Montana Viewpoint: Lessons from the Hi-Line lawmaker

Several years ago, when I was a member of the Montana Senate, a constituent called me to ask for my help in an issue she was having with a state agency.

I don’t remember what it was, but it must have been pretty simple because it took only a short phone call to resolve it and I was able to call her back the same day to tell her it had been taken care of, and in the way she had hoped for.

Jim

Jim Elliott

“I wish I had that kind of power!” she said, and my knee-jerk response to that was, “You do. I just used it for you.”

And that is where the power of an elected office comes from: it is the sum of the power of the individuals that the office represents. That is sometimes forgotten by those we elect and they come to believe that they are the powerful ones when in fact the power is only loaned to them. That’s when you see arrogance, that’s when you see misuse of power.

Most legislators understand that they have been elected to serve, not to rule, and they are the best of the lot. One in particular was a man from Harlem, Mont., Francis Bardanouve.

Francis was born to a poor ranching family on the Hi-Line, he told me how he covered the holes in the soles of his boots to walk to school. Francis was also born with a cleft palate, and he suffered ridicule because of the way he talked. When he went to the café, he would point to what he wanted on the menu so he didn’t have to speak.

Luckily, Francis had a neighboring family that cared about him and gave him what his parents couldn’t.

“If it hadn’t’ve been for them, I would have been a hermit,” he told me.

He was able to go to Seattle to have his cleft palate operated on, and eventually he married his speech therapist.

In 1958 Francis won a seat in the Montana House of Representatives, a seat he held for 36 years. People told stories of how he would study the state budget at night, sometimes all night, and then would move the papers aside and climb up on the table to sleep. He knew more about Montana finances than anyone, and chaired the Appropriations Committee for many years.

Perhaps because of his disability, he was a champion for the disabled, the disenfranchised and the poor. In his first session he vigorously opposed a bill that discriminated against Hutterites, and as a result he was subjected to bitter personal attacks in his second election, which he won. And because he was a man of courage and principle, he never again had serious opposition.

There is also the story of his first visit to Boulder State Hospital, which was the home for developmentally disabled people, and how one of the residents took Francis’ hand and held it through the entire tour. As long as Francis was a legislator, the state hospitals had a champion.

In his long career he made close friends on both sides of the aisle. He had strongly held beliefs and defended them passionately, but always politely. He was often the most powerful person in the Legislature, but he drove government surplus pickups and the soles of his boots still had holes in them.

He was tight-fisted, compassionate and humble. And he never, ever, forgot that he worked for the people of Montana.

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.

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