An unlikely rising star from Big Sky country

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

He's a governor who lists his home phone in the white pages and makes a point of returning all calls. He once delivered the commencement address at a one-room schoolhouse to a single high school graduate.

In an age of scandal and politics by poll numbers, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot is emerging as an unassuming and unlikely star.

The GOP governor rates among the most popular politicians in state history. What's more, he's become a close confidant of Texas Gov. George W. Bush in his quest for the White House.

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And while Governor Racicot (pronounced Roscoe) delivers no major political capital or national celebrity to Mr. Bush, analysts say, he possesses something more tangibly valuable: a peerless reputation for personal integrity. Montana's Racicot: a rising star from Big Sky country

"What accounts for Racicot's popularity in Montana, and to the extent that it translates nationwide, has to do with the public's perception of what he represents," says Dan Kemmis of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. "People believe that what they see in Marc Racicot - a depth of character and trustworthiness - is exactly what they get."

Racicot's history

The eight-year governor, who must retire from office in 2000 because of term limits, enjoys approval ratings of more than 80 percent. He has been mentioned as a possible Interior or Agriculture secretary in a Bush Cabinet, as a future federal judge or US Supreme Court nominee, and as a shoo-in for US senator if he ever runs.

A devout Roman Catholic, Racicot has staked out an intractable anti-abortion position. But instead of trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, he has promoted a grass-roots "pro-family" agenda. It includes signing a law mandating parental notification for girls considering an abortion.

Racicot is also a reluctant supporter of the death penalty. During his tenure, Montana confronted its first execution in decades. Hours before the execution, Racicot paid a personal visit to the prisoner. When the convicted man refused to demonstrate remorse, the governor decided not to intercede.

Afterward, he hand-wrote a detailed explanation for his decision, which was published on the front page of newspapers and won him the begrudging respect of death-penalty opponents.

"The reason he sticks out among the rest is, here's a guy who sees the grays of life," says Andrew Malcolm, Racicot's former press secretary and a Bush staffer.

The son of a longtime basketball coach, Racicot was raised in the tiny logging community of Libby. He played for his father in both high school and at Carroll College, where he established a national collegiate record for assists in a game, with 34.

Later, as a prosecuting attorney, Racicot won 97 percent of his cases. "He has good instincts, and he puts his trust in the people," Mr. Malcolm says. "When Racicot succeeds, he doesn't spike the ball or perform a flashy dance in the political end zone. He isn't one to boast and will direct the credit to those around him."

Within months of winning his first term as governor, Racicot led his state of fewer than 1 million people out of a $200 million budget shortfall and promoted a state sales tax to provide relief for soaring property and business taxes. His effort failed, but his approval rating soared.

Like his days on the basketball court, Racicot says he enjoys playing a supporting role by metaphorically dishing a pass off to scorers driving toward the basket.

In his mind, Bush is a leader who can put points on the board. "Frankly, what is attractive to me about [Bush] is he doesn't fit into a neat pigeonhole," says Racicot.

Racicot acquired his first impression of the Bush family in 1990, when the candidate's father, as a sitting president, invited him to the White House and asked him to consider running for the US Senate.

"I told the president that while I was flattered by the idea, I had made a promise to the people of Montana to serve four years as attorney general," Racicot explains. "He accepted my decision and never tried to change my mind. I admired him for it."

Five years later, Racicot met the former president's namesake, then a freshman governor, on the way to the lavatory at a meeting of governors. They struck up a conversation, which led to a friendship characterized by monthly phone calls.

During one meeting at a dinner for governors sponsored by President Clinton, Racicot saw how White House service workers eagerly approached Bush and gave him bear hugs. Racicot returned to Montana impressed by Bush's lack of pretension and was among the first to encourage him to run for president.

Then last summer, a few days before Bush officially announced his bid for the presidency, he summoned Racicot to the statehouse in Austin to scrutinize his first major campaign speech.

Until the late 1980s, Racicot positioned himself as an independent, voting for ideas rather than for parties. Today, he calls himself a moderate Republican. Along with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, he typifies the younger-oriented, moderate tone of the Bush campaign.

"I like the presumption of self-determination and the absolute trust in the people of this country to make the right decisions," Racicot says. "I identify with the party's belief in promoting economic expansion by using public lands."

A critical view

Conservationists are troubled by the land-management issue, and liberals object to his support for expanding the state prison system and cutting welfare.

"Racicot's golden-boy image is as far from reality as it could possibly be," says Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center. Mr. Jensen points to Racicot's inability to shepherd through tax reform and Montana's chronic education woes and low wages. "He is the least competent administrator of Montana's government in 30 years, and his record proves it."

For the most part, though, he has remained unflappable - even when a protester, angry over Montana's bison policy, threw animal offal at him two years ago. The incident left the public more concerned about the governor than the bison.

"The lesson taught by Marc Racicot is that the public is drawn to people of personal integrity," says Mr. Kemmis. "If you live cleanly and act on your best and truest instincts, the rewards can be great."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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