BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Three-term Montana U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns was remembered Friday as an influential lawmaker skilled at connecting with people but unable to shake a penchant for stirring public controversy with politically incorrect comments.
Burns died April 28 of natural causes at 81.
Hundreds of mourners paid tribute to the blunt-talking Republican during a funeral service at the Metra Park Arena in Burns' hometown of Billings.
They included Gov. Steve Bullock, former Gov. Marc Racicot, current and former members of the Montana and Wyoming congressional delegations, state and federal judges, and elected officials from across Montana.
The service led by Pastor Darren Paulson of Atonement Lutheran Church focused on Burn's family, his outgoing personality and a political savvy that at times failed Burns when his loose-talking style went too far.
First and foremost, said daughter Keely Godwin, Burns was interested in people. He would know within minutes of meeting someone where that person grew up and who their parents were, she said.
"He believed in them and made them believe in themselves," Godwin said. "He said we all spend 15 minutes a day doing dumb things. The trick to success is, don't go over your quota."
In 1988, at the age of 53 and after serving just two years as a Yellowstone County commissioner, Burns turned his people skills to statewide politics, defeating two-term U.S. Sen. John Melcher in a close election.
His former chief of staff in Montana, Dwight Mackay, said Burns put much of his focus while in the Senate on issues that would benefit a rural constituency. That included legislation to expand internet availability in eastern Montana, where, Burns liked to say, "there's a lot of dirt between light bulbs," according to Mackay.
Burns delivered many millions of federal dollars for the state's agriculture industry, higher education institutions and military installations, Mackay said. He also worked to reshape federal land management policies to allow increased energy development.
Distracting from those accomplishments was Burns' reputation for crass remarks — about Indians, women, immigrants and others.
He joked about the immigration status of a "nice little Guatemalan man" who was painting his house, called Arabs "ragheads" in a speech about oil prices and criticized firefighters battling a wildfire in Montana as lazy.
"He always said I could self-destruct in one sentence, and he almost did a lot of times," Mackay said. "He said what he said and thought what he thought."
By his third term, Burns faced growing criticism for getting too close to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, drawing an investigation that ended two years after he left office. No charges were ever filed and Burns himself dismissed the matter as "political hooey."
Former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who served as campaign manager for Burns' successful 1988 U.S. Senate run, said Burns considered himself foremost a Montanan.
"Everybody tried to portray him as being part of the establishment and that he had 'gone Washington.' That couldn't be further from the truth," Rehberg said.
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