Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana got little fanfare from the press when he published his memoir, Grounded, in September 2020. Only the Wall Street Journal reviewed the book, while National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed the Senator. The New York Times finally talked to Tester, too, but only in mid-December.
I can see why national media wouldn’t rush to do puff pieces on a self-serving book, which all memoirs are, of course, if only in their aim of selling books. More so political memoirs, even when there’s no reason to believe Tester is planning a presidential run. Indeed, at age 64 and with four years left in his third Senate term, it’s not at all clear Tester will again run for anything.
But I’d have thought that the subtitle of Tester’s book, “A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,” (author’s emphasis) sets it apart. The rural-urban divide is a topic that garners a lot of airtime and column inches in the mainstream media. Many say they want to build bridges across the burgeoning geographic chasm. Yet, so far, neither coastal progressives nor Republicans are engaging Tester’s blueprint for that very task. Indeed, Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ 2018 plan to win back rural Democrats arguably garnered more publicity than Grounded has thus far attracted.
So what gives? Once again in 2020, Democrats did not fare well among rural voters, keeping Tester’s hybrid memoir-policy manifesto timely. Have progressive influencers read the book and found Tester’s suggestions untenable, unpalatable, or impractical? A bridge too far and therefore not worth discussing, let alone implementing?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when I got around to reading Grounded last month, I found it to be informative and thoroughly enjoyable. It landed on my reading list “for business,” because I think, teach and write about rural issues. But I stayed with Grounded for the pleasure of reading the life story and ruminations of a rural iconoclast in 21st century politics.
The book’s appeal to me is no doubt a function of my interest in rural people and places, but you don’t have to be a ruralist to appreciate Grounded. Indeed, metro folks are the ones with the most to learn from it. And Tester has even provided a shortcut for the efficient consumer: Skip to the Epilogue where you’ll find two handy “to do” lists, one for Democrats and one for Republicans. But readers who cut straight to the chase will shortchange themselves on the rich detail of Tester’s life, deeply rooted in rural Big Sandy, Montana, and a short history of that state’s politics, including the successful, century-long fight to banish dark money from politics.
Most people who follow national politics even a little bit know something about Tester, the giant of a Senator with a big smile, a flat-top haircut, a direct manner, and a passion for government accountability. Some will know that Tester lost three fingers to a meat grinder in his parents’ butcher shop when he was nine years old. Folks may also be aware that Tester is the only U.S. Senator who’s also a full-time farmer. But did you know that Tester’s college degree is in music, that as a young man he taught music at the elementary school in Big Sandy?
Tester inherited both his politics—he’s an unapologetic FDR Democrat—and his interest in politics from his mother, Helen, who got it from her mother, Christine. Tester’s reverence for these women, as well as for his wife Sharla, his partner in both life and the management of their 1800-acre farm, is palpable throughout the book.
Tester parlayed early stints on the Big Sandy School Board and the Choteau County Soil Conservation District into a seat in the Montana State Senate in the mid 1990s; he soon became the president of that legislative body. Then, in 2006, Tester took a big political plunge, challenging U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican who had gotten entangled with scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Tester narrowly defeated Burns, thus reclaiming the Senate seat that had been held by Mike Mansfield (1953-77), the longest serving Senate Majority Leader in our nation’s history. Assisted by former staffer Aaron Murphy (who gets some authorial credit on Grounded), Tester details these and other adventures in life and politics in a well-paced and engaging fashion. Admitting that I’m a sucker for authenticity, grit, and hard work—as long as the deed accompanies the word—Tester’s book delivers.
The central tension in Grounded arises from Tester’s 2018 re-election bid, a race that suddenly tightened that spring when President Trump set his sights on Tester’s defeat. The senior senator from Montana caught Trump’s eye—and raised the president’s ire—when, as ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester challenged the appointment of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead the Department. (Jackson was White House physician to Trump, as he had been to Obama and Bush). Tester’s stance on the nomination was based on credible information that Jackson had provided controlled substances without a prescription and engaged in other questionable practices. Ultimately, Jackson withdrew his candidacy for the VA job, giving Tester a victory in round one against Trump.
