Candidate starts alcohol rehab with too-close-to-call Montana primary race still unresolved

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The former Montana secretary of state seeking a new position regulating utilities is checking into rehab — but he's not conceding defeat.

Brad Johnson, 59, suspended his campaign for public service commissioner after recently pleading guilty to a drunken driving charge. But even without campaigning, he was locked in a too-close-to-call battle Wednesday with attorney Bill Gallagher.

Results from Tuesday's primary show him trailing attorney Gallagher by less than a percentage point. Johnson, recognizing that victory appears to be a long shot, said he will not concede defeat until provisional ballots are counted.

Johnson, who said the drunken driving charge was a real wake-up call, will enter a 28-day treatment program in Billings on Wednesday. He will largely be out of communication with the outside world during part of his rehabilitation.

A Broadwater County sheriff's deputy stopped Johnson on U.S. Highway 12 east of Helena on May 20. Johnson has said he was driving home from Bozeman after visiting friends at a private home.

His blood-alcohol level registered 0.24 percent, three times the legal limit for driving.

Many voters surely saw the headlines.

"I think it had to have some impact, as it should. That was a huge error in judgment on my part and I recognize that," Johnson said. "This is not court-orderd treatment. This is Brad-ordered treatment."

Johnson, who served as secretary of state from 2005-2008 before losing in a re-election bid, quickly entered a guilty plea. His sentence calls for a provisional driver's license for six months and a $585 fine.

"When you get in the back seat of that squad car with handcuffs on and sit in the holding cell for a couple of hours, that gets your attention," Johnson said.

Gallagher is looking ahead to challenging Democrat Ken Toole, in part on a platform that calls for cheaper coal power over more expensive alternative energy.

Gallagher, a newcomer to politics, said the close race showed him the residual power of statewide name identification despite the late-breaking bad news that hit Johnson.

"I'm treating it as a win," he said of the primary. "It has certainly been interesting, but I am done focusing on Brad's choices."