MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA Sen. Conrad Burns’ recent verbal attack on a firefighting team for its work on a Montana blaze angered some firefighters, drew harsh criticism in state newspapers and has left the three-term Republican scrambling to repair the political damage. Burns, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the fall elections, confronted members of a firefighting team at the Billings airport on July 23 and told them they had done a “piss-poor job,” according to an official state report and the U.S. Forest Service. The Hotshot crew had traveled 2,000 miles from Staunton, Va., to help dig fire lines for about a week around a 143- square-mile wildfire east of Billings. The crew was awaiting flights home when Burns made his comments. The senator, who has a house in Billings, said he was expressing the frustration of ranchers who were critical of the way the fire was handled. He later apologized for his harsh remarks. The report by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said Burns pointed to one firefighter and said, “See that guy over there? He hasn’t done a g damned thing.” The Forest Service dispatch log said, “Conrad Burns at BIL airport verbally attacking Augusta IHC crewmember.” Burns, a third-term lawmaker already facing questions about his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is trying to turn back a challenge from Democrat Jon Tester.
At least one likely Montana voter was offended by Burns’ confrontation with the crew. “I think it’s just terrible. Why in the world would he attack the firefighters who are the ones out there doing the work?” said Patricia Michaels, 71, of Montana City. Michaels said she had already planned to vote for Tester. Annabelle Richards, 72, a Democratic Party volunteer, said the issue has lingered with Burns. Last weekend, Richards was working a fair booth in Helena and had displayed a Democratic sign, “We support the firefighters.” Richards said she offered to shake Burns’ hand. As he did, “he kind of snorted or scoffed and just said, You people, where do you people dig up this crap?’” “Where he gets with people who are maybe not his supporters, he blows the opportunity to make a few points,” Richards said. Burns would pick up some votes and more people would like him “if he wasn’t so antagonistic and insulting.” Burns’ comments have gotten him into trouble in the past. In 1999, Burns issued a written apology after referring to Arabs as “rag heads” during a speech while commenting on oil prices. In 1994, Burns repeated a story that included the word “niggers” and commented that living with blacks in Washington, D.C., was “a hell of a challenge.” He also once asked a woman who was wearing a nose ring what tribe she belonged to. Last year, the senator denied a flight attendant’s claim that he told her she could “go home and be a mother” if her airline job were eliminated. Doug Neil, a firefighter from Great Falls, said he has received a number of calls from angry firefighters during the last week
“I definitely believe it should reflect badly on him,” said Neil, the legislative liaison for the Montana State Firemen’s Association. “The gaffes in the past with flight attendants and people who choose to wear questionable jewelry, we know that he has slips of the tongue, it’s just unfortunate when it hits close to home.” The Missoulian newspaper said in an editorial that “Burns’ remarks were characteristic of the kind of know-nothing blather you sometimes hear from the local malcontent in a bar or coffee shop.” The Montana Standard of Butte wrote, “The way things are going for Montana’s Conrad Burns, all challenger Jon Tester may have to do is to stay quiet until November to win the hotly contested seat.” Burns apologized the day the confrontation made headlines. During a conference call with reporters, he said there was no anger in his comments and characterized the encounter as a nonevent. He also said he approached the firefighters, who told him they did not want a visit and he left them. The senator’s office says Burns is not backing down from his apology, only clarifying “there was no anger in his comments, only frustration.” A videotape obtained and circulated by the Democratic Party shows that when the conference call ended, Burns turned to officials in the room and said, “that’s the way to shut that down ... that works.”