Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock continues to struggle answering questions about the sudden resignation of Lt. Gov. Angela McLean on November 30 to take a job with the Commissioner of Higher Education.
While both Bullock and McLean have publicly stated that the education job presents a “great opportunity” and “makes sense” for McLean’s career, speculation has raged about what might cause McLean — a rising star in Montana Democratic politics — to resign the number 2 post in state government.
Mike Dennison of MTN News reported last week that, according to his sources, McLean “had had a falling out with the governor and seen a diminished role on the job in recent months.”
In a conference call with several Montana reporters, Bullock denied that he knew about McLean’s impending resignation ahead of time, but struggled to answer questions about whether or not he and his staff had ever discussed replacing McLean on the 2016 ticket.
“There is no ticket to date,” Bullock said responding to a question from Dennison. “Certainly I did not tell her that she wouldn’t be on the ticket.”
Another reporter then pressed the governor on the question, asking if he and his staff — not he and McLean — had discussed replacing McLean. After a long pause, Bullock doubled down on the previous answer, and still would not state whether or not he and his staff had discussed letting McLean go.
“This is a decision that she made, I more or less learned about today,” Bullock said. “I have had conversations with her about her future. I’ve had conversations with her about MY future. Nothing was certainly set for 2016, but, um, I certainly hadn’t said that she wouldn’t be on the ticket.”
The non-answers from the governor seem to be leading to more speculation and more criticism. Last week Media Trackers reported on the early speculation as to why Bullock had trouble keeping a Lt. Gov. on the job. Bullock is now in the position of appointing his third Lt. Gov. in a single 4-year term.
Late last week, Montana State University political scientists Dr. David Parker — considered by many to be the state’s top political commentator — called McLean’s departure “problematic” for Bullock in an interview with Lee Newspapers, saying that it could raise “questions I don’t think the governor wants raised.”
“What’s more important is it looks odd the governor is going to have a third lieutenant governor in a four-year term,” Parker said. “That then raises questions I don’t think the governor wants raised. It brings back the Walsh story, it goes to the fundamental question of, ‘Is the governor competent?’”
Bullock’s first Lt. Gov. was former Montana National Guard Adjutant General John Walsh. Walsh left the job in February of 2014 when he was appointed by Bullock to the U.S. Senate after Democratic Sen. Max Baucus resigned his seat to become Ambassador to China. Bullock’s selection of Walsh was controversial as Walsh already running for the seat against then Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, and elevating Walsh to be the incumbent of the race was seen as handing him and the Democrats an advantage in the race. Many conservatives derisively referred to the situation as the “Big Sky Buyoff.”
After assuming the Senate seat in controversial fashion, Walsh’s campaign imploded spectacularly in the Summer of 2014 after The New York Times revealed that he had plagiarized much of his masters thesis while studying at the Army War College. Walsh heaped even more controversy on himself when he implied that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his 2004-2005 tour in Iraq may have been to blame for his “unintentional mistake.” The whole Walsh issue raised major questions about whether Bullock and his team had properly vetted Walsh’s qualifications to be Lt. Gov.
In the Missoulian yesterday, liberal columnist George Ochenski hearkened back to the Walsh debacle and criticized the governor for his lack of transparency on these issues, stating that the rumor mill is being “aided and abetted by the lack of plausible explanation from either McLean or Bullock on the real story behind the resignation.”
“So far neither Bullock nor McLean have offered the public or press a thorough and reasonable explanation for the sudden resignation,” Ochenski wrote. “McLean says she did what she came to do and is moving on. Meanwhile, Bullock has been like a deer in the headlights, stunned by being totally blindsided and unprepared to offer realistic reasons for McLean’s departure.”