By Ron VandenBoom
It was a proud and humble Greg Jergeson that stood in the Senate Chamber one day in January 1974, taking an oath that would make him the youngest Montana senator ever elected. He was a bright, brash and committed young man of 24.
As luck would have it, Jergeson joined two other senators, who like himself, were under the age of 30 an unofficial barrier that had never before been broken. One, Bob Brown, is today Montana's Secretary of State he was 26 at the time.
It might have been the Watergate Scandal that lead to this break with Montana tradition, Jergeson suggests. The image of Watergate was still fresh in the public's mind and there was a "try somebody new, try somebody different" attitude among voters.
"It was clearly a learning experience," Jergeson said about his early dive into politics.
"I asked to be seated in the back row of the Senate between two older, more experienced members. I wanted to be able to pick their brains and learn about the process and how I could be more productive," he said.
"I learned how the Senate operated and how senators ought to work with one another and how to maintain a level of respect for one another," Jergeson said of the experience.
It is a lesson he never forgot and over the years earned him a high level of respect among his colleagues and his constituency.
"He's been called the conscience of the Legislature," said former Rep. Antoinette (Toni) Hagener. "He was very kind and helpful to me when I went to the Legislature."
Hagener also described him as "sincere," "thoughtful" and "conscientious," while also being a man of great strength.
Jergeson was raised in a household where his parents were active in Blaine County politics. As a teenager his idol and mentor was Rep. Francis Bardanouve, another long-serving Montana legislator. When 22, Jergeson had made a run for the House of Representatives where he would have served alongside Bardanouve. But he lost in the primary.
By the time the 1974 election rolled around, Jergeson tried to talk Bardanouve into running for the Senate so he could run for Bardanouve's seat in the House.
Jergeson said Bardanouve turned down the suggestion and told him he should toss his hat in the ring in the Senate race.
Jergeson said that Bardanouve told him that by the time Jergeson was old enough to have some power in the Senate he would still be a young man.
The strategy was successful and Jergeson served continuously from 1974-80. Then the Reagan landslide election of 1980 temporarily halted his political career.
"But every cloud has a silver lining," he said, because in the winter of 1981 he met his soon-to-be wife, Barbara. Although she came from a devoutly Republican family, the two were soon married and before diving back into politics in 1988, the union had produced two daughters, Cassie and Stefanie.
"It's a family that I cherish above anything in the world," he said.
Jergeson's successfully return to the Senate in 1989 and began a stretch of continuous service that today makes him the longest serving legislator in the Senate a stretch that will span 22 years when his current term ends in 2003.
Montana's term-limit law will not allow him to run for another four-years in the Senate.
"From my perspective, Greg has offered a lot of leadership," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy. "We will lose a tremendous amount of experience when he leaves."
Tester said Jergeson represents a rare breed of legislator who possesses a wealth of knowledge about Senate rules and the operation of the budget.
"He wasn't grandstanding about it," Tester said. "But when procedure wasn't being followed, he was quick to call it.
"Aside from being helpful when I started in the Senate in 1999, Jergeson has a reputation as being very balanced and truthful and never slanted when answering a question about some pending legislation, Tester said. "He just gave the facts."
Tester also praised Jergeson's work ethic, noting that he was usually on the floor by 6 a.m. every morning and even during the slack hours he was always reading bills, researching an issue, or discussing the issues with other legislators.
"He shows total dedication to the body (Senate) and to the people," Tester said.
Jergeson's knowledge concerning budgetary matters comes mostly from his years of experience on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee one of the most powerful committees in the Senate. He has the reputation as someone who knows how the budget is built and how it works and how the whole process is put together.
Jergeson has also served two sessions on the Natural Resources Committee and on the Senate Education Committee which deals primarily with higher education. He has served every session on the Senate Agriculture Committee a committee he chaired during the 1991 legislative session.
In 1979 he was elected minority whip and in 1991 and also chaired the Senate Committee on Committees which appoints members to all other committees.
