BOZEMAN, Mont. —A small collection of the older women of Bozeman, Montana, are deep into their water aerobics class at the Holiday Inn’s indoor pool on a recent cold and gusty Wednesday when the governor strolls by.
About 10 feet from the pool area, Steve Bullock steps into the hotel’s ballroom, a low-ceilinged space packed with round tables and a few dozen of the state’s county commissioners. Wearing a lightly wrinkled navy blazer, a blue shirt, light gray pants and slightly muddied brown leather shoes, Bullock lumbers toward the head table, shaking hands and grasping shoulders.
Ignoring a mild cold, the 51-year-old Democrat sits and quietly surveys the crowd, which is packed with conservatives skeptical of his pitch to balance the state budget with targeted cuts or small tax increases. A few minutes later, Bullock rises to make his case, ripping through an impressive array of economic statistics about Montana under his tenure—an unemployment rate near historic lows, a record number of jobs, growing personal income, a surprising boomlet in manufacturing. Then comes the hard part: He’ll need to cut spending or find a way to raise revenues, and he could use their help. He plows on for 20 more minutes, then surprises the room by asking for questions.
What follows is the kind of understated, unglamorous, all-politics-is-local performance that explains why nearly six in 10 voters approve of Bullock’s performance as governor in a state that’s voted for the Democratic nominee just twice in the past 17 presidential elections. But, as Bullock stands in the heart of the 185th-largest media market in the country (out of 210), it also shows why 55 percent of registered voters report never having heard of him. Many Democratic insiders think Bullock could be just what the party needs in a presidential candidate in 2020—he’s the only red-state lawmaker seriously in the 2020 conversation. But he’s also almost completely unknown outside of Montana’s ribbon-cuttings, airwaves and hotel ballrooms.
Here in Bozeman, one commissioner asks Bullock to let representatives of local government have “a place at the table” in his budget considerations. “I thought I was in the auto lobby conference,” Bullock responds in a booming voice, smiling. “I am sitting down with local government right now to take any questions!” Another pushes him to cut from the state’s human rights bureau, and after Bullock gamely insists, “Boy, this is fun!,” another urges the governor to help protect a local mine in his county. He stays at the microphone until the crowd—not fully convinced, but warmer than half an hour earlier—runs out of questions, then remains at the head table to help announce the winners of that day’s raffle, reading out a long list of names and distributing gift baskets, local college football tickets, water bottles and, the grand prize, a cooler.
This is the Steve Bullock his admirers want you to see: a skilled practitioner of the art of persuasion, at a time when few in American politics still have the patience or the muscle memory. And even if he doesn’t end up running for president or if Democrats show no interest in nominating a little-known charmer from a small, conservative state, they’d better listen to a man who’s won statewide races three times and remains one of the most popular governors in the country, five years into the job—all while expanding Medicaid, tightening regulations on “dark money” and raising the minimum wage in a state with fewer self-identified Democrats than almost any other.
“He’s proven you can do these solid things and get reelected in a state that went solidly for Donald Trump, and probably still will today,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, a Montana native who now works in Washington.
“He’s the real deal,” adds Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee chair who managed Al Gore’s presidential campaign. “He has the right pedigree and the right personality to give 2020 a real consideration.”
Bullock is playing coy about the growing chorus encouraging him to run, the way presidential hopefuls do when the first primaries are still 27 months away. “In some ways I feel humbled by it, but I wouldn’t do anything beyond the borders of Montana if I didn’t think I had something to add to that conversation: that we do need to be coming to different places. We need to be talking about shared values,” the governor tells me a few hours after leaving the county commissioners at the Holiday Inn.
And the better-known potential contenders are making a lot more noise. That same day, across the country, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ office was negotiating the details of a prime-time health care debate on CNN that would position him as the party’s leading voice on the subject. California Senator Kamala Harris was trying to rally Americans against Republicans’ latest attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Former Vice President Joe Biden was announcing plans to campaign for the Democrat in Alabama’s high-profile special Senate election.
As the national Democratic Party races left, and as its lawmakers compete to scream the loudest about the damage being done under President Donald Trump, Bullock sees the world differently. He hasn’t made a practice of rushing to the closest national television camera or preening for headlines to become the face of the “resistance,” though he disapproves of Trump as much as the next lefty. When he does pop into the national discussion, it’s been to insist to his fellow Democrats in no uncertain terms that they need to do a better job of reaching out to voters who disagree with them, or risk electoral oblivion.
All available evidence suggests that riled-up Democratic voters are looking for fire, not genial good governance. And the Democratic Party has never nominated a Westerner. But Bullock looks like he’s marching toward 2020 anyway.
Bullock is the only potential White House hopeful aside from Sanders who has been traveling around the country with a specific set of suggestions for improving the party. In July, he raised eyebrows in Washington when he filed federal papers to register …read more
Read more here: Steve Bullock and the Lost Art of Political Persuasion