BUTTE, Mont. — Montanans are not quick to get riled up over politics. Here in this historic copper- and silver-mining town, the big news is the kickoff of Evel Knievel Days — the annual summer festival featuring flying motorcycles and other stunts that recall the famed daredevil, Butte’s native son.
Now another Butte native — Sen. John Walsh, a Democrat who was appointed to office in February — is caught in a plagiarism scandal over a paper he submitted to the U.S. Army War College in 2007. But voters seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude as they judge the future of a politician they barely know.
If people here were bothered about anything, it was Walsh’s suggestion that his behavior was shaped by mental-health challenges he suffered while on combat duty in Iraq. That seems to have irked voters, including veterans, more than the allegations that he copied big chunks of a 14-page paper he submitted for his master’s degree.
“I think it’s politicians digging up dirt on other politicians,” Pam Phillips, 54, said of the plagiarism scandal, expressing the views of many voters here. Others, like Joe Sibiga, 58, said the senator — who is trailing his Republican opponent, Rep. Steve Daines — should have known such information would come out.
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“When you’re in politics,” Sibiga said, taking a break from walking his dog near the Evel Knievel festival, “you’ve got to understand, everything’s going to be explored, everything back to your childhood, man.”
Walsh went on the offensive last week, with a round of interviews in which he acknowledged making a mistake, but he backed away from his suggestion that combat duty affected his behavior.
“I made a mistake here and I’m going to move on,” the senator said in an interview with KBZK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Bozeman. He said he wanted to “make it very clear” that he does not believe that post-traumatic stress disorder “had any impact or effect on the mistake that I made.”
Grew up in Butte
Walsh, 53, has been in politics just two years. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2012, after a three-decade career in the Montana National Guard, and was appointed to fill the Senate seat of Max Baucus after he was nominated to be ambassador to China.
Here in Butte, where Walsh grew up the son of a pipe fitter and played quarterback on his high-school football team, voters are more familiar with the other John Walsh — the former sheriff, who was in law enforcement for 40 years. If people know Sen. John Walsh, it is as a military man and decorated Iraq war veteran.
“Montanans are still forming their impressions of Walsh,” said Christopher Muste, a political scientist at the University of Montana, “and this certainly doesn’t help, especially in terms of the one thing that Montanans think they know about Walsh, which is that positive military service.”
After an article about the apparent plagiarism was published Wednesday, the War College began investigating. With the inquiry still under way, and the state’s top Democrat, Gov. Steve Bullock, standing by Walsh, some voters said they would like to know more before passing judgment.
“They need to look into it to see if it’s really true or not,” Ashley Hossack, 28, said. But if true, she said, she thought Walsh could be forgiven, adding: “Butte’s pretty easygoing. There’s a lot worse stuff that’s happened here.”
Walsh left Butte to attend Carroll College in Helena; it has been so long since he lived here that many residents do not remember him. One who does is Elizabeth Merrifield, a retired teacher and school principal whose children attended school with him. She said he was “polite and well-mannered.”
As an educator she is hardly tolerant of plagiarism, but she also sounded willing to forgive.
“I could cite people of much more importance than he that have made the same mistake or a similar mistake,” she said, adding, “It’s not an uncommon thing, but he shouldn’t have done it.”
Some veterans, however, have not been so forgiving. On Thursday, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle published an article that made clear the senator’s discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had touched a raw nerve.
“It’s totally bogus,” Timothy Pentecost, a retired sergeant major in the Montana National Guard, told the newspaper. “I can’t believe he’s using the PTSD as a reason.”
Walsh initially said he had not intentionally committed plagiarism, an assertion some here questioned, especially since he was in his 40s when it occurred. “I find it hard to believe he would do that unknowingly,” said Kristi Rawlins, 43, who home-schools her three children. “My high-school son knows you don’t plagiarize. Even my grade school son — and he’s in the sixth grade!”
Advisers to Walsh insist that voters will stick with him, though they acknowledge he has some work to do introducing himself before November.
That work may begin this weekend: He is scheduled to stop at a music festival and attend a powwow in Eastern Montana.