By Ron VandenBoom
Bruce Simon, Republican candidate for state auditor, promised the North Central Montana Pachyderm Club Friday that he would not use the auditor's office as a springboard to higher office.
Simon explained that it has become common for the office to be used as a "staging ground" to run for other offices.
"I will never be a candidate for governor," he told the Pachyderms. "I will never be a candidate for United States Senate (and) I will never be a candidate for United States House. There is no more direct way of saying that I'm not going to use the office as a political stepping stone."
Simon accused current state auditor and gubernatorial candidate, Mark O'Keefe, of using the office for political purposes.
Simon said O'Keefe's current campaign manager, Dave Hunter former deputy state auditor, was given time off from his duties to work as a campaign manager during the 1996 campaign season.
Hunter is currently working as O'Keefe's campaign manager, Simon said.
Hunter, in a telephone interview Monday, admitted he was Sen. Max Baucus's campaign manager, but said he resigned his office as deputy state auditor in October, 1995.
"I did not take time off or a leave of absence," Hunter said.
O'Keefe reappointed Hunter to his job as deputy state auditor after the 1996 election where he said he worked until resigning again on Dec. 1, 1999, to manage O'Keefe's campaign.
"I wanted to make it sure there was no conflict of interest between the office and the campaign," Hunter said.
Simon said that as state auditor he intends to take the politics out of the office.
"We intend to run the office for the benefit of the people," Simon said.
Simon also told the pachyderms he believed his most likely opponent in the general election would be John Morrison a Helena lawyer who according to Simon, also has his sights set on higher office.
"He made $666,000 on the tobacco settlement," Simon said. "Why would a man that made probably $1.5 million last year want a job that pays $63,500?"
Simon also questioned why Montana's trial lawyers have endorsed Morrison for the job.
"Why are the trial lawyers so interested in having somebody who's a lawyer regulate insurance and securities," he asked?
Simon also noted that Morrison's grandfather was a former governor of Nebraska and said his father had run for governor of Montana suggesting that Morrison, too, could have his sights set on a future governor's race.
Attempts to contact Morrison for comment Monday were unsuccessful.
Morrison did say in an earlier interview however that Simon's claim that Montana could experience a decline in the number of insurance companies willing to do business in the state was not proven and, in fact, the number of companies currently servicing the state has risen over the last eight years.
Simon told the Pachyderms Friday that Morrison is probably right about the number of companies, but said the problem is not the number of companies, but what they have to offer Montana consumers.
"Most of them are only registered to do business in Montana because they want to be able to say, We're registered in all 50 states,'" he said. "They are not really offering products in Montana. Consumer choice is down."
One of the major problems he said was that it takes a long for companies to register.
"I believe in service," he said. "Quite frankly, I think we've gotten away from that in a lot of areas of state government."
Simon said that insurance companies need to be treated fairly if they are to be expected to provide service to Montanans.
"I've got a proven record of service to the people of Montana and providing a balanced and fair approach to government," he said.
Simon points to an endorsement by the AFL/CIO after his first year as chairman of the House Business and Labor Committee as proof that he can be fair in his treatment of the insurance industry while at the same time enforcing Montana law.
Simon has served as a legislator for 14 years and has served on the Governor's Council on Management, Private Industry Council, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, and other state and local boards.