HELENA — It is late afternoon and only a handful of lawmakers are at their desks in the Senate when Sen. Minority Leader Carol Williams walks in holding a blue trophy topped with a golden pig.
As she heads to her desk, the Missoula Democrat stops to show Sen. Ryan Zinke the traveling award that Democrats give to their party’s Senator of the Week.
She tells the Whitefish Republican that it could be his if only he would switch teams.
Zinke has no qualms about voting against his party. He’s done it several times this session, and he’s likely to do it again. But the idea of jumping ship only draws a deep laugh. He's a proud, lifelong Republican. He remembers standing in front of his high school with a bullhorn during the Iranian crisis of 1980, campaigning for Ronald Reagan.
From his desk on the aisle, the 6-foot-3-inch former Pac 10 offensive lineman shows Williams how far he'd be willing to go. He extends a massive right hand toward the empty Democratic seats. His long arm nearly bridges the wide walkway, and he jokes about dragging Democrats over.
As the session’s second half gets under way, many longtime session watchers expect that some of the more radically conservative bills passed by the House will fizzle in the Senate. If they do, odds are that more moderate Republicans like Zinke will get the credit or the blame.
“I'm exactly where I want to be,” Zinke says after Williams leaves. “I vote on merit and not on party.”
It's not easy going against the party’s flow, but the two-time Bronze Star recipient couldn’t be less concerned about the blowback.
“What are they going to do to me?” the retired Navy SEALs commander asks with a grin. “I'm battle proven. I've been to the front. Compared to battle, the Legislature is pretty calm waters.”
So far, Zinke has bucked the party line on measures ranging from rolling back environmental laws to forbidding the federal government to declare a national monument without state consent. But he’s no pariah in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 28-22 margin.
There is even talk of the 48-year-old running for governor, but he says he will make that decision after the session.
He says he simply doesn't look at life through a red lens. As he puts it:
If being a tea partier means small government, more personal accountability, more personal responsibility, then he's a tea partier.
If being a Democrat means supporting education, making sure corporate America is playing by the rules and giving the disadvantaged a hand up and not a hand out, then he's a Democrat.
At his Republican core, he says, he's a Montanan who believes in fiscal conservatism, a strong military, strong industry and personal responsibility.
A King James Bible sits on the left hand edge of his desk, on the opposite side from the electronic buttons that record his votes. Raised in a Lutheran family, the Bible was passed down to him, and he carried it overseas each time he took up arms for his country.
Its well-worn embroidered leather cover was added during his service with stabilization forces in Bosnia. “To me, religion is more of a personal experience,” he says.
Zinke has seen the bloodshed that comes when governments dictate religion, and he has risked his life to stop it. He served in every conflict from 1985 to 2008. As a commander of Special Forces on the Arabian Peninsula and as a soldier in Bosnia, he has seen horrific acts committed in the names of both Allah and Jesus Christ.
He says his time overseas helped him draw a hard and fast line on liberty: If no one is being hurt, government stops at the mailbox.
He also says government should play no role in personal decisions like abortion. He and his wife, Lola, and their three children live their lives pretty conservatively, he adds, but that doesn't mean he wants someone at a desk telling him what to believe.
In the case of medical marijuana, he says things have gone too far and that he will support repeal — but not an indefinite one. He wants Montanans who need the drug to have it, but he says law enforcement needs time to clean out the criminal element before new regulations take effect to control the drug’s use and distribution.
“My mom died of cancer, and it was a terrible death,” Zinke says. “And if I had marijuana available to me, I know I would have given it to her. … But those people who are abusing the system, I would look for property elsewhere.”
He’s pro-gun, but he doesn’t believe in the public ownership of military-level weapons. And he says there are some places where guns just don't belong, like schools.
Beyond that, his social philosophy is hardly rigid. “I try to keep an open mind and kind heart,” he says.
Last Thursday found Zinke attending an event at the University of Montana's College of Technology in Helena, where he also talked to three Montana State University students.
They asked for his take on the Republican’s $32 million dollar cut to the governor’s budget for higher education. He told them the problem was that federal stimulus money had been factored into the budget last time, which left an even-deeper gap to fill this session.
But Zinke said he believes jobs and education are linked, and he told the students he would do his best to get most of the money restored. He also said that universities need to take a hard look at how they're handling the money and tow a responsible line.
As he left, he put his hand on the back of a student lobbyist and said, “Keep the faith.”
After they spoke, Kayla Miller, MSU’s student body president, said she felt reassured but didn't know how much one senator could do.
Tom Boyle, Zinke's partner in a consulting firm that helps small businesses work with the U.S. Department of Defense, was also at the event. They were there to view a new unmanned aircraft designed and built in Kalispell and similar to military drones. The two have been working to develop the business in Montana.
Zinke is a co-director of a research center on unmanned aircraft, set up in a consortium of higher education institutions including Montana State University-Northern.
Boyle met Zinke in the early 1990s when Zinke was commander of SEAL Team Six. Boyle was an Army officer, helping to plan missions at the Joint Special Operations Command.
When the two travel together, Boyle said, every SEAL they meet gravitates to Zinke as if they were meeting a childhood hero. That respect comes from the way Zinke took care of his men and carried through on his word, he adds.
“If he told those kids that,” Boyle said of Zinke's promise to restore funding, “I'm sure he's going to be up there fighting for education dollars.”
(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at (208) 816-0809 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)