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‘Underdog’ Hill seeks highest office in comeback

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HELENA, Mont. — One of Rick Hill's earliest memories is of doctors and nurses repeatedly putting him in an ice bath and then encasing his polio-stricken muscles in hot packs to prevent them from atrophying.

Hill, then 4, was lucky. The illness was diagnosed early, thanks to a sharp-eyed doctor across the alley from his parent's apartment in Minnesota. But it took 12 more years to go from walking 150 feet without rest to becoming captain of his high school wrestling team.

Hill said it gave him an early lesson about facing challenges.

"When you go through hardship in life, you kind of have to decide and think how you're going to respond to it," Hill said. "We just took it on as a challenge and my family pulled together."

More than a decade removed from political office, the former Republican congressman is making another comeback bid. This time, his challenge is to win the Montana governor's office back for the GOP after eight years under Democrat Brian Schweitzer.

The landscape has changed since 2000, when Hill decided not to seek a third term as Montana's sole congressman. A new generation of voters has come of age. The 65-year-old Hill faces a rising Democratic star in Attorney General Steve Bullock.

"We looked at it as though we were the underdog. I've been off the stage a long time. A lot of people have forgotten me," Hill said. "When you step off the stage and come back, the people who didn't like you remember you a lot better than the people who did like you."

Polls show a close race with 10 to 20 percent of voters undecided. A possible spoiler is Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender, who is polling at about 2 percent, according to a new Montana State University Billings survey.

Hill is working to motivate his base by campaigning with such conservative luminaries as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. His central campaign message: Burdensome and inefficient state regulations have put Montana at a disadvantage compared to its neighbors, North Dakota and Wyoming, and kept away more and better-paying jobs.

He advocates charter schools, supports anti-union right-to-work laws and wants to lower property taxes by funding public education through oil and gas revenue. He has promised to scrutinize every government program in what he calls "priority budgeting" and to put to voters a plan to cap a coal severance tax fund for 10 years and use the money to build infrastructure in communities affected by oil and gas development.

Hill said that can all be done without throwing environmental regulations out the window.

"We do not believe that we have to sacrifice Big Sky Country to get to the Treasure State. This is not about reducing environmental standards. It's about building a process that gets us through it in a more timely way, in a more predictable process," he said.

Bullock said Hill goes too far in his assessment. Montana's government and economy are relatively strong compared to other states, with surpluses and growth.

"He's saying that everything's broken," Bullock said. "I think things are going pretty good, but we can always improve it."

Hill went to work for a Minnesota insurance company called the St. Paul Companies after graduating from St. Cloud State University in 1968. The company made him manager of its Montana bond department in Great Falls in 1971, when Hill was 24. A couple of years later, he started his own insurance company.

He and wife Mary had three sons, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1980. Mary Hill spoke publicly during his 1996 campaign for Congress, saying the marriage ended because Hill had an affair.

Hill does not like to talk about that period, saying only that the marriage had seen previous separations. He was awarded custody of his sons, who he said introduced him to his second wife, Betti.

The couple became involved in campaigns for Gov. Marc Racicot and Sen. Conrad Burns. Hill ultimately sold his insurance company to pursue politics full time and, in 1996, he won the congressional seat previously held by longtime Democratic Rep. Pat Williams.

In Congress, Hill pushed for the transfer of ownership of southeastern Montana's Otter Creek coal tracts from federal to state government. The state leased those tracts a couple of years ago to Arch Coal for $86 million up front, and Hill frequently brings up his role in the transfer on the campaign trail.

After two terms, Hill decided not to run again because of eye problems. He had corrective surgery, then experimental treatment in 2002-2003, and his vision has been stable since, he said.

For the last 10 years, Hill has been a member of various health insurance boards of directors, managed his real estate interests, acted as a business consultant and received a law degree from Concord Law School at Kaplan University.

He said he never planned to run for office again. But a group of friends approached his wife in 2009 to persuade her to support Hill in a bid for governor. Hill said he was convinced because of the impact of the financial crisis.

"I came to the conclusion that I had something significant to offer," he said. "I'm not driven by personal ambition at all in this. I really am serious about policy."