Former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger is currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination to run for the US Senate this fall against the Republican nominee. He served as a Republican under former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. On the MSU campus for a lecture, Bohlinger took the time to sit down with the Exponent for a Politics in the 406 interview.
Exponent (E): In today’s contemporary political scene you rarely see people on a joint ticket like you did with former Gov. Schweitzer as a Republican. What was that like and how did that decision come about?
Bohlinger (B): I had been elected to three terms in our House of Representatives and two terms to our Senate and it was in the 2003 session. We were debating House Bill Two which is the general fund appropriation bill. I could not support the bill because they were going to omit funding for things I felt were important — things like daycare services for young mothers. Brian wrote me a letter saying, “John, I like the way you think, I’d like to meet you.” We both felt that it’s important to build a bridge that will span the gap that exists between political parties. It’s time to think of ourselves as Montanans first, than as Democrats or Republicans.
E: What made you switch parties?
B: I considered myself a moderate, but I was attracted to the Republican Party because they showed financial discipline. I was a successful small business man in Billings for 33 years … but I’m also a person with a social conscience and I have a lot of progressive ideas with respect to that. The Republican Party managed to flush from its system anyone with a progressive idea, most of us became Democrats.
E: If elected, what would be the best way as a Senator to improve higher education quality and access?
B: One of the first things I’ll do when elected to the United States Senate is to sign on to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill. That will allow students to borrow money to finance their student loans at the Federal Fund rate; the same interest rate that the Federal Government charges banks for loans. That’s 1 percent or less. Today, the typical graduate from the Montana University System leaves with about $25,000 in debt. They’re financing that at rates from 4 to 8 percent. This is a tremendous financial burden. Let’s make education affordable and we can do so by making student loans available at affordable interest rates.
E: With Bozeman considering a non-discrimination ordinance a lot of people have been throwing this term religious liberty around. What are your feelings on that?
B: I think that religious freedom is a personal expression; I’m a Catholic. My church has given me a moral compass that has guided me through life … but I can’t impose my religious views on someone else. When I was in the legislature, I brought forward a bill that would add to human rights sexual orientation. I was always very supportive of that community. I’ve spoken at their rallies; I’ve marched in their parades, and I still will.
E: Right now, one of the biggest things to deal with [in Congress] is partisan bickering. We’ve had a government shutdown, the first one in about twenty years, and it did a lot of damage, especially to the Yellowstone area. How would you bring that sense of bipartisanship to the Senate?
B: Firstly I will be a full time Senator. Right now if you’re in Congress, whether its the House of Representatives or the Senate, you spend about a third to half of your time running for re-election. You know, they work three days a week, and then they’re home raising money. I’m not going to be seeking a second term. I am going to be seeking an aggressive, very progressive agenda that I’ll be putting all of my effort into.
E: You said you wouldn’t be seeking a second term, why not?
B: Because I don’t want to be encumbered with commitments I might need to take in order to win reelection. I want to be bold. I’m going to be signing on to this effort for public campaign funding for those who don’t accept political action committee money contributions. I’m going to be working on a constitutional amendment to declare only human beings are entitled to free speech. I’m going to be bringing forward legislation to shorten the campaign period. I’m going to bring forward legislation that will provide affordable healthcare. I’m going to be working on providing greater benefits to our veterans. I’m going to bring forward legislation that will provide encouragement for young people to provide a year of public service to our country.
E: What do you feel you can bring to Montanans and do better than other [candidates]?
B: I bring a unique set of credentials to the table. I’ve had twenty years at the table where public policy is formed. Prior to that I had a 33-year career as a successful small businessman in Billings. I know how to manage a budget; I know how to manage people. I think those are transferable skills to the United States Senate. I’ve been able to find common ground and we need someone who will be able to find common ground, and I’m a Marine Corps Veteran. It will make me a bold US Senator to challenge the system, to rock the boat, to really get things done. I’m going to be fearless. It’s going to be fun.
E: So, I’ve got to ask this question: are you a Bobcat fan?
B: Only when they don’t play the Grizzlies. I’m a graduate of the University of Montana and proud to say so. I cheer for the Bobcats every time they play with one exception, and that’s when the Bobcats and the Grizzlies meet here.