Montana Senate Candidate Bucks The Trend, Declares ‘Coal Is Dead’

CREDIT: Dirk Adams for Montana

Dirk Adams, a former educator, banker and current rancher, is a Democrat running for the Montana Senate seat long held by Democrat Max Baucus, but he’s not looking to follow in Baucus’ footsteps.

During his nearly 36 years in the U.S. Senate, Baucus earned a reputation as something of a fair weather Democrat, as a cautious lawmaker who would not infrequently buck his party. Though his average winning margin in six Senate elections in Montana was nearly 25 points, he sometimes voted like a lawmaker who had only a tenuous grip on the electorate.

Baucus voted for the Bush tax cuts in 2001, was the only Democrat to vote against regulating firearms sales at gun shows in 1999, voted to weaken fuel economy standards, and a week before he announced his retirement, voted against background checks for private gun sales. As the New York Times recently noted, Baucus “was known for frustrating Democratic leaders by opposing major party initiatives as well as his solo attempts to cut deals with Republicans.”

It is doubtful that anyone will accuse Adams of political timidity as he wages a primary campaign against John Walsh, appointed to fill the remainder of Baucus’ term after the senator was named ambassador to China, and John Bohlinger, a former Republican who served as Montana’s lieutenant governor.

Consider the recent post on Adams’ website, which was also printed in the Huffington Post.

Under the headline “Coal is Dead,” Adams wrote: “Coal is no longer viable as a long term source of energy, or a reliable source of jobs in Montana … The 700 million tons of coal in Montana will be left in the ground … We must both mitigate climate disruption and build new infrastructure.”

Whether that kind of straight talk will clear an easy route to an election night victory party won’t be known until the primary on June 3. A majority of Montana voters favored relaxing environmental laws to encourage more coal, oil and gas development, according to a 2012 Lee Newspaper poll, and nearly half told a Colorado College poll that global warming concerns have either been greatly exaggerated or that more research is needed before taking action to combat it.

But Adams says it’s a plus.

“People understand that politicians who speak the truth are a value, and by and large in the Democratic primary, voters understand,” Adams said in an interview. “It will probably hurt with some of the union guys, but it’s important to tell people the truth … One of the big reasons coal is dead is that the investment houses are saying we need this like a hole in the head.” He added that environmental groups have welcomed his remarks, and that while the state AFL-CIO hinted strongly it would endorse Walsh, the labor group’s leader said he appreciated what Adams says about coal “because the guys need to hear that.”

Adams said he talks about climate change “in every conversation” with voters. “It’s one of my two campaign points. I talk about women’s issues and I talk about the environment and climate change.”

Out of the 26 coal producing states in the U.S., Montana ranks 8th, with production last year totaling more than 36 million tons from six mines. While employment, around 1,200, is not that significant compared to other industries, a proposed new mine in southeast Montana would more than double total employment to about 2,900.

Since 2009, Montana coal exports abroad have grown six-fold to 13 million tons. The state receives about $48 million in coal royalties.

On the other hand, Montana voters have a history of appreciating frank talk from their politicians, like former two-term Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former nine-term Democratic Rep. Pat Williams.

And when it comes to coal and climate, Adams isn’t waffling.

“Coal is dead,” he wrote. “I will not be dishonest about this for political gain. Lying isn’t going to help those [coal industry] workers. Instead, I have a plan for retraining and job growth. I’m going to serve the impacted citizens by dealing with reality, rather than serving myself by hustling concerned workers for votes with promises no candidate will keep.”