Book review: Grounded by Jon Tester

Lisa Pruitt The Daily Yonder
Friday, January 15, 2021

Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana got little fanfare from the press when he published his memoir, Grounded, in September 2020. Only the Wall Street Journal reviewed the book, while National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed the Senator. The New York Times finally talked to Tester, too, but only in mid-December.

I can see why national media wouldn’t rush to do puff pieces on a self-serving book, which all memoirs are, of course, if only in their aim of selling books. More so political memoirs, even when there’s no reason to believe Tester is planning a presidential run. Indeed, at age 64 and with four years left in his third Senate term, it’s not at all clear Tester will again run for anything.

But I’d have thought that the subtitle of Tester’s book, “A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,” (author’s emphasis) sets it apart. The rural-urban divide is a topic that garners a lot of airtime and column inches in the mainstream media. Many say they want to build bridges across the burgeoning geographic chasm. Yet, so far, neither coastal progressives nor Republicans are engaging Tester’s blueprint for that very task. Indeed, Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ 2018 plan to win back rural Democrats arguably garnered more publicity than Grounded has thus far attracted.

So what gives? Once again in 2020, Democrats did not fare well among rural voters, keeping Tester’s hybrid memoir-policy manifesto timely. Have progressive influencers read the book and found Tester’s suggestions untenable, unpalatable, or impractical? A bridge too far and therefore not worth discussing, let alone implementing?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when I got around to reading Grounded last month, I found it to be informative and thoroughly enjoyable. It landed on my reading list “for business,” because I think, teach and write about rural issues. But I stayed with Grounded for the pleasure of reading the life story and ruminations of a rural iconoclast in 21st century politics.

The book’s appeal to me is no doubt a function of my interest in rural people and places, but you don’t have to be a ruralist to appreciate Grounded. Indeed, metro folks are the ones with the most to learn from it. And Tester has even provided a shortcut for the efficient consumer: Skip to the Epilogue where you’ll find two handy “to do” lists, one for Democrats and one for Republicans. But readers who cut straight to the chase will shortchange themselves on the rich detail of Tester’s life, deeply rooted in rural Big Sandy, Montana, and a short history of that state’s politics, including the successful, century-long fight to banish dark money from politics.

Most people who follow national politics even a little bit know something about Tester, the giant of a Senator with a big smile, a flat-top haircut, a direct manner, and a passion for government accountability. Some will know that Tester lost three fingers to a meat grinder in his parents’ butcher shop when he was nine years old. Folks may also be aware that Tester is the only U.S. Senator who’s also a full-time farmer. But did you know that Tester’s college degree is in music, that as a young man he taught music at the elementary school in Big Sandy?

Tester inherited both his politics—he’s an unapologetic FDR Democrat—and his interest in politics from his mother, Helen, who got it from her mother, Christine. Tester’s reverence for these women, as well as for his wife Sharla, his partner in both life and the management of their 1800-acre farm, is palpable throughout the book.

Tester parlayed early stints on the Big Sandy School Board and the Choteau County Soil Conservation District into a seat in the Montana State Senate in the mid 1990s; he soon became the president of that legislative body. Then, in 2006, Tester took a big political plunge, challenging U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican who had gotten entangled with scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Tester narrowly defeated Burns, thus reclaiming the Senate seat that had been held by Mike Mansfield (1953-77), the longest serving Senate Majority Leader in our nation’s history. Assisted by former staffer Aaron Murphy (who gets some authorial credit on Grounded), Tester details these and other adventures in life and politics in a well-paced and engaging fashion. Admitting that I’m a sucker for authenticity, grit, and hard work—as long as the deed accompanies the word— Tester’s book delivers.

Whatever Tester’s secret formula of governing, communicating, and just being himself, it seems to work with rural voters. Montana, after all, is both the fourth largest state in land area and the fourth most rural state in the nation, with 44 percent of its population living in rural areas. (The most rural states, by the way, are Mississippi, Vermont and Maine). And Tester uses his political prowess with rural voters as a platform to advise Democrats about what they should be doing differently if they want to regain the ground they’ve lost these past few decades. One major lesson should surprise no one: You have to show up, and you have to speak to rural voters. Tester does that regularly, pounding thousands of miles of pavement yearly as he crisscrosses Big Sky country.

Rural folks will see themselves and their priorities in Grounded. They know that schools matter, not least because you won’t have a rural community if you can’t keep your school (and your grocery story and post office, I might add). Needless to say, Tester didn’t have much use for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ love of charter schools, an obvious non-starter in the context of rural population loss.

Infrastructure like roads and broadband are similarly indispensable and high priorities in rural America. Tester sees no problem with earmarks, so long as they are transparent. Indeed, local input is preferable, he says, when “slicing the federal pie.”

Affordable healthcare is another pet issue for Tester, a stance no doubt informed by personal circumstance. Tester and his wife delayed for five years having a second child because they couldn’t afford health insurance.

(Lisa Pruitt is a professor of law at University of California, Davis, and runs the Legal Ruralism Blog. )