Jergeson was elected majority leader in 1993 the last time the Democrats controlled the Senate.
After all his time in the Senate, the session he remembers as being most difficult was the 1977 session. It was during that year the issue of whether or not Montana should rescind a 1974 vote ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution hit the headlines.
The public was very much engaged in the issue, Jergeson said. Letters from his district were pretty much evenly divided on the issue and even within political parties there was no consensus of opinion.
"There was a lot of pressure on me," Jergeson said, recalling that he was one of the swing votes on the issue.
Then came a famous phone call from a staff person in the White House that suddenly got morphed, he said, into a phone call from Rosalyn Carter.
Rumors swirled around Jergeson that he had caved into pressure from the White House. But the fact of the matter was that Jergeson just didn't feel the Constitution addressed the issue of rescinding ratification.
"I didn't think there was a Constitutional basis for rescinding," he said. "But sometime the trial by fire prepares you then to contend with other issues."
Jergeson has seen changes in the Senate over the years, but during his 27 years of service, he said he has only seen a breakdown in civility. It came during the 1995 and 1997 sessions. He said some "characters" got into the Senate who were not given to the idea that people could be civil to one another across differences of principle and opinion.
"It's a collegial body," Jergeson said about the Senate. "To be sure, you end up with divisions in a legislative body and serious argument, but those divisions are based on all sorts of divisions eastern verses western, north verses south and so on."
Jergeson said senators can't take disagreements too personally because the next time, when it's a different issue, they might need to be allies.
Being placed in a 90-day pressure cooker like the Senate forces members to become close, he said.
"Just like co-workers anywhere," he said. "You might have an argument during a floor session during the day and end up eating together in the evening during one of the receptions. You develop friendships and they last a lifetime."
Jergeson's inability to return to the Legislature for another term is a prospect that upsets many of the people who know him best. They feel a wealth of knowledge and experience is being wasted.
"He's one of the more competent legislators we've got," said former Rep. Ray Peck. "He's very bright and analytical and he expresses himself well. He has the respect of everyone down there."
Peck described Jergeson as someone who has the ability to see the big picture, is very knowledgeable, and understands budgeting and finance at the state level and how it impacts people at the local level. He also is someone, Peck said, who believes in government but recognizes that government is not always right.
Jergeson notes that it's yet to be shown whether Montana's term-limit law will have a positive effect on the state. But one thing he is sure of is that years of experience and knowledge will be lost when the last of the old-timers are term-limited out after the next session. He is also sure that leadership roles and chairmanships will now be passed on to the members who are the most charismatic rather than the most experienced.
"They will have drawn the attention of their colleagues and will rise to the top because of their charismatic personalities," Jergeson said. "They will be the best speakers and the quickest witted, but whether they have the breadth of knowledge , I think that's going to be a problem, particularly in the House."
Jergeson has seen many changes over his years in the Senate greater openness in committees and caucuses, a lot more e-mails and a lot fewer letters are being sent today. Even the decor of the Senate Chambers has changed. But his parting is not the end of the world.
In his valedictory address to the Senate on the last day of the 2001 session, Jergeson told his fellow legislators that he is not so much stepping down from the Senate, but that, because Senators are, in fact, employees of the people, he was actually stepping up to the role of employer.
At one time a fellow senator called Jergeson "one of the most accomplished chess players in the Senate." It was a compliment that implied Jergeson had the ability to see the consequences of a move six or seven steps ahead and knew how to get accomplished the things he needed accomplished. It's a talent that will no doubt serve him well in his civilian job as director of grants and sponsored activities for the MSU-Northern Foundation.
But what the future might hold politically for the soon-to-be former senator is still up in the air. While he said he is extremely grateful to his constituents and supporters who voted for him and helped him over the years, particularly his wife and family, he is uncertain about a political future.
"I don't have any plans whether there's a political career in the future or not," Jergeson said. "If something came up that I thought I could do a good job with, I would entertain the idea."
In the meantime, he expects to be involved in community activities and he said he will stay active in local Democratic politics.