Auctioneer, broadcaster, county commissioner, football referee, livestock fieldman and Marine, Conrad Burns became Montana’s 19th United States Senator on Jan. 3, 1989.
In 1988, Burns defeated incumbent Senator John Melcher by a 52 to 48 percent margin, becoming only the second Republican Senator ever elected from his state. He was the only Republican challenger to defeat an incumbent that year.
Prior to his election as the first Republican Senator from Montana since 1953, Burns served as Yellowstone County Commissioner for two years. Yellowstone County is Montana’s most populous county. He was a farm and ranch news reporter for a Billings television station before creating the Northern Ag Network in 1975 with four radio stations. By 1986, when he sold his interest in the network, it served 31 radio and six television stations in Montana and Wyoming.
Burns was born on a small farm near Gallatin, MO, on Jan. 25, 1935, to Russell and Mary Frances (Knight) Burns. Both of his parents, now over 80, still live near the family farm. His mother was active in politics as a county chairman and state committeewoman for the Democratic Party. Burns attended Pleasant Grove, a country grade school. He graduated from Gallatin High School in 1952.
After two years in the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri, Burns enlisted in the Marine Corps where he was a small arms instructor and served in the Far East. He then worked for TWA and Ozark airlines for three years. In 1962, he became a field representative for Polled Hereford World Magazine and moved to Billings, MT. He married Phyllis Kuhlmann of North Platte, NE, in 1967. She graduated from Concordia Teacher College in Seward, NE, and was a teacher at Trinity Lutheran Grade School in Billings from 1966 to 1970.
Burns was named the first manager of a Billings livestock show in 1968 and became involved in radio and television broadcasting of agricultural market news while working for Billings Livestock Commission.
Burns serves on three Senate committees: Commerce, Science and Transportation; Energy and National Resources; and Small Business. Although he’s 99th in seniority, Burns has positioned himself to help his state by gaining a top position on key sub-committees on each committee.
As the senior Republican on the Foreign Commerce and Tourism Subcommittee, Burns is positioned to help the future economic growth of tourism, Montana’s second leading industry and employer and to promote Montana’s products overseas.
The two other Commerce Subcommittees Burns serves on area Surface Transportation and Communications. He hopes to use this slot to improve transportation in Montana and the nation. Burns expects to use his background as a radio and television broadcaster to help broadcasting and telecommunications industries grow.
In an effort to have an immediate voice on water rights issues that affect the western United States, Burns gained the top Republican position on the Water and Power Subcommittee of the Senate Energy Committee. Finding alternative methods of storing water for later use will be a priority for Burns on this subcommittee. He understands the important role adequate supplies of clean water play in the future of his state and the nation.
Burns also serves on the Public Lands, National Parks and Forests Subcommittee. A new Montana Wilderness Bill will fall under the jurisdiction of this subcommittee. The Energy Research and Development Subcommittee membership gives Burns a say in energy policy decisions that affect the future of Montana’s coal, natural gas and oil reserves.
On the Small Business Committee, Burns is the top Republican on the Urban and Minority Owned Business Development Subcommittee, which Burns hopes to use to improve the small business climate for minorities including native Americans. Burns, who was raised on a family farm and has strong agricultural roots, will also serve on the Rural Economy and Family Farming Subcommittee.
Burns has been appointed Vice Chairman of the United States Group of the Interparliamentary Union (IPU) and as a member of the Military Academy Board of the Army for West Point.
Senator and Mrs. Burns are parents of a daughter, Keely, a 19-year-old sophomore pre-med student at Montanan State University, and a son, Garrett, a 14-year-old ninth grader. The Burns are Lutherans.
Burns is also known as a humorous speaker. By poking fun at himself, he hopes to show that politicians should not take themselves too seriously, but should take their jobs seriously. An example is his observation: “We all do dumb things 15 minutes a day. The key is not to go over your quota!”
— press release presented by Bryce Dustman (a Daviess Countian) for Senator Conrad Burns on Oct. 4, 1990