Chet Blaylock, the Democratic candidate for governor, died Wednesday after suffering an apparent heart attack while driving to a debate against Republican Gov. Marc Racicot.
Blaylock, who had a history of heart trouble and cancer, pulled over on his way to the Missoula debate and called for an ambulance. He was admitted to a small hospital here, and a helicopter was summoned from St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.
Chris Siegler of St. Patrick said the helicopter was called because Blaylock had apparently suffered a heart attack, and St. Patrick has an advanced cardiology unit.
Blaylock died before the helicopter arrived.
Blaylock, 71, was a former state senator who faced an uphill battle in his effort to unseat Racicot, an enormously popular governor seeking a second term. Polls consistently found Blaylock trailing sharply.
Racicot immediately suspended all campaign activities. He declined to comment, but communications director Andrew Malcolm said: “He was emotionally devastated and immediately began offering prayers for Chet, someone he has known for years. He was just overwhelmed with grief. Our sympathies go out to the family.”
State law spells out the procedure for replacing a candidate who dies within 85 days of a general election.
The Democratic Party has five days in which to name a replacement candidate and that person’s name will be added to the ballot using preprinted labels.
Blaylock served in the Montana Legislature for 20 years, retiring after the 1993 session. As a state senator from Laurel, he became known as a leading advocate for education.
At the close of the 1992 special session, Sen. Del Gage, R-Cut Bank, saluted Blaylock as “the conscience of the Senate.”
Born in Joliet, Mont., on Nov. 13, 1924, Blaylock received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Montana in 1951 and a master’s degree in education from the school in 1957.
He taught school in two Montana cities and was a school administrator in a third before settling in Laurel in 1958. He taught there until retiring in 1991.
Blaylock’s political career was launched in 1967 when he was elected chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lost his first bid for the state Senate in 1970, but the following year he won a seat at the constitutional convention and served on the committee that drafted the state Bill of Rights.
Blaylock was elected to the Senate in 1974 and held office for 20 years.
“There’s a time to embrace stress and a time to mellow out; a time to stay and a time to go,” he said at the time of his retirement.
But the unwillingness of any Democrat to run for governor in 1996 pulled him from retirement.
Most political observers considered Blaylock a sacrificial lamb in his campaign against the popular incumbent Republican, Gov. Marc Racicot, who held an 8-to-1 lead in polls in mid-October.
While Blaylock openly acknowledged his reluctance for an uphill battle, he was unwilling to admit defeat.
“Don’t write me off. Things can change,” he said. He insisted the Democratic Party needed someone in the race willing to hold Racicot accountable.
He criticized tax breaks given by recent Legislatures and prodded the governor to explain where the budget will be cut to pay for them.
He was chairman of the Montana delegation at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He also was chairman of the Montana delegation at the 1980 convention, but did not attend; he suffered a heart attack while driving to the convention.
In his previous attempt at higher office, Blaylock lost his eastern district congressional race to GOP incumbent Ron Marlenee in 1984 after he sponsored an unpopular bill to encourage consolidation of schools. He received only 34 percent of the vote.
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition