Former Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden died on Sunday in Phoenix, where he was retired, his family announced in a press release. He was 98. No cause of death has been reported.
Schwinden, a Democrat who served consecutive terms as governor from 1981 to 1989, was a farmer, lawmaker and historian with an unvarnished style whose 30-year political career coincided with a time of profound redefinition in Montana, stretching from the latter days of oligopoly to the beginning of a new constitutional order in the 1970s and a heyday for Montana progressivism that faded when Schwinden declined to seek a third term in 1989.
Born near Tule Creek, north of Poplar and Wolf Point, Schwinden was a prime example of Montana prairie populism, longtime friend and colleague Evan Barrett told Montana Free Press, helping form the mold for later rural Democrats like Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester. Hailing from northeastern Montana — an area, at the time of his birth, sometimes referred to as the “Red Corner” due to its agrarian socialist tendencies — he was a progressive crusader while in the Legislature, earning the nickname “Red Ted.”
He was elected to a governor’s office shaped by dramatic changes consequent to a new 1972 Constitution that occurred during the tenure of his predecessors, Democratic governors Forrest Anderson and Tom Judge. But his governorship was also marked by the tail end of an international energy crisis, national “stagflation” and recession, and the state’s difficult economic transition from the natural resource sector to service and tourism, phenomena that contributed to a revenue crisis Schwinden addressed with budget cuts, earning him a reputation as a fiscal conservative.
“He was part of the transition, the progressive change in Montana,” Barrett said. “He was part of it, and then he had to manage it.”
He was widely liked, contemporaries say, and admired for his commitment to transparency — his personal phone number was publicly available — and the 56-county tours he called “Capitol for a Day” events. He drove an old Mercury, whereas auto company Lincoln had previously gifted the state a limousine for the governor’s use. Barrett recalled a story in which Constitutional Convention staffer Rich Bechtel dropped Schwinden off for a White House event in an old Volkswagen, as opposed to the town cars that delivered other states’ governors.
Barrett, former Congressman Pat Williams and others remember Schwinden as a brilliant intellect with an unassuming persona, a shrewd poker player who always remembered what cards were on the table and usually left with winnings in hand, and a politician with an uncanny — and earnest — ability to connect with people.
“He had a speech up in Glacier, it was outdoors, and a lot of politicians, including me, were up on stage,” Williams, a Democrat who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1997, said. “And it was colder than hell. Ted said, ‘All you folks must really be enjoying this weather, because it’s probably the only time you’ll see this many politicians with their hands in their own pockets.’”
Schwinden, a student and teacher of history, knew that he was a participant in and witness to seismic changes during his early days in elected office, which began with his election to the state House in 1958.
“Had a former legislator from the 1930s visited the 1959 session, he would have felt pretty much at home,” he wrote in a history of mid-to-late 20th century Montana politics published in a 2020 edition of the University of Montana Public Land & Resources Law Review. “The longstanding coalition of copper, utility, and cowboy was still a powerful presence. But, two years later, in 1961, change was evident.”
The story of that change is told, in part, by the story of Schwinden’s life.
He began his education in a one-room schoolhouse, fought in World War II (where a Nazi sniper round grazed his cheek) and, like many of his contemporaries, went to college courtesy of the G.I. bill. He obtained both bachelors and master’s degrees in history at what is now the University of Montana and almost finished doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota before returning home — now with higher education and life experience in other countries — to take care of the family farm after his father suffered a heart attack.
Schwinden wrote in the law review article that he and his friend, the late lawmaker Francis Bardanouve, determined during lengthy discussions at the twilight of his governorship that “future historians would conclude that, during the period from 1960 to the 1980s, Montana politics and Montana government were irrevocably changed.”
“The G.I. Bill set the stage for the creation of an educated citizenry, which Thomas Jefferson told us years earlier was crucial for the American experiment in democracy to succeed,” he wrote. “In towns like Wolf Point, Wibaux, and Polson, chamber of commerce fathers had long faithfully accepted their role as conservative watchdogs of their community. However, their sons and daughters embraced their college education and wartime experience and saw Montana in a vastly different way.”
There was the relative prosperity of the Baby Boom, the decline of the copper mining Anaconda Company — and the 1959 sale of its newspapers to Lee Enterprises, ushering in a new era of government accountability reporting, Schwinden noted — the creation of a new Constitution in 1972, the enactment of sweeping environmental protections, the consolidation of state government and the creation of a centralized investment fund, a failed blitz by conservatives to pass a sales tax and an ensuing political backlash that helped hand the state’s reins to Democrats from 1969 until 1989, when Schwinden declined to seek a third term as governor (term limits didn’t arrive in Montana until 1992).
Schwinden completed two terms in the state House before losing his seat in 1962. He was elected president of the Montana Grain Growers Association in 1965, and named commissioner of state lands by Democratic governor Forrest Anderson in 1969, a position he retained under Anderson’s successor, Tom Judge.
In that role, he led Montana’s early efforts at mining regulation and reclamation. In 1976, he resigned to run, successfully, for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Judge — the first two-person gubernatorial team under the requirements of the new Montana Constitution. Four years later, he challenged Judge in the Democratic primary, running on a promise of restoring confidence in the state Capitol, he said in a 2006 oral history.
Members of the Judge administration and other influential Democrats had approached Schwinden asking him to run for the Democratic nomination, concerned that the incumbent could not defeat a Republican, thus jeopardizing the state’s reformist trajectory, which had created a new Constitution under Anderson, and the enactment of strong environmental and labor protections and the creation of the coal severance tax under Judge.
But Judge’s reputation was sagging under the weight of a number of controversies. His 1972 campaign had failed to report $94,000 in donations and $81,000 in expenditures; his office had purchased an infamously expensive carpet; he and his wife went through a messy divorce in his second term; he was often traveling out of state or out of the country. Then, of all things, Mount St. Helens blanketed the state in ash days before the primary, leading Judge to declare a state of emergency and order all non-essential government offices and businesses closed — a decision that was not universally favored.
Still, Schwinden was seen as the underdog against the incumbent. Intraparty challenges to sitting incumbents are rare, and even more rarely successful.
“On the day before the election, most of the papers ran an analysis of the Democratic primary in ’80. Not a single one of them predicted anything other than a relatively easy Judge victory,” Schwinden told interviewer Bob Brown, a former Montana secretary of state, in the oral history. “The kindest remark was [Great Falls Tribune Capitol Bureau Chief] Chuck Johnson, who wrote in the Tribune, ‘No one expects Schwinden to win. There are some who feel that it might be relatively close.’”
Johnson, another fixture of that era of Montana politics, passed away earlier this year.
Schwinden took office at the beginning of the 1980s recession, and slashed state budgets by 10 to 15% to offset projected plummets in revenue. The university system was especially aggrieved, he told Brown, but as a result, “started looking again at what you have to do in terms of budget making.”
“Tom [Judge] left me a $60 million General Fund rainy-day surplus,” he told Brown. “Despite the hard economic times, I left the same amount when I left in 1989.”
Schwinden also approved a curtailing of the coal severance tax that was a key accomplishment of his predecessor, signing one bill in 1985 to grant a tax credit to new coal operations and another in 1987 that halved the tax rate from 30% to 15% — an ostensible, and ultimately failed, effort to increase mining production and help buoy the state economy.
“Hindsight is better than foresight by a damn sight,” Barrett said. “That was a decision Ted made that probably was in error.”
Nevertheless, he received acclaim for helping Montana navigate dire straits without significantly raising taxes, reasoning that if the national economy was experiencing economic stress, so too was the median Montanan.
Schwinden made good on a pledge to seek only two terms as governor and left politics in 1989. He taught at the University of Montana before moving to Arizona with his wife, Jean, who passed away in 2007. The couple is survived by sons Dore and Mike and daughter Chrys, six grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.
“I’ve always thought that a large part of the reason for an epochal change in history has to do not with unexpected events but with really smart people who see the changes necessary and make them happen,” Williams told MTFP. “There’s more to history than chance. I think [when] people get elected, as Ted did and I did, we ride those waves, and help generate some of them.”
Schwinden, in his conversation with Brown, reckoned that every 16 to 20 years, Montanans want a new party in the governor’s office. Before Forrest Anderson, Republicans held the office for 16 years. Democrats, from Anderson to Schwinden, led the state for the next 20 years, followed by 16 years of Republicans Marc Racicot and Judy Martz. Democrats, beginning with Brian Schweitzer, then tacked on another 16 years. And in 2020, Republicans swept the state with Republican governor Greg Gianforte topping the ticket.
“I think that’s a sign that if Montana is a patient, its temperature is still normal,” Schwinden told Brown, though he also acknowledged that they “didn’t have a course in prophecy” in his college curriculum. “I like the idea of the independence in Montana people to change direction. I hope we can find ways to continue to protect that [and], if anything, lean a little bit Democrat.”
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