Bigfork Lawmaker Divorces the GOP

By Beacon Staff

A week after news broke that he would not seek re-election in 2009, Bigfork lawmaker Bill Jones describes how he feels with a word: “emancipated.”

“I’m excited about it, it’s not out of frustration,” he says of his decision to withdraw from the Republican party and focus his efforts during the 2009 Legislature on volunteering as an unpaid lobbyist advocating for health care, education and other issues. When the term of Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, expires in 2010, Jones intends to run for the seat as an Independent.

Much has been written about Jones, both during the rancorous 2007 Legislature in which he broke with his party on numerous crucial issues, and in recent weeks since Jones announced he won’t be running for the House next year. Jones has been described as a shy, gentle, moderate Republican, implying that he – perhaps – wasn’t up for playing political hardball in Helena. But Jones says nothing could be further from the truth and that leaving the GOP will free him from the constraints of having to adhere to a specific caucus platform, allowing him a chance to “push to change the system.”

Nor is Jones content to be written off as another casualty in the internal struggle – perceived or real – within the Montana GOP between moderates and the far right. As is so often the case in politics, Jones says the issue is more complicated.

“It isn’t just a struggle between moderates and conservatives, there’s another group of people involved,” he says, sitting in the office of his dental practice on West Center Street in Kalispell. “I think I’m anything but shy, anything but moderate.”

Jones derives his political philosophy from Judeo-Christian beliefs, specifically, his views as a Catholic, which neatly dovetail with the Montana Republican party at times, but oppose it at others. He says his beliefs were most accurately described in a recent Washington Post column titled “Open-Arms Conservatism,” by Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President Bush.

Jones, and the essay, describe a conservatism molded by Catholic social thought, promoting limited government and affirming the family and other community institutions as places where the government should not intrude. But with those beliefs comes the idea that the measure of a society also derives from its ability to help the unfortunate.

“We have an obligation to form our society in a way that benefits the helpless, the poor, and people who are hurting,” Jones says.

It is on issues of social responsibility where Jones found himself butting heads with his party and the Flathead GOP delegation again and again during the 2007 Legislature. Jones notes that he is among the few Republican legislators who provide healthcare for a living. His support for issues like the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are influenced by his work as a dentist serving clients composed largely of middle- and working-class families on the west side of downtown Kalispell: “This is where regular folks who are trying to raise a family live, and are trying to get ahead.”

“There’s a difference in your ethics and how you view the world,” Jones says. “I feel I have insights that these other people don’t, but they come out with these party platforms on the subject and say ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”

The Flathead, Jones says, is the highest use area in the state for CHIP, so he was dismayed by the unanimous opposition of his fellow Flathead Republicans to a successful bill that expanded CHIP coverage in Montana.

“Flathead legislators should be more supportive of this than other Republican legislators, if this was logical,” Jones says. “The whole group is unsympathetic.”

State election law prevents Jones from running as an independent next year, and imposes a two-year waiting period before legislators can work as a paid lobbyist. He said he hopes to lobby for the Montana Catholic Conference as a volunteer, and is waiting to hear from bishops in Helena and Billings if his offer will be accepted.

As for winning the 2010 election for Kalispell’s Senate District 4, the current officeholder, Barkus, characterizes Jones’s chances as, “No shot. None.”

“It’s been proven that independents don’t fare well in partisan elections, and this will be a partisan election,” Barkus says. “If he decides to run as an independent, he’ll face very stiff competition.”

Names are already being tossed about for Barkus’s successor; primary among them is current Kalispell Rep. Jon Sonju. And the race is wide open for the seat Jones is vacating, with names floating around like Bigfork Republican and perennially potential candidate Bob Keenan.

Barkus says he admires Jones’s candor, but noticed during the 2007 session how Jones would bristle at certain votes he was obligated to make to keep the caucus together.

“We all have to swallow our pride every once in a while,” Barkus adds. “I think Bill has more trouble doing that than anybody else.”

For his part, Jones said his “divorce” from the GOP is amicable, and he is eager to play a different role in Helena, as a lobbyist and, hopefully down the road, as an independent lawmaker.

“I’m not trying to hurt people in the Republican coalition,” Jones said. “I’m trying to get out in front of them and say ‘You know, look at these things a little differently.’”

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