Former Billings Ambassador Mallerie Stromswold reflects on her time at the Statehouse

Former Billings Assemblyman Mallerie Stromswold resigned two weeks into Montana’s 68th legislative session, citing logistical challenges and backlash from the Republican Party as it swerved from the majority. In a conversation with Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar, Stromswold shares her experience at the Montana Statehouse, why she left, and what she hopes for future lawmakers.

Shaylee Ragar: Before we get to why you left your seat, talk to me about why you first decided to run for public office. What were your goals?

Mallerie Stromswold: The story of how I decided to run for office is actually one of my favorite stories. I was 17 and I was a page in the 19 legislature. I was a page for Bill Mercer and I spent the week taking in the whole experience and seeing how the process worked and was actually approached by Daniel Zolnikov who is now in the Senate to run for office because he could see my commitment and it simply interested me. He said, you know, have you thought about running for office? And I thought, you know, I didn’t. And so I was a junior in high school at the time and later that summer before my senior year I got in touch with him and my central committee about running and they said how about that seat? And I was like, cool, that sounds like a good spot. So I decided to run for that and I got really into human trafficking policy and education policy and now that I’m in college I’ve really gotten interested in housing and that was part of my goal. But more than anything else, my goal was to represent a constituency of young people and to represent a group of people not normally represented in the Montana state legislature.

Shaylee Ragar: How would you describe your political philosophy?

Mallerie Stromswold: I’m not big on parties anymore. You know, I realize I don’t know that a two-party system necessarily works. So I would say that my political ideology is more in line with libertarian conservatives. Limited government only, keep your hands out of people’s lives and make sure people have what they need to survive.

Shaylee Ragar: You announced your resignation just last week. Why did you quit?

Mallerie Stromswold: There are many reasons. One of them is definitely the personal struggles I’ve faced. You know, mental health is tough at this age and people don’t really talk about it. But if you struggle with that and then decide to face the challenges of service, and particularly the ways I have chosen to serve that have not been aligned with how those around me have sometimes preferred it would make it difficult to do that. And there are other reasons. It’s hard paying two rents when you’re paying Helena and Bozeman, commuting, and trying to get to school. I kind of got that, you know, maybe now, even though I love to serve and it’s a pleasure and such an honor, right now I can’t be the leader and officer that I want and know I can be .

Shaylee Ragar: You said in a statement you would face significant backlash for not aligning with the Republican Party. What did you mean by that?

Mallerie Stromswold: A lot of things happen, you know, with people who are actually in the Capitol and across the state, whether they’re news or voters from other districts. Just a lot of pressure and anger and feeling left out. You know, to keep it pretty broad.

Shaylee Ragar: What impact do you think that had on you?

Mallerie Stromswold: It made it difficult to sometimes feel like I was doing the right thing, because while I knew that’s the moral I – and principles, I’m big on principles more than anything – you know, if you will, know say, “It’s my body, my choice, it’s my body, my choice,” it’s my body, my choice with everything. I think that’s the only, that’s the best example I can give. You know, that means abortion, that means vaccines, that means transgender rights, etc. And unless that’s the culture or the norm of the legislature, it’s difficult to make those decisions and to serve in the way that you actually want, if that makes sense.

Shaylee Ragar: You were one of several Republicans to vote outside of your group’s majority on a number of occasions during the 2021 session, and notably you voted against two bills aimed at restricting the rights of transgender Montaners. How did you decide to break out of your group on these votes?

Mallerie Stromswold: Both of these transgender bills had been brought before my Judiciary Committee in the first few weeks of their tenure, so we hadn’t really seen a lot of contentious issues. I wasn’t aware that it’s common practice to have to vote like the rest of your party does. And so at first I didn’t really think it was a big deal for me to say, yeah, I don’t want to vote for these bills when I first heard them. And then, you know, when we got together and it became a thing, no, that’s a party law, like you can’t go against those kinds of things. It never really occurred to me to say okay. It was just like, no, my voters don’t want that. I do not like that. This is not representative of my district and generation and what I believe. And so it’s just a no. It’s never really been a question. So it wasn’t really a decision I had to come to. It was just the decision.

Shaylee Ragar: How do you think the split in the Montana Republican Party has affected policymaking in the state legislature?

Mallerie Stromswold: I think it makes it harder to make policies for the greater good and to focus on what Montanans really need. I think it’s going to be a lot of political explanatory legislation if that makes sense. Something for people to talk about at the doors, which is great and all. But why are we so concerned about kids attending drag shows when people can’t afford housing? You know, that’s my problem. It has become more political than political.

Shaylee Ragar: Another challenge I want to address that you addressed in your statement, you wrote, that Montana’s legislature was designed for people, often males, who have flexible schedules and stable and significant incomes. I looked it up and about 67% of state legislators are men. About 60% are at least 55 years old, and the largest single occupation listed in a survey of lawmakers for the 2023 session was “retired.” They said the Legislature should evolve to make service easier for single parents, students and those on low incomes. Why is that?

Mallerie Stromswold: The Montana State Legislature meets once a year for 90 days every two years. That’s not a lot of time. The purpose of that is to have a bourgeois legislature, to have people from all different walks of life, and to make sure we don’t make more laws than we need, you know, for a small government, but it doesn’t work.

Shaylee Ragar: What do you think these different perspectives bring to the state legislature?

Mallerie Stromswold: You know, there’s an AG. Bill coming over my desk and I know very little about farming but I know my colleague over there has a ranch or has been farming his entire life. And so I can go over there and ask them a question about it, and I think that’s really great. Or, you know, right now there’s a big discussion about what to do with the budget surplus, and a lot of the talk has been about property tax breaks, and that sounds great to about 99 of those in the House. But you know, I brought that up in a lot of conversations just before I resigned. What about those who rent? Me? Students paying their landlords’ property taxes? I don’t think my landlord is going to cut my rent for a month just because he got a $2,000 check from the state for his property tax refund. You know there are two sides to it. You are able to enlighten those around you, but you are also able to speak for those who are often forgotten. It’s difficult to leave this position knowing that I often feel like my perspective is very important.

Shaylee Ragar: You talked about protecting your sanity. This poor mental health makes it impossible to do this job well. Do you think our generation can change the conversation about mental health and work culture forever?

Mallerie Stromswold: I think we can work towards that. I’m not exactly sure if it will be perfect when the next gen comes out, but I think there’s a lot we can do.

Shaylee Ragar: Mallerie, what would you say to other young people who want to run for public office?

Mallerie Stromswold: It’s hard for a part of me because on my last day a side actually came to me and thought I want to run for office and the only thing I can think about in my head was I want it like, warn you and tell you it’s not what you think it is. But that’s not what I want the message to be. I want the message to be that more people need to walk for that to change. Because right now, when young people are running and participating, it’s not a conducive environment for us. It is difficult. It is very difficult. But you know, if more and more people do it, we can change it from within. And so I would say run, but encourage those around you to run, and let’s try to get more young people there, but also be a little aware of what you’re getting into.

Shaylee Ragar: Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, Mallerie.

Mallerie Stromswold: Yes of course.

This was Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar speaking to former Billings rep Mallerie Stromswold. GOP party leaders say they wish Stromswold well in her future endeavours.