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Former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns dead at 81

By Amy R. Connolly
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Former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns dead at 81
Former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, seen here in 2004, died at age 81. Photo by Greg Whitesell/UPI | License Photo

BILLINGS, Mont., April 29 (UPI) -- Former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a former cattle auctioneer and agricultural radio broadcaster who served three terms, died at age 81.

The folksy Republican skyrocketed to the U.S. Senate in 1988, rising up from obscurity to unseat Democrat John Melcher. He served as Yellowstone County commissioner for only two years before winning the senate seat, where he sat for 18 years until 2007 He was known to speak his mind regardless of the outcome.

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"He was an underdog, without any question, but of course Conrad was an auctioneer. He was a farm broadcaster, and he knew people all over the state," said Jack Ramirez, Burns' original chief of staff. "If you ever met Conrad, he knew you and you knew him."

Burns got his start as a livestock auctioneer and moved into broadcast radio in 1975, founding a group of stations later called the Northern Ag Network. The network grew to include dozens of radio and television stations across the West. He later became part of the Montana Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.

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While in the senate, he championed small market and rural broadcasters as the co-author of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. He was known for his blunt, unpopular talk that didn't win friends. He was quoted several times making derogatory comments about African Americans, Native Americans, women and the Middle East.

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By 2006, his political career sunk amid allegations of close ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was later indicted on corruption charges. He lost by some 4,000 votes to Democrat Jon Tester.

After leaving public office, he took a lobbying job with Gage Business Consulting in Washington, D.C.

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Friends said Burns was sharp and remained compassionate.

"He lost a daughter years and years ago," Ramirez said. "And before he became a senator, long before, whenever he would see an article in the paper or hear or learn about someone who had lost a child, he would write them a letter. That's the kind of guy he was."

He is survived by his wife Phyllis and two children.

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