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The Value of the Spoils System

It’s at least 50 years ago that Bob Brown and I listened attentively to Matt Himsl in Kalispell, as the old politician took out the sacred cow of the value of civil service, elegantly put it to death, and delivered it to the grill as he explained what Montana had lost by going to civil service instead of a spoils system.

I was there only because I was with Bob, who was a young politician with a lot of potential.  People like Bob, and a lot of folks have voted for him.  Suffice to say, my success has never been because of popular votes.  Anyway, we learned that there was another side to the spoils system.

Fifty years back, there were Republicans in Flathead County, and Lincoln County was dominated by Unions and Democrats.  Lots of Unions, lots of Democrats.  Himsl had been elected to the house and senate from Flathead, and was one of the politicians who was respected from both sides.

Anyway, as I recall the lesson, one of the important aspects of Montana’s Spoils System was the state monopoly on liquor sales.  Each party had a qualified liquor store manager on hand.  If the Republicans got the governorship, the local Republican party moved into managing the liquor store.  If the Dems won, a dem wound up with 4 years employment.  This wound up with some middle-of-the-road folks working hard for the parties.  As I’ve watched the extremes take over party leadership on both left and right, I’ve often thought Matt Himsl may have been absolutely correct.  The center may be a lot more likely to hold when the local committee folks are involved in politics for the job instead of for the ideology.

I’ve wondered how far it went – I don’t believe that there was ever a Democrat Highway Patrol and a Republican Highway Patrol, though I have heard of counties where the Sheriff was elected and his opponent became undersheriff  for twenty or thirty years. 

I think Himsl wasn’t so concerned about a “deep state” developing as he was concerned about a political system that kept the center involved in politics.  The folks who could play political games all day long, then have a couple of drinks together in the evening afterward.  Bob can do that.  I’m more likely to call an SOB a son of a bitch – and if you do it often enough you’re going to lose votes.

There’s never been any doubt that Bob’s a Republican – even when he wrote of his preferences for Hillary over Trump.  On the other hand, I’ve had Republicans identify me as a Democrat and the next day had Democrats not just call me a Republican, but a damned Republican.  Nobody gets run over so often as the guy who wanders over both sides of the road.

I have a hunch Matt Himsl would have liked Ronald Reagan – the man who said, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally – not a 20 percent traitor.”  I think Bob, like Himsl and Reagan, wouldn’t regard me as a 20 percent traitor. 

In elementary school, I learned that the creation of Civil Service eliminated the abuses of the Spoils System.  I listened to my father, who explained that voting was discouraged among Navy officers – that they served the government, not the party.  I don’t believe he voted until he had retired.  I tried to live so that as the state demographer, I was equally accessible and trusted by both Democrat and Republican legislators.

I learned a lot from one afternoon with Matt Himsl.

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