A bas-relief plaque on the wall in the East Wing of the 1st floor of the Montana Capitol honors legendary Hi-Line lawmaker Rep. Francis Bardenouve, who served 18 sessions in the Montana Legislature. The wing that houses the Legislative Services Division was named for Bardanouve in 2012. Credit: JOHN S. ADAMS / MTFP

In his more than four decades reporting on the Montana statehouse, Chuck Johnson covered a lot of legislators.

Perhaps none was as memorable, effective and influential as the legendary Hi-Line lawmaker Rep. Francis Bardanouve.

“Representative Bardanouve overcame a severe speech impediment to become one of the most thoughtful, fair, and articulate members ever to serve in the Montana House of Representatives,” reads a plaque in the east wing of the state Capitol honoring the 10-time chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

In this 10-minute bonus Montana Lowdown podcast, Johnson recalls the influence the Harlem Democrat had on the Montana Legislature, the respect he earned from members of both parties, and his enduring legacy.

Episode Transcript

John Adams: [00:00:00] So you’ve covered a lot of politicians over the years, Chuck, both state-level federal level, our House and Senate seats in Congress, and the Legislature. Talk about some of the more colorful characters that you recall from your years of covering the Legislature. Anybody stand out as being somebody who just really was kind of an interesting or fascinating character?

Chuck Johnson: [00:00:20] Probably the most interesting legislator I recovered was a state representative from Harlem Montana named Francis Bardenouve. And he was in the Legislature I believe 34, 36 years.

John Adams: [00:00:30] And the Legislative Services Division, the wing of the capital where they’re housed, named after Francis Bardenouve.

Chuck Johnson: [00:00:35] That’s correct. And appropriately so. He was a really interesting guy. He was born on a– I think a ranch up in Harden, during the Depression. No chance to go to college totally self-educated. He was born with a cleft palate. Had a serious speech defect. I used to talk to him sometimes over the lunch hour I’d get a sandwich and eat with him. He told me that in his early years he was so ashamed of his speech defect, that when he went into a restaurant, he just point at something on the menu or have someone else order for him. He was very self-conscious.

[00:01:05] Years later had surgery that– that corrected it somewhat. And I always called this one of Montana’s great love stories: He was a bachelor, and he and the woman who was a speech therapist fell in love and got married, Venus Bardenouve, and uh…

[00:01:18] But Francis gets elected in 1958. There were no orientation classes that the legislature put on. So he gets elected he thinks, “… I need to learn a little more a little more about things.”.

[00:01:30] He gets in his pickup truck he shows up unannounced at all the state institutions wanting a tour. You know they were totally unprepared for him. He always talked about it Warm Springs — or Boulder or maybe it was Boulder — There were naked little kids sitting on cement floors. One of them grabbed his hand like that and wouldn’t let go. He never forgot that.

[00:01:52] So he was a he was just a really interesting guy.

John Adams: [00:01:55] And he was considered by many to be just a brilliant budget mind, right? I mean he understood every aspect of the budget in a way that almost nobody else did at the time, right?

Chuck Johnson: [00:02:06] He was brilliant on the budget and he, I believe, was the sponsor of the bill that created the Legislative Fiscal Division. Up until that point, you had the folks from the governor’s budget office present the budget but no legislative, independent analysis. So he created that office in the I think the early 70s.

John Adams: [00:02:25] Let’s talk about the Legislative Services Division the Legislative Fiscal Division. Let’s talk a little bit about what they do and why they’re so important. Because I think the average Montanan doesn’t really realize that there is a whole slew of staff that are up at the Legislature year round that basically work for the legislative branch, and those are the permanent staff that are there all the time. Legislators come and go but those legislative staffers stay there and they do everything from analyzing the budget to writing individual pieces of legislation.

Chuck Johnson: [00:02:54] Better yet let’s let’s talk about the days before them.

John Adams: [00:02:57] Yes.

Chuck Johnson: [00:02:58] So if you were a legislator, newly elected from, you know, Miles City or Great Falls or Glendive or whatever, and you think– you come in with five or six ideas you want to turn into bills, you had to find a way to get an attorney to draft those bills. Not state attorneys, there were none, for the legislature. So here’s what happened: The, um, the major economic interests, Montana Power Company Anaconda Company the railroad, all had what they called ‘watering holes’ and they rent suites in hotels, the Placer Hotel was the principal one, Jorgenson’s…they would be open 24/7. You could get food and drinks there. They would have (inaudible) and a chef, someone carved a beef up for a meal or sandwiches, any drink you wanted. Oh and if you wanted a bill drafted, well the Montana Power, railroad lawyers, or Anaconda Company lawyers would be around to draft a bill. Very nice situation. I don’t think they drafted bills that would have raised the taxes paid by copper companies, or would have provided for more consumer oversight of the Montana Power Company or the railroads. So it was a pretty slipshod way to do things.

