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Storm Clouds Follow Governor in Big Sky Country

Politics: Judy Martz's message resonates with conservative Montanans, but missteps have hurt her in opinion polls.


GLASGOW, Mont. — At a convention of home-schooling parents earlier this month, Gov. Judy Martz praised families who were able to teach their children outside the public school system for as little as $300 a year. "It shouldn't take $5,000 to $7,000 to educate a student in public schools, and it surely doesn't take a village to raise one," she said.

In a state that is closing rural schools and fighting to maintain education dollars, the governor's implication that the public system spends too much money lighted a fuse of resentment--even here in Glasgow, a farm town on the eastern prairies where a Republican governor normally is treated like family. School Supt. Glen Monson rose during the Kiwanis Club luncheon to point out that the town already had had to close a school and retire its three most experienced teachers because it couldn't afford them.

Martz, a former Miss Rodeo Montana and Olympic speedskater who spent years running a garbage collection business before jumping into politics, likely will assume her first national role this week when she takes over chairmanship of the Western Governors Assn. Her expected election at the meeting of 21 state leaders in Phoenix comes at a time of controversy over her own governorship, sparked by a series of political mishaps that have sent her approval ratings as low as 37%.

Democrats believe her problems could give them their first shot at the Montana governorship in years, and could even tip the balance in the state Legislature this year. Republicans, who convened their annual state convention this weekend, say the numbers are in their favor; but already they privately are evaluating the chances of convincing Martz to avert trouble by not running again in 2004.

Montana's first female governor is highly popular in the business community for her commitment to creating higher-wage jobs. Her strong professions of faith and advocacy of teaching religious values to children also have earned Martz applause from many conservative Montanans.

But major newspapers in the last few months have begun ridiculing Martz, with the Missoulian implying in a tongue-in-cheek editorial that she is "the kind of governor most of you would be if you woke up one November morning and discovered you'd been elected."

Front pages all over Montana last week devoted substantial space to a state ethics hearing into Martz's purchase of land near her home from Atlantic Richfield Co., which is involved in a multimillion-dollar Superfund cleanup lawsuit with the state.

This year, Martz's former director of communications, Mary Jo Fox, wrote a column expressing a degree of relief that she had been fired. "Should one thrown off the Titanic be resentful or grateful?" wrote Fox, asserting that "Gov. Judy Martz has a cheerful way of redefining denial and inaction as leadership."

Republican leaders say Martz speaks forthrightly about issues that Montanans care deeply about but is penalized for her frankness. "People always say they want a politician to speak her mind. She does that. The fact is she's an honest woman, and she's going to get in trouble for speaking her mind," said Mike Kiedrowski, executive director of the state Republican Party.

Indeed, Martz's personal charm is considerable; even her opponents give her high marks for her energy, hard work and commitment to building a stronger economic base in a state that ranks 46th in personal income.

But the home-schooling speech drew ire--especially because it had religious overtones and seemed to imply that children should be taught Christian values.

Those at the meeting said the governor launched into an ardent, almost tearful, affirmation of her faith and asserted that children tutored at home learn "the most important lessons ... the reasons why" they should abstain from drugs and sex. "We have a right to talk about Jesus Christ as our personal savior, and tell our children about him too," she declared.

"She was effectively implying that public schools aren't religious. Well, maybe they aren't, and maybe they shouldn't be, because our Constitution says we accept all faiths in this country," said Eric Feaver, head of the Montana Education Assn. Feaver and other liberal advocates say they have been marginalized by the administration.

"It's very difficult to talk about public schools with this governor, because she keeps saying our economy's bad and we can't pay teachers better and the only way to make our economy better is to cut income taxes and maybe I don't want to talk to you anyway because you're not as Christian as I'd like you to be," Feaver added.

"The result is that I last met with the governor in an official capacity in January of 2001.... Never in my history as a lobbyist have I been so isolated. And I don't think I'm alone. It's just that those of us who are on a course that's different from the governor's are simply not on the governor's radar screen. We're an annoyance."

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