By Betsy Rothstein - 10/21/08 05:18 PM EDT
Jess Peterson knows how to catch runaway cattle in the middle of the night. He also knows how to tell a woman’s jean size just by looking at her.
His recent claim to fame is that an ex-girlfriend deemed him worthy enough to enter him in Cosmopolitan magazine’s 2008 hottest bachelor contest.
The wait is over. Peterson, a 27-year-old cattle lobbyist, won his state. The magazine named him “Mr. Montana” in its November issue and whisked him to Manhattan last week for three days of glittery star treatment that included an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” (on which he did pushups) and a champagne-soaked, red-carpet party at which he walked a catwalk and bonded with 50 other single men.
“I don’t think there is any fame in it, to be honest with you,” Peterson said, describing the experience as “one moment everyone wants a picture and the next you’re another face in the crowd.”
This summer, Peterson, who runs the lobbying firm of Western Skies Strategies, which represents not only the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association but other agriculture and Native American interests, traveled to Los Angeles for an extensive semi-shirtless photo shoot that involved some things he doesn’t care for — makeup and Lands’ End clothing. In a separate shoot in Montana he posed with a herd of cattle, on horseback and on a haystack.
One stipulation to being Mr. Montana was that he had to sign a contract saying he would not marry until the contest ended. Though he finished in the final round, it was Mr. Colorado, a Montana native, who won the overall contest and contributed his $10,000 prize to a cancer charity he created for children.
Peterson was humble about the loss. “Howdy friends,” he wrote in an e-mail after his Manhattan trip. “Well, my time in the limelight is over and it’s good to be back … As some of you know, the best candidate was selected as Cosmo’s Bachelor of the Year.”
The lobbyist splits his time between the nation’s capital and a ranch near Hathaway, Mont., that one gets to down seven miles of dirt road. He leases grass and hay and manages a cow-calf operation with his parents. In the summer he runs cattle on pastures near Red Lodge. He owns 60 cows and 60 calves and is purchasing more.
He knows lobbyists have a bad reputation, but he doesn’t let it get him down. People he meets inevitably ask where he works, and he disarms with this reply: “I’m a dirty lobbyist.”
Works like a charm.
“It’s definitely vogue to be lobbying-bashing, but even if you’re a member of Congress or a lobbyist you have to hammer on Washington, D.C., a little bit.
“We’ll just build it back,” he said of the profession’s reputation.
Peterson’s personality is down to earth with big-sky tendencies. Being in the spotlight comes naturally; the 6-foot-1 lobbyist recently showed up at a Caribou coffee shop off K Street in downtown Washington wearing a big, black, custom-made Montana cowboy hat, a silver-buckle leather belt emblazoned with his J2 cattle brand and tan Lucchese cowboy boots with royal blue panels. That and a traditional dark suit.
“I’m a fan of fierce individualism,” he said. “I just think that’s so attractive in anyone, no matter who you are. I can’t stand conforming to society.”
He stood out among conservatively attired customers and passers-by, and received a whiplash of double takes and stares. “Sometimes people come up and take a picture,” he said. “Tourists will be walking around [and say], ‘Hey, can you get in our picture?’ ” He laughs it off, saying he could not, would not, dress another way.
“I’m just a ranch boy at heart,” he said with a twang.
Peterson wore his hat all over Manhattan, making him also stand out in the sea of Cosmo’s bachelors. “You can’t have a bad day when you’re wearing a cowboy hat,” he told “Entertainment Tonight,” whose staff followed the men around with TV cameras.
Peterson burst onto the Washington scene at 23 when he came for an internship with an upstart cattle association. They told him to pack for two weeks but plan for three months. A few weeks into his internship, the association promoted him. Then he was made acting director of government relations, and two months later was sole director.
In 2007, he opened his own firm.
Peterson grew up on a ranch near Red Lodge, where he learned, among other things, to deliver calves. He’s most at ease in the pasture amid the horses, cattle, hay and tractors. “Having money and status has never been my deal,” he said.
He first developed his oratory skills out in the fields of Montana, where, all by himself, he’d stand atop his tractor and practice giving industry speeches. “Basically to keep myself entertained,” he said.
From a young age, his parents told him he had the “gift of gab” and wanted to see him channel it into being their voice in Washington. Little did they know that their son would one day win a hot bachelor contest. “My parents learned a long time ago to expect the unexpected with their middle son,” he said, laughing.
Peterson won’t say whether he’s a Democrat or Republican. “I will not comment on it,” he said, explaining that he works with both parties.
He lobbies for U.S. meat. “As an industry we need to keep working to inform the public regarding the positive facts about production agriculture — the work we do, and the safe, wholesome food product we provide,” he wrote friends in an e-mail.
“I met people that didn’t eat meat for dietary reasons, hormone injection concerns, or just plain animal treatment reasons. I was glad that people would see my hat, recognize the fact I was involved in ranching and still feel comfortable in talking about their views on meat.”
He eats a lot of steak, but won’t eat at Washington’s best-known power-lunch spots; he prefers Ray’s the Steaks, in Arlington, Va.
Peterson has not ruled out running for office someday, saying, “There’s nothing off the table ever, whether it’s running for Congress or whatever.”
Before anyone thinks of making fun of this cowboy, consider the rattles (the rattlesnake kind) he keeps in an Altoid box in his office. Killing rattlesnakes is one of his favorite pastimes.
“Kill the rattlesnake by first giving it a blow to the head with a rock; finish the kill by getting it to strike at me,” he explained. “When it comes up to strike me I slam my boot heel on its head and cut the head off.”
Still, it’s difficult not to make beefcake jokes about a cattle lobbyist at a time like this, or ask if he feels like a piece of Cosmopolitan meat (he doesn’t, he’s flattered).
His thoughts on being in a beefcake contest?
“I’ve gotten a lot of laughs,” he said. “Everyone has fun with it. No one takes it too seriously.”
Least of all him.
“I for one will not say it changed my life,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to launch my movie career.”