Remembering Ex-Rep. Ron Marlenee: A Montana Original

Gun Rights

“‘The most vicious political backstabber to come down the pike!'” this reporter said to Rep. Ron Marlenee, R.-Mont., during an interview in his Capitol Hill office in the fall of 1984. “Did you actually say that about [Montana’s Democratic Gov.] Ted Schwinden?”

The question, to say the least, startled Marlenee. As staffer Kurt Christensen stifled a laugh, the congressman spit his chewing tobacco in a paper cup and sipped some coffee (from my cup and not his.) 

After being pilloried by the press back home for his fiery statement at the state Republican convention, the last thing Marlenee wanted was to discuss his controversial words with a Washington, D.C., reporter.

After a few minutes, however, he leaned back in his chair, put his cowboy boots on the desk, smiled, and said: “Sure, I did. And I was absolutely right.”

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That’s how I remembered Ron Marlenee, the longest serving Republican U.S. Representative (1976-92) in Montana history, upon learning of his death April 26 at age 84. Always plainspoken and never taking himself too seriously, Marlenee lived up to the reminiscence of his onetime press secretary Dan DuBray: “He made himself available, for good or ill. You couldn’t predict what he would say and, as his press secretary, putting him out there could be a high-wire act.”

Marlenee could have co-starred in a Western film with John Wayne. The lifelong rancher loved fishing, hunting, and camping. But he also felt his fellow outdoorsmen, as well as farmers and ranchers, were getting a bad deal from the rising environmentalist movement. Marlenee was a key player in thwarting the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and opposed both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

It was no surprise, then, that Environmental Protection soon placed the Montanan on their “Dirty Dozen” List of Members of Congress with the worst environmental records.

Born and raised on a farm in Scobey, Montana, the young Marlenee bounced from Montana State University (Bozeman) to the University of Montana (Missoula) without graduating. He finally found his calling by completing studies at the Reisch School of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa.

Along with managing his family’s ranch, Marlenee became a popular fixture throughout Eastern Montana with his machine gun-style of taking bids and declaring sales at livestock auctions. He also became active in Republican politics and was a member of the Daniels County GOP Committee.

When Democratic Rep. John Melcher announced for the U.S. Senate in 1976, Marlenee — little-known and a first-time office-seeker — declared for his open House seat. He won a crowded Republican field and then blitzed the largely rural district in his pick-up truck. 

“One of Us For Congress” was Marlenee’s slogan. It underscored the contrast between the auctioneer-rancher Republican and Democratic State Sen. Thomas Towe, litigator and onetime student at L’Institut d’Etude Politique, France. Marlenee won with 55% of the vote.

As a member of the House Agriculture and Interior Committees, Marlenee was what he called “a multiple use guy” — an advocate of multiple use of public lands for oil and gas drilling, logging hard-rock mining and other uses in balance with hunting, fishing and wildlife habitat.

What one saw in the Montanan was what one got. He once crashed a pro-gun control press conference, grabbed an automatic Uzi on display, and fired it. He characterized pro-wolf, vegetarian conservationists as “fern feelers and prairie fairies.”

Through his friendship with fellow Westerner Ronald Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush, Marlenee helped secure appointments for key allies from Montana.

At Marlenee’s suggestion, Reagan appointed Charles Lovell to the U.S. District Court (where he would rule in numerous cases dealing with Yellowstone National Park.). Cy Jamison, who worked for Marlenee on the Interior Committee, went on to become Bush’s director of the Bureau of Land Management. 

The U.S. Census in 1991 forced Montana’s two U.S. House districts into one at-large seat, Marlenee was forced into a battle royal with the western district’s Democratic Rep. Pat Williams. 

“It was a clash of the titans in terms of ideology,” Will Brooke, Marlenee’s 1992 campaign manager, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “People from all over the country were watching the race because they saw it as a bellwether. … It was quite a fun and exciting experience.”

In the environmentalists’ opinion, Williams was by no means perfect. But his record was four times as “green” as Marlenee’s, so they supported him vigorously. Moreover, because both congressmen had identical scores with the National Rifle Association, the NRA remained neutral in their contest — a blow to Marlenee, who had always counted on vigorous backing from fellow gun owners.

Williams won in a photo finish with 50.5% of the vote.

Marlenee would spend several years as chief lobbyist for the hunting group Safari Club International. In retirement in Bozeman, he built a replica of Sherwood Forest for his nine grandchildren and even stocked it with fake insects.

To the end, Ron Marlenee remained a Montana original.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. Read John Gizzi’s Reports — More Here.

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