Q&A: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock CM ’88 on college experience, potential presidential run

A white man in college and then now
Steve Bullock CM ’88 is now the governor of Montana and may make a 2020 presidential run. (Courtesy of Steve Bullock)

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock CM ’88 visited his alma mater earlier this spring with his daughter for a campus tour. A few weeks later, he took some time to chat with TSL about his time studying at Claremont McKenna College, the lessons he took with him to Montana — where he’s the Democratic governor of a Republican state — and his potential presidential ambitions.

Bullock, who has hired veteran strategists and visited early primary and caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire in recent months, has said he will wait to make a presidential decision until his state’s legislative session is over at the end of April.

TSL: Tell me a bit about what it was like coming back, and what you learned when you were [at CMC] in college.

Steve Bullock: It’s an interesting experience, because I was raised in Montana. My mother actually found Claremont. I thought I was probably going to go to University of Montana, so [I] showed up the first time at CMC never [having even] visited the college, because college visits were a little bit beyond my family’s financial [means].

But, it provided me a great liberal arts education. I ended up a [politics, philosophy and economics] major. … [It was a] real platform for having to learn from different points of view, work with different people, skills that I still use today as well. Both my peers and some of the professors … are valuable mentors that I still keep in touch with this day, which is 30 years later.

TSL: Are there any particular professors or events still [at CMC] now that you enjoyed when you were there?

SB: The Athenaeum, having that opportunity there, really did help with sort of my intellectual curiosity, and getting to have one-on-one discussions with folks that you otherwise wouldn’t. I started a student speaker series at one point, brought [author] Kurt Vonnegut. We had him at Bridges Auditorium at Pomona [College]. … It’s the sort of connection, not just with CMC students, but the opportunities with all the campuses there, [that was] certainly really, really significant to me.

TSL: You became governor of Montana [in 2013], which is a red state, and have talked about the differences between you and some other Democrats, in terms of your political base. Can you talk about that, especially with an eye to Democrats wanting to take the White House back in 2020?

SB: In 2016, when I was re-elected, I was the only Democrat in the country to get re-elected in a statewide race where [President Donald] Trump won. He won Montana by 20 points, I won by four. And I think there’s some lessons to be learned, certainly, in a time where our political system is getting more and more divided.

How I live and how I govern in a state like this is that I actually end up traveling all across the state. In a state of 143,000 square miles, I don’t just go talk to Democrats, but will talk to … people all across the spectrum. I think that really what we need to be focusing on — this is even beyond Democrats, but — how do we start bridging some of the divides that we’re starting to have in this country so that this 240-plus year experiment of representative democracy still works? ’Cause there’s a lot of signals that say it’s not working real well right now.

TSL: Do you think that’s the sort of theme or message that needs to be something that Democrats emphasize this time around bridging the divide, reaching out to some of those voters that voted for Trump?

SB: It’s a false choice to say, ‘Do you turnout traditional Democrats or do you bring back those … Obama-Trump voters?’ I think the answer is that you need to be doing both. I think fundamentally, most people’s lives, they’re too busy … that the political battle of the day doesn’t mean much to them.

Really, wherever you are geographically, and in many respects ideologically, most folks want the same thing. They want a safe community, a decent job, roof over their head, clean air, clean water, a belief that you’ll do better for your kids and grandkids than you do for yourself. And right now, there’s a whole lot of Americans that don’t feel like the economy’s working for them, and the political system’s working for them.

Those are some of the divides that I think need to be bridged. Really, we have a lot more shared values and things in common, but we gotta make sure that D.C. actually works.

TSL: I have to ask, because you said before that at the end of the Montana legislative session, you’ll make a decision for yourself about whether to run for president. Is there anything you might be willing to talk about in terms of your thought process or decision-making?

SB: No, just as an example, yesterday we got Medicaid re-authorization through our state senate. … So my real, immediate focus is certainly the Montana Legislature.

I am concerned about the state of our country, though, and continue to travel and tell the story of what we’ve been able to accomplish in Montana and what I think ought to be part of that overall conversation. And both Democrats and the country look at 2020. But, for now, that’s about as far as it goes.

TSL: As you mentioned, you’ve been to some of these early primary states and talked to people. What has been the reception that you’ve gotten there? Do you feel like people have been very receptive to the message you’ve been spreading?

SB: Yeah, I think not only some of the early states, I’ve also gone to places that not everybody has [like] Arkansas, Wisconsin. I think folks really want government to work again. And I think that they want to believe that it can make a meaningful difference in your life in a positive way. So I enjoy the travels that I’ve had, really just talking to people and showing up.

TSL: Going back to the message from before, in terms of CMC, can you talk about some of those lasting impacts you’ve gotten from college that continue to serve you well as governor?

SB: CMC was a lot different at the time, in some respects. … I was probably the only Democrat in [my] political philosophy class. … [I learned to ] listen to people and also be able to express myself in a way that I think is important. … Professor [Jack] Pitney … was only there, I think it was his second year. But I chose him as my thesis advisor, so I wrote on welfare reform issues.

And even though his politics were different from mine, that in itself was a lesson in as much as working my way through things. So at the time, Claremont’s tagline was “leaders in the making,” and I think it did. And not just CMC, but the overall sort of liberal arts education that the five colleges provide prepared us to really be ready to take what we learn on a college campus and affect our communities, states, nations and for some folks, businesses, during times of both great challenges and great opportunities.

In my limited time back at CMC on this trip taking my daughter around on campus, made me feel pretty darn good about the direction that the Claremont Colleges are going.

TSL: Do you feel like being at CMC, it sounds like when it was a little more conservative, and you were more liberal, is that sort of a good parallel that helped you be prepared to be a liberal Democrat, a liberal governor in a red state?

SB: Part of the approach that hopefully I learned at CMC … is that you need to be able to listen to people. And I think that unfortunately, in the political system now, it’s often just people talking over one another, not actually listening to one another.

More than just getting elected — I have a legislature that’s 60% Republican. I need to try to not only listen — this doesn’t mean compromising my values — but find common ground where common ground is able to be found. And I’m not sure that the system currently in Washington, D.C., works at this point.

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Kellen Browning

Kellen Browning PO '20 is a politics major from Davis, California. He is currently TSL's editor-in-chief, and has previously served as the paper's managing editor and news editor.

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