Jon Knokey is a self-described Ivy League-educated “redneck.”
A graduate of Harvard University and Montana State University (MSU), where he earned a master’s in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in business, respectively, Knokey is running for Montana Lt. Governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Tim Fox, 62, currently the state’s attorney general.
Both men are Republicans.
Wearing black ranch working boots and a sportsman’s vest, Knokey looks at home in Montana. At 38, with a full head of hair and athletic build, he appears to be just what the GOP needs to capture votes in an aging conservative state that seems to be leaning away from the national trend of heartless conservatism.
Growing up in Oregon during the 1980s and early ‘90s, Knokey said his father held many of the western accounts for Pacific Northwest lumber mills.
“I grew up in a manufacturing family,” Knokey said. “We made the machines that make plywood.”
Knokey came to Montana as a football quarterback for MSU. But he fell in love with the state as a boy, when his family traveled to Montana for vacations, fishing and hunting junkets, he explained.
“As Conrad Burns used to say, I got here as quick as I could,” Knokey said, explaining why an Oregon transplant is running for Lt. Governor in Montana.
Invoking the name of one of the state’s most beloved former U.S. senators appears both sincere and tactical. Knokey, elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 2016, seems rather unpolished as a politician. He is running for Lt. Governor, Knokey explained, because he admires Fox and he wants to carry the torch of what he calls empathetic but fiscal conservatism.
“Fiscal conservatism, to me, is about being good stewards of tax revenues,” he said. “It’s not just about slash and burn for ideology. It’s about good, thoughtful programs that are effective, and getting rid of programs that are ineffective.”
Knokey emphasized he wants to help working-class farmers and ranchers, teachers and healthcare workers of Montana who deserve more opportunities and higher wages. He also pointed out the state needs to focus on streamlining government spending rather than raising taxes.
Knokey, who calls himself “a small-businessman,” spent a decade working for John Deere. He was hired as the company’s deputy chief economist, eventually overseeing a $35B annual budget. Compared to Montana’s budget, which Knokey estimated to be about $5B annually, the candidate said he’s well-suited to help the state implement conservative fiscal policies.
For example, Knokey said the state has the money to pay teachers higher salaries, provided Montana eliminates wasteful spending on educational programs that don’t benefit teachers or students.
“Montana is last in the nation as far as state salaries for teachers,” Knokey pointed out, acknowledging that student-loan debt forgiveness for teachers is worth careful consideration.
As Lt. Governor, Knowkey said he would “cap spending and lower revenues” by accomplishing more with fewer resources.
Asked to elaborate, Knokey added, “It means making the right investments at the right time in the state of Montana.”
A product of public schools and a private Ivy League college, Knokey said he supports public-education but believes Americans should be given a choice to educate their children at home, or with vouchers to private schools.
“Parents know best how to school their children,” he said. “They should have as much choice as possible. The state of Montana needs to focus on the challenges of tomorrow.”
If that sounds more like a progressive platform than the standard GOP line, it’s probably because Knokey has studied “Teddy” Roosevelt, considered the founder of U.S. progressivism. In fact, Knokey wrote a book about the rugged president, who considered Montana and the Dakotas to be outdoor havens.
The book, titled “Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership,” offers an “intimate look into how the 26th president overcame political partisanship and united America,” according to a press release.
Not surprisingly, Knokey considers himself an avid outdoorsman, and he supports the Second Amendment right to own guns. His background sheet emphasizes that Knokey hunts, hikes, fly-fishes, skis, rides snowmobiles and ATVs, “shoots guns” and camps with his family year round.
A family man with a wife, who is also his small-business partner, Knokey has three children ages 8, 6 and 3. He seems custom-fit to run as Lt. Governor on the Fox ticket. By bringing Gen Y creds to Fox’s campaign, Knokey seems determined to address issues that aren’t necessarily popular with stalwart Republicans.
For example, Knokey is a proponent of improving public-health programs, particularly those pertaining to mental health problems. Knokey said he intends to address Montana’s inordinately high suicide rate — and he wants to focus on drug use and abuse in the state. Knokey made clear, however, he doesn’t think the solution to drug abuse is more spending. Rather, he said the focus should be on treating symptoms and encouraging people to get help.
“What we can do is work with primary care providers and work with patients to get them to go to their primary care providers,” he said, adding that rehabilitation and job stability go a long way toward helping young people kick addictions and avoid illegal drug use.
Giving communities throughout the state more “local control” over how money gets spent to rehabilitate offenders and provide social programs for families in need are important components of his campaign, Knokey said. For example, local schools, community colleges and state universities should provide more technical training that’s specific to jobs that are in demand, he said, rather than wasting money on curriculum that does not lead to gainful employment.
Knowkey returned repeatedly to his experience at John Deere, where he said technology is driving job growth rather than eliminating positions in agriculture, as is commonly believed.
“We’re finding jobs are not being lost because of technology, but they’re being created by technology” Knokey said. “What we found at John Deere is a lot more jobs being created because of analytics and [improved] efficiencies.
“Technology gives rural Montana access to more job growth,” he added.
If Fox wins the election as the state’s next governor — and Knokey said he is certain he will — Fox will make high-tech job growth, education, mental health and healthcare advancements cornerstones of his administration, according to Knokey.
“The Fox Administration is going to focus on education policy that gives people access to more jobs through career and technical education,” Knokey said, noting he agreed to run on the Fox ticket because of his devotion to Montana.
“The desire for me to saddle up with Tim is that he’s a Hardin, Montana kid,” Knokey said. “He’s spent his entire life in various leadership positions to benefit the Montana family.”
Knokey said Fox asked him to be his running mate during a dinner with their wives while visiting Bozeman, where Knokey resides. The next morning, he said the couples went to church together.
Knokey did not give Fox an immediate response, however.
“When he asked us, my wife and I did what every Montana family would do,” he said. “We went camping.”
While camping, they talked about how they live their lives as a family and whether it was logical to run for Lt. Governor on the Fox Republican ticket.
Before the camping trip was complete, Knokey said they decided it made sense to join “the Big Montana family.”