Tester to the Test

Montana’s freshman senator is no novice when it comes to the environment. By Diana Lind

If the standard image of a politician these days is a gray-haired man with an Ivy League education, an old money background, and ties to corporate lobbyists, Jon Tester, the new Democratic Senator of Montana, is a breath of fresh air. Born and raised in Montana, he stayed put for his education, went on to teach music in the state, and remained there to raise a family. The farm where he and his family live and work specializes in a variety of organic crops and is located 12 miles outside a town of 800 people. This is about as far from the Beltway as it gets.

And yet, Tester, who turned 50 in August, wasn’t elected just because he was an outsider. In fact, for four years he served as an insider in Montana’s state senate. His foray into politics began when he ran for Montana’s legislature after Montana Power was deregulated and energy rates went through the roof. This campaign portended the way he would continue to prioritize energy concerns while later running for U.S. Senate.

While many have attributed Tester’s win over Republican incumbent Conrad Burns to Burns’s links to the president and Jack Abramoff, Tester built a rather impressive and popular eco-friendly record in his years in the state senate. In 2005, he was selected to serve as the Montana senate’s president and in that year sponsored a bill that mandated all public utilities and electric suppliers obtain 15 percent or more of their energy from renewable sources by 2015. He also sponsored legislation that created a new property tax classification for wind power that lowered the taxable value rate for wind energy generation facilities in Montana.

Tester first appeared on the national radar when he sponsored a bill that held corporate agriculture accountable for genetically modified strains of wheat. While the bill didn’t pass, the exposure to national media was invaluable. According to an interview in Newsday, approximately 50 percent of Tester’s campaign war chest came from donors outside the state.

While Tester ran for his new office saying he “will fight to protect access to public lands and will support responsible development of clean, renewable energy resources,” it’s now time to see how if he will make good on his promises.

Tester was unavailable for comment on his agenda due to his busy schedule prior to his inauguration, his record of eco-advocacy has environmentalists optimistic.

“I expect Jon will continue to be a champion of sustainable energy by looking at how to refocus on resources that are devoted to nonrenewable energy,” says Bob Quinn, a part-owner of Wind Solutions America, a company which plans and creates turn-key wind farms for generating environmentally friendly energy.

Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), also says he’s confident that Jon will fight for conservation and environmental policy.

“Jon was very sincere in the Montana legislature on sound energy policy and a very pragmatic and effective voice for environmental progress,” says Jensen. “Our top priority is reducing global warming pollution for all of us in every walk of life, and Jon understands that.”