn 66 in December, will be 20 years older than Bullock.

Asked about the age disparity, Hill laughs and parrots the line that President Ronald Reagan used against his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale in 1984: “I won’t use my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him.”

“I’m a better candidate and I’ll be a better governor today than if I would have run in 2000,” Hill says. “I have a different mindset and different experience and a really solid vision of what I want to do as governor. It has nothing to do with age.”

A number of Hill’s former insurance customers still call him about business and strategic issues, he says.

“I have a reputation,” he says. “I have the ability to think strategically as well as to translate it into action.”

Above all, Hill is a conservative policy wonk. He can talk in great detail about issues for as long as someone will listen.

“My problem is I have lots of ideas,” he jokes in an interview.

Then he concludes, “I’m a policy-oriented person. It’s time Montana had a policy-oriented governor.”

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