Enraged that Tester had derailed his nominee, Trump declared war on Tester. The president flew to Montana four times in the ensuing months and also dispatched his children to stump for Tester’s opponent. In a state that Trump had carried by some 20 points, the Cook Political Report eventually moved the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.”
Come Election Day 2018, however, Tester prevailed in round two against Trump. The Senator won his third term by garnering the votes of not only Democrats and Independents but also 7% of registered Republicans. Indeed, it was the first time Tester won his Senate seat by a majority rather than a mere plurality. Along the way, Donald Trump, Jr., called Tester a “piece of shit,” and Tester had ample opportunity to demonstrate his political acumen. On the day of Trump’s first visit to the state, Tester took out full-page ads in 14 Montana newspapers with this text:
“Welcome to Montana, and thank you President Trump for supporting Jon’s legislation to help veterans and first responders, hold the VA accountable, and get rid of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. Washington’s a mess—but that’s not stopping Jon from getting things done for Montana.”
Grounded pulls no punches with Trump and his family. Tester repeatedly refers to Donald Trump, Jr., as the “greasy-haired kid,” (p. 27) and he likens the elder Trump to the biggest bully on the Big Sandy school playground—the one Tester took on and thumped as a kid, sending a signal to all the bullies to buzz off.
This isn’t the only unflattering comparison Tester draws in the book, suggesting Trump is like the used Cadillac DeVille his parents once bought but soon returned when it proved too ostentatious for Big Sandy. Tester expresses both fondness and great respect for many of his Senate colleagues, but he does not suffer the arrogance of others, like Josh Hawley, the youngest U.S. Senator (R-Missouri). Tester likens Hawley to a petulant child he once taught back at the Big Sandy elementary school.
Still, Tester is not an unadulterated partisan. He prides himself on his ability to work across the aisle, with special attention to the productive relationship he forged with Johnny Isakson (R- Georgia) when they ran the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Among many other accomplishments, they jointly fended off privatization of the VA. (p. 56) Tester’s fierce advocacy of veterans should come as no surprise since 1 in 10 Montanans is a veteran. Plus, Tester has highly personal connections to that constituency. As a child, he played “Taps” on his trumpet at hundreds of veterans’ funerals, and Tester’s older brother made a career in the Montana National Guard.
Whatever Tester’s secret formula of governing, communicating, and just being himself, it seems to work with rural voters. Montana, after all, is both the fourth largest state in land area and the fourth most rural state in the nation, with 44 percent of its population living in rural areas. (The most rural states, by the way, are Mississippi, Vermont and Maine). And Tester uses his political prowess with rural voters as a platform to advise Democrats about what they should be doing differently if they want to regain the ground they’ve lost these past few decades. One major lesson should surprise no one: You have to show up, and you have to speak to rural voters. Tester does that regularly, pounding thousands of miles of pavement yearly as he crisscrosses Big Sky country.
Rural folks will see themselves and their priorities in Grounded. They know that schools matter, not least because you won’t have a rural community if you can’t keep your school (and your grocery story and post office, I might add). Needless to say, Tester didn’t have much use for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ love of charter schools, an obvious non-starter in the context of rural population loss.
Infrastructure like roads and broadband are similarly indispensable and high priorities in rural America. Tester sees no problem with earmarks, so long as they are transparent. Indeed, local input is preferable, he says, when “slicing the federal pie.”
Affordable healthcare is another pet issue for Tester, a stance no doubt informed by personal circumstance. Tester and his wife delayed for five years having a second child because they couldn’t afford health insurance.
And then there are agricultural issues. Tester comes down hard on big ag and other institutions that undermine small, independent farmers. He argues, for example, that farmers should own their own seeds, leaving intellectual property out of the matter. Tester tells the story of his and Sharla’s decision to take their farm organic in 1986, after each had been sickened by pesticides and other treatments. The farmer-senator also details impacts of climate change on their operation, e.g., flooding across their farm after record snowfall in 2018 and sawflies that destroy wheat, a pest that wasn’t around when Tester’s parents ran the farm.
