Steve Bullock ‘88 dreamed of becoming the governor of Montana, so he did. What's next for Governor Bullock?

Additional reporting by Annie Deckey ‘22

In the fall semester of 1984, a young Steve Bullock was a freshman at Claremont McKenna College.  Like all first-years at CMC, Bullock was required to enroll in a freshman writing seminar, and he found himself in Professor of Literature Nicholas Warner’s classroom.

 Governor Bullock speaks to an audience at Yellowstone National Park // Wikimedia Commons

Governor Bullock speaks to an audience at Yellowstone National Park // Wikimedia Commons

But unlike most first-years, Bullock had already decided on his future career goals. "As I often do with students," recalls Warner, "I asked him whether he had any professional plans yet, and was struck by the specificity of his answer: 'I hope someday to become the Governor of my home state of Montana.’" Warner says he always remembered that comment, and every once in a while would wonder, "What ever happened to Steve Bullock?"

Bullock went on to graduate from CMC, studied law at Columbia University, served as Attorney General of Montana and — last but not least — won the race for Montana State Governor in 2012.  “It’s a great story to have and a great story to tell,” Warner remarked with a smile.

One of only three Democrats to win gubernatorial elections in red states after the 2016 presidential election, Bullock believes that the Democratic Party cannot rely solely on its base. This approach resonated with CMC senior Charlie Harris ‘19. “I remember reading an article that Governor Bullock wrote in the New York Times about how he believes that Democrats need to reach out to different types of voters,” Harris said. “He emphasized how he is often the only Democrat in the room when he talks to Montanans, and that even if other folks don’t always agree with him, he hopes that he can represent as many people as possible as the Governor.”

 Charlie Harris ‘19 poses with his Bullock 2016 campaign shirt. Harris interned for Governor Bullock last summer. // photo by Malea Martin

Charlie Harris ‘19 poses with his Bullock 2016 campaign shirt. Harris interned for Governor Bullock last summer. // photo by Malea Martin

After learning about Bullock’s unique story, Harris decided to pursue an internship for the governor’s office for the summer of 2018.

By the time he was a senior at Claremont McKenna, Bullock, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics major, asked professor John J. Pitney to be his senior thesis reader. Pitney shared a hard copy of Bullock’s graded thesis with The Forum. Unsurprisingly, Bullock’s thesis focused on Montana, analyzing the state’s welfare reform. Pitney remembered Bullock’s senior thesis as “thorough, balanced, and thoughtful” in an interview with the Claremont McKenna College Magazine in 2014.

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“If we went back in a time machine and told the class of 1988 that Steve would someday be governor of Montana, nobody would be shocked,” Pitney told CMC Magazine.

It appears, though, that Bullock may have even larger aspirations looking toward the future. After Bullock visited Iowa and New Hampshire — two swing states — in August, some speculation arose in the media regarding Bullock’s potential run for the 2020 Democratic nomination and presidential race.

Given Bullock’s victory in a consistently red state like Montana, some see his ability to reach individuals from both parties as exactly what the Democrats need to regain the Executive office in 2020. “In 2016 (Bullock) won re-election at the same time that Trump was carrying Montana by a significant margin. That proves his ability to reach outside of the Democratic base and win voters who might otherwise support Republicans,” Pitney told The Forum. “Democrats need that.”

Others wonder if a bipartisan-appealing candidate would be perceived as too moderate by the Democratic base. In a “Socialism versus Capitalism” debate held at Pomona College in October, Nathan J. Robinson, a Social Policy PhD student at Harvard University and editor of Current Affairs publication, recalled back to the 2016 election while looking forward to 2020.

“I wrote a piece in February of 2016 titled ‘Unless the Democrats Run Sanders, a Trump nomination means a Trump presidency,’” Robinson said to the audience of students. “I very strongly thought that the Democratic Party, if it didn’t speak to the concern of people in my generation about their economic futures, (Democrats) wouldn’t turn out to vote.” Robinson concluded his point by stating that if the Democrats fail to “recapture the enthusiasm of the party base,” he believes Trump will be re-elected.

“The flip side is the challenge (Bullock) will have in exciting base Democratic voters,” Pitney similarly noted. “The question for Democrats is, do they want somebody who will tickle their partisan fancy or do they want somebody who can actually win in November in 2020?”

Sam Horowitz ‘20, Pitzer student and president of the 5C Democrats Club, thinks Bullock can do both. “We need candidates who advocate for the values and policies that a majority of Americans, especially young people, support: Medicare for All, a higher minimum wage, undoing Citizens United, and tackling climate change,” Horowitz told The Forum. “Governor Bullock recognizes this, branding himself as ‘Practical and Progressive,’ and prioritizing Medicaid expansion. He understands that being progressive has become the new mainstream for Democrats.”

In an ever-changing political landscape, time will tell whether a candidate like Bullock could carry the Democratic party to success in 2020. But Pitney maintains that Bullock’s “practical problem solving” that he learned at CMC will help him if he gets there. “That’s the ethos of this campus and that’s the ethos that he would bring to the White House.”