[00:04:09] In the late 50s, the Legislature tried to pass what was then known as the Legislative Council, an independent research arm with attorneys and researchers., And it was struck down once or twice in court, and the powers that be really resisted it. And finally, it passed. And, as you know John, these are people that develop expertise in the field; whether it’s health care or taxes or transportation or economic development. And they staff committees during the interim. They’re nonpartisan, they’re neutral, and they — you know — they do the job. And then they draft all the bills.

John Adams: [00:04:50] And some of them are former journalists.

Chuck Johnson: [00:04:52] A good many of them.

John Adams: [00:04:52] I could think of right off the top of my head…

Chuck Johnson: [00:04:56] I can think of probably at least that many. And so, then came the Legislative Audit Division. And again, it was to examine the books of the executive agencies and even the legislative agencies. One of the first audits they, did and this was under the first legislative auditor, a guy named Morris Brusette; there was an audit that looked at how state agencies invested their spare cash. It was the darndest thing: it found that this money was put in other… there were 170 or something like that, state agencies, boards, bureaus… each invested it separately in local banks. Many of them paid no interest. So you have millions of dollars just sitting in banks drawing no interest. One of the first legislative audits looked at how much money the state could make if they invested in a lump sum and…got interest from the banks. So, of course, that was what was done. The third branch that came along was the Fiscal Division, and they examine fiscal choices. You know, they look at budget options tax options. So you have a lot of expertise down in the East Wing of the capital.

Chuck Johnson: [00:06:11] And, you know, they don’t come in with agendas. They come in to review the budget to review the taxes to review legislation regarding health and guns and, you know, labor and industry everything. So imagine how the legislature would be if they didn’t have that expertise. It was pretty well controlled by the corporations in those days.

John Adams: [00:06:32] And that was something that Francis Bardenouve, the Harlem, Hi-Line legend, we have him to thank for that.

Chuck Johnson: [00:06:38] Yeah. One of my favorite stories about Francis was in (his) last election, and for the first time in decades, he had a primary opponent. It was a tribal member named Lauren Stiff Arm, whose nickname was “Bum.” “Bum” Stiff Arm.

John Adams: [00:06:54] That’s a great name.

Chuck Johnson: [00:06:54] Yeah. And I got the tip from Ray Peck, a legislator I knew from Havre who was a very good legislator… And Francis had a tough race on his hands. And he started putting ads in the weekly newspapers that said: “you know I’d appreciate your vote. I’ll work hard for you. But if you can’t vote for me please consider voting for Bum Stiff Arm, he’s a smart guy and a good guy and he’ll do a good job for you.” We’ll Stiff Arm was like, “well what do you do?” So he started running ads saying: “I’d appreciate your vote. I’ll work hard, but if you can’t vote for me, Francis has done a great job.” So you have…these dueling ads praising each other, and the AP picked up my story — I think I wrote it for the Tribune. And the next thing I know Charles Osgood at CBS — one of the stars of their radio department who wrote these little poems the things — he wrote a great poem about the race about each of them patting each other in the back. And Francis won, of course, and then went on to serve, and I believe that was his last session in the session — in the Legislature.

[00:07:52] But he was a… he was a well-regarded person by everybody. And he was not a neutral guy. He would get furious at Republicans when they tried to cut the coal tax. He would he’d pull 20 dollar bills out of his wallet and wave them at the Republicans. So He had a temper. His nickname…one of his best friends was Gov. Ted Schwinden, who served with him in the Legislature, and Schwinden called him “Torp.” That was his nickname for “torpedo,” because Francis had a temper. But they were they were best friends, and I think Ted Schwinden was the best man at Francis and his wife’s wedding.

John Adams: [00:08:25] Didn’t Francis also… Wasn’t he famous for floor speeches that would go on for an hour or more?

Chuck Johnson: [00:08:33] I don’t remember an hour, but he could stand up and talk. And it’s interesting, because a guy who was embarrassed and wouldn’t order, himself, from the menu, became one of the most eloquent people in the in the Montana Legislature. And I think he was just an honest man who did his best and I thought it was it was a very deserving accolade to name that wing after him. There’s a nice plaque in a bas-relief sculpture of him down there and, you know, I’d urge your listeners, if they get to Helena go down and read that because he was it was just a wonderful man.

Montana Free Press was founded by veteran award-winning investigative and political reporter John S. Adams. John was formerly the Capital Bureau Chief of the Great Falls Tribune and a correspondent for USA TODAY. John is known as a dogged investigator and the host of the MT Lowdown podcast whose unbiased reporting has changed the shape of Montana politics. Contact John at jadams@montanafreepress.org, or follow him on Twitter.