Tester also explains why regulatory schemes suitable for massive urban-centric institutions don’t work for small farms and small banks, among other enterprises rural communities need to survive. Local banks, Tester notes, are as critical to keeping small farmers in business as they are to keeping small towns thriving. (p. 288-89). In his early days in the Senate, Tester voted against both the Wall Street and auto industry bailouts, noting that “too big to fail” doesn’t go down well in Montana. (p. 213-14)
Grounded is, in turn, humorous and poignant. Plus, there’s insider political trivia. Folks annoyed at the disproportionate power commanded by low population (a/k/a “small”) states in the Senate may be relieved to learn that these states’ Senators get a mild comeuppance when they get to Washington, DC. Because the population of a Senator’s state is taken into account in the seniority calculation for office space, Tester landed dead last—number 100—when he was first elected, right behind Sheldon Whitehouse because Rhode Island has a slightly larger population than Montana. Even after his seniority rose, though, Tester retained the number 100 on his Senate softball jersey. (pp. 184-85)
Tester is at his strongest—his most fierce—when advocating for veterans and Native Americans. Regarding the latter, he covers a gamut of issues, including the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women. Montana’s population is 7% Native American, and in his attention to Native issues, Tester reminds me of friends who similarly grew up in states with significant Native populations. In my experience, those folks grow up more attuned to Native sensibilities and Native issues.
And that brings me to the thing about Tester and his book that struck the deepest chord with me: Tester’s policy stances are not driven primarily by nostalgia. Yes, he respects rural people and cares profoundly about small communities like his own Big Sandy. But contrary to the stereotype of rural folks as static and unchanging, Tester reveals how his thinking on a range of issues has evolved.
The brand of Democrats among whom I live and work often act as if they emerged from the womb fully “woke.” Not Tester. He tells us how his view on abortion changed, from opposing it to an understanding that a woman should have a right to make a medical decision about her own body. Tester also recounts the day his son, Shon, came out to him as gay. Reflecting on Montana’s constitutional amendment to define civil marriage as between one man and one woman—a vote Tester had at the time said he approved as the will of the people—the senator came to see “the psychological impact” of that amendment on his son. (p. 146)
Most striking of all is Tester’s rumination on how a white man raised in a conservative rural area came to understand his privilege. Throughout the book, Tester hints at what was more progression than epiphany, and in the final chapter he recognizes that many have not made that journey: “Rural America often refuses to examine the impacts of racism and the privilege that people like my homesteader grandparents benefitted from while the first Americans here were pushed away.”
As he does frequently throughout the book, Tester then returns to the critical role of education, holding up Montana’s Indian Education for All Act, which ensures “all public school kids learn the accurate history of indigenous people.” (p. 384) It’s also a model for how we can be taught to “better understand one another, so that all communities can prosper without having to fear other communities.” The reference, of course, is to Trump’s divisive politics, which have led lots of folks—many of them rural and economically distressed—to believe that they’re in a zero-sum game that pits them against immigrants and people of color. “But,” Tester continues, “we’ve got a hell of a lot more work to do to better understand one another, so that all communities can prosper without having to fear other communities, without having to push them down.” I could not agree more.
At the end of the day, Grounded has something for pretty much everyone. Montanans, obviously, but also political junkies and strategists of all stripes, history buffs, patriots, and rural folks everywhere. I just hope that at some point urban folks, too, engage Tester’s ideas in a constructive dialogue about how we can restore mutual respect between rural and urban America.
I don’t know what’s next for Tester. A fourth term in the Senate? A Presidential bid? A peaceful retirement to his and Sharla’s farm? Whatever the future holds, I’m glad the United States has had Tester’s leadership when we did, fighting not only for Montanans but for rural folks, veterans, Native Americans, and other vulnerable constituencies across the nation. I’m grateful he has boldly and bravely spoken—and continues to speak—truth to power.
Lisa Pruitt is a professor of law at University of California, Davis, and runs the Legal Ruralism Blog.