As the January rain fell, I made my way north to Dog Creek Lodge. I had been there before for a wedding, years ago in the summer. Dog Creek was packed with Nordic skiers. A sign outside indicated they had wood fired pizza inside. What a place, I thought, so great, so Montana.
Flathead Democrats hosted a forum on extremism in the Montana Legislature in one of the many rental homes. I sat on a panel with Mandy Gerth, Rep. Dave Fern and Monica Tranel. A hundred Flathead locals sat in the Olney audience.
The audience seemed older than when we last met. I said that to break the ice. They laughed sheepishly. We had met decades ago when local Democrats, friends, and the community were working hard to get me, then a young farmer, into the Montana legislature.
I giggled to myself. Yes, decades passed. I felt just as passionate about the community. The thought made me happy and outwardly sad. After serving there, I knew what was to come.
Republicans gained supermajority powers in the Montana legislature, with over 100 of the 150 members in the state capital belonging to one party. Today, Republicans control all of Montana, with no local powers such as city councils and school boards.
In the past two years, Republicans have passed a handful of laws to forestall local control. When the Legislature last met, it banned Whitefish’s worker housing program, paralyzed local health officials across Montana, and told the K-12 and higher education what to do, regardless of our state constitution.
During my time at Helena the Chamber was split 50/50 between the parties twice. There was no politics without compromises. For the next decade, one party controlled the executive branch while another headed the legislature.
Montana has gotten used to it after two decades of good government and compromise politics. A sudden right turn in state politics will prove quite alarming for many locals.
As someone whose politics was nurtured by moderation, I told friends visiting Olney that our democracy was in jeopardy.
In recent years we have seen legislators attempting to dampen constitutionally created bodies, elected officials failing to release public documents, and politicians failing to speak to the press. The legislature is deliberately provoking the Supreme Court to obtain rubber stamp approval and knowingly enacting unconstitutional laws that seek to impede fundamental rights such as the youth and the right to vote of Native Americans.
The new supermajority wants to elect the judiciary by district rather than nationwide, as guaranteed by the constitution. They force partisan judges on voters and try to draw their own re-election districts.
The privacy rights of women and Montanans are at risk. So are local zoning and other ordinances. Whatever the right finds reprehensible, I would say. As far as I remember it was a lot.
It’s hard to imagine the supermajority actually being “bat-crazy” enough, as former Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Montana’s GOP bills made the state party look a decade early to convene a constitutional convention featuring their new superpowers.
Voters have resoundingly defeated the convention’s votes in two past cycles, and it is pre-scheduled for a statewide vote later in the decade. Montanans like things left alone, and no one has articulated the need to change.
As I left the active Olney event and drove to the farm, the words Tranel spoke echoed. She reminded people that national Republicans have transferred much more power, control and responsibility to the state level. At the same time, Montana has usurped much self-governing power from local jurisdictions. You want total control. All power resides at the state level.
Earlier I reminded listeners that our state constitution, the only one that Republicans are proposing to change in over 50 different ways, still allows for, even requires, public participation in government.
They are your future friends. They hold it in trust for the benefit of the children. Don’t normalize fanatical behavior, especially from politicians who were barely elected by a narrow majority of voters.