Former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a former cattle auctioneer whose folksy demeanor and political acumen earned him three terms and the bitter disdain of his opponents, died Thursday. He was 81.
Burns died of natural causes at his home in Billings, Montana Republican Party Executive Director Jeff Essmann said.
“He was a colorful figure who loved people, politics and to serve,” Essmann said. “He brought a common-man, common-sense approach to his work in the Senate and returned to his home in Billings when his work was done.”
Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said he and wife Lisa would join other Montanans in celebrating Burns’ life.
“Conrad was a dedicated public servant and a fierce advocate for Montana — especially rural Montana — in the United States Senate and at home, with an unrivaled sense of humor to boot,” Bullock said.
As a Republican senator, Burns used his influence on the powerful Appropriations committee to set the course on energy development and public lands management across the rural West. But he was ousted from office in 2006 under the specter of scandal after developing close ties to “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff, who was later jailed for conspiracy and fraud.
No charges were ever filed against Burns, who dismissed criticism over the affairs as “old political hooey.”
After working as a livestock auctioneer, Burns in 1975 moved into broadcast radio, founding four stations known as the Northern Ag Network. The network eventually grew to serve 31 radio and TV stations across Montana and Wyoming, offering agricultural news to rural areas.
He sold the network in 1985 and — capitalizing on his name recognition — made his first foray into politics a year later, when he was elected commissioner for Yellowstone County in south-central Montana.
Before his first term was completed, Burns took on incumbent U.S. Sen. John Melcher, a two-term Democrat described by Burns as “a liberal who is soft on drugs, soft on defense and very high on social programs.”
At the age of 53, he won election to the Senate by a 3-percentage-point margin. He rose to be one of the most influential positions in Washington with his seat on the Appropriations committee, serving as chairman of the Interior Subcommittee.
Burns became a strong advocate for increased domestic energy production and expanded development of natural resources. But even before his first term was over, Burns’ loose-talking ways — once credited with earning him favor among Montana’s rural electorate — landed him in trouble.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the senator invited a group of lobbyists to a “slave auction” and later used a racial slur for blacks when relating a conversation he had with a Montana rancher. The resulting furor had little impact on his 1994 campaign, which he won in a landslide.
During the 2000 campaign, the controversy around Montana’s backslapping senator nearly caught up with him. He prevailed by only a thin margin over rancher Brian Schweitzer, who went on to become governor four years later.
By the end of his third term, however, Burns had been affixed with the same Washington-insider label that he had used successfully against Melcher. His close ties to lobbyist Abramoff lent credence to the accusation, and his bid for a fourth term came up about 3,000 votes short against the president of the Montana Senate, Democrat Jon Tester.
Burns had long cultivated a reputation as being a plain talker, but by the time he left office, his incautious remarks had become legendary. The press catalogued derogatory comments directed at women, Arabs and even out-of-state firefighters who had come to Montana to battle a 2006 blaze near his hometown of Billings.
“He had that fresh approach of just saying what he thought and not being very political,” said Taylor Brown, a friend and fellow Republican who bought the Northern Ag Network from him. “That was probably his biggest weakness in the end. He just said what he thought.”
Former Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg met Burns when he asked the partner in the Billings-based Northern Agriculture Network to be a speaker at a fundraiser for Rep. Ron Marlenee in the early 1980s.
“I was looking for an (master of ceremonies) and people kept telling me about this Conrad Burns who did a lot for the Stockgrowers and 4-H,” Rehberg said. “I didn’t know if he was a Republican or a Democrat or if his speech would be good, bad or a disaster, but he was terrific.”
A few years later Burns asked Rehberg for advice about getting more involved in politics.
“I told him he should be patient, run for the state legislature and then work his way up,” Rehberg said. “He didn’t listen to me, and he filed for the senate race.”
Eventually Rehberg ended up managing Burns’ successful 1988 challenge for Sen. John Melcher’s seat.
Once in Washington, Burns leveraged his broadcast background and secured a seat on the Commerce Committee.
“The next generation was fiber and telecommunications and Conrad worked to get rural areas wired, rural areas in Montana so we would be where we needed to be in the 21st century,” Rehberg said.
He was with his former boss a couple of weeks ago in Billings at a fundraiser for statewide GOP candidates. Burns was in classic form, joking and visiting.
“He was just good old Conrad, yucking it up,” Rehberg said.
Burns always took his job as an elected official seriously, but was a fine example of how not to take yourself too seriously, Rehberg said.
“He taught me that you need to enjoy your job, to have fun,” he said.
After leaving office, Burns went to work for his former chief of staff in a Washington lobbying firm, Gage Business Consulting. But the Abramoff scandal followed him, and he eventually gave away $150,000 in contributions from the lobbyist, his clients and friends.
After the U.S. Justice Department launched a probe of Burns’ ties to the affair, he said he made nearly 10 years of records from his Senate office available to the government for review, including all electronic records. When the investigation was dropped in 2008 with no charges filed, he said he had never been interviewed as part of the investigation.
He credited his “thick hide and clear conscience” for helping him withstand the public scrutiny.
“There’s a hundred lobbyists who walk through that door every week,” Burns said in 2006. “If you don’t have a deep-seated philosophy then you might find yourself getting lost. I vote my philosophy first.”
Born in 1935 in Davies County, Missouri, Burns studied agriculture at the University of Missouri for two years before joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1955. He first came to Montana as a regional salesman for Polled Hereford World magazine, and later settled in Billings to become the manager of a regional livestock expo in 1968.
Montana’s senators offered their remembrances of Burns.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said the first time he met Burns was at the Montana Agri-Trade Exposition in Billings.
“I had listened to his broadcasts on the radio for years, but I’ll never forget hearing that powerful voice from across the room,” Tester said, adding his family offered their thoughts to Burns’ family.
“Conrad’s service to our nation as a Marine, county commissioner, and United States Senator will be forever remembered in history,” Tester said.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines said Burns spent the morning having coffee with friends, sharing memories of his service as a U.S. Marine and died Thursday afternoon in his chair from natural causes.
“Conrad passed away with his boots on, active and engaged until the very end,” Daines said.
State Sen. Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls, said he knew Burns, but didn’t know him well.
He remembered when Burns first ran for office he came to the Montana Equipment Dealers Convention.
“I visited with him a little bit and I didn’t think he had a snowball’s chance of winning, but he said the polls were close,” said Hoven, who owns Hoven Equipment.
And he won.
He said he believed Burns’ biggest accomplishment was instrumental in bringing internet access to rural areas and schools.
“He did a good job there; I liked him,” Hoven said.
Brown said he first met Burns in the ’60s when Burns judged a 4-H show in which Brown was showing a steer.
He came to work for Burns in 1979 and eventually bought the Northern Broadcasting Network from Burns.
“He was such an innovator and idea man,” Brown said. “He thought of things in a bigger way than anyone around him.”
“He was tremendously humble and down to earth and he didn’t take himself seriously at all,” Brown said. “He was generous with his time and money.
“He gave me so much opportunity,” Brown said, adding Burns gave so much encouragement to others.