Election Year Sprint: And They’re Off!

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead’s long election season officially began last week on a frigid Tuesday morning, as several candidates wasted no time in hustling down to the county building to throw their hats into the ring. With many of the state’s top incumbents looking strong, the political landscape’s emphasis this year could turn decidedly local. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., continue to put up impressive numbers in polls and fundraising statistics. That means political parties looking for the upper hand are likely to do so through legislative contests, lower-tier statewide offices and county races.

Former Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont has filed to run as a Republican for Flathead County’s top elected office. He will challenge County Commissioner Gary Hall, a first-term Republican, whose term expires at the end of 2008. Hall served previously as mayor of Columbia Falls. Dupont, who served as sheriff for 16 years and deputy sheriff and coroner for 19 years, said that after managing the budget for the sheriff’s department within the county, he would like to see the commission rearrange some of its budget priorities and focus mainly on public safety, health and roads.

“Sometimes I don’t see these being addressed as they should be,” Dupont said. If the county can’t devote sufficient funding to those issues he added, “we shouldn’t be funding much after that.”

With razor-thin margins giving a majority to Republicans in the House, and to Democrats in the Senate during the 2007 Legislature, a handful of key races could tip either chamber the other way. Democrats are losing two moderate members in right-leaning districts, with the term-limiting of Jim Elliott of Trout Creek, and Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow. Sen. Lane Larson, D-Billings, faces a tough re-election fight against Republican Taylor Brown, a popular Billings radio personality.

And the announcement by Senate District 2’s Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish, that he would not seek re-election leaves a void that several candidates from both parties rushed to fill. Democrat Gil Jordan of Coram and Republican Ryan Zinke of Whitefish have announced their candidacies. Jake Pannell of Columbia Falls has also filed as a Democrat for the seat. Montana primaries are held in June.

Another vacancy exists in House District 3, where Democrat Doug Cordier of Columbia Falls has opted not to run for re-election. Cordier said he plans to enroll in a training program to become a Deacon within the Catholic Church, and the intense study requires that he withdraw from most of his other commitments, namely the Legislature. “I wouldn’t be able to do both,” he said. Republican Dee Brown of Hungry Horse, who lost to Cordier in 2006, is running for the seat again.

All of which leaves Rep. Mike Jopek as the last incumbent Democrat standing in the Flathead. Jopek hasn’t filed yet, but plans to in coming weeks. As for the cutthroat nature of local politics in Whitefish as of late, Jopek said he is not interested in getting bogged down in “partisan stuff.”

“It doesn’t concern me if folks want to put a target on my back,” Jopek added. “I’ll do what’s best for my district.” John Fuller, a Flathead High teacher and former member of the state Board of Education has filed to run against Jopek for House District 4 as a Republican.

Other candidates who filed last week include Bruce Tutvedt, a West Valley farmer running as a Republican for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jerry O’Neil, who is term-limited. Scott Reichner of Bigfork filed for state House District 9 as a Republican. Reichner, a father of eight and the owner of Flathead Mortgage Inc., said he is excited at the opportunity to serve in government. “I believe in conservative values, morally and fiscally,” he added. The current officeholder, Republican Bill Jones, has decided not to run for re-election and is considering running for the state Senate as an independent in the future.

Keith Regier of Kalispell filed for state House District 5 as a Republican. The current officeholder, Republican George Everett has said he will not run for re-election. “Government needs to help people be self-sufficient, not be the sufficiency,” Regier, who owns a sod company, said. “The Flathead needs a voice in Helena and I’d like to be that voice.” Republican Harm Toren of Columbia Falls has also filed for the seat.

Flathead Valley Community College adjunct professor Cheryl Steenson announced she would run as a Democrat for House District 8, challenging Republican incumbent Craig Witte. “Partisan politics are affecting everyone,” Steenson said in a news release. “The people of Kalispell deserve a candidate that will work tirelessly for the benefit of both public education systems and for low-income families and seniors. Sometimes this means compromise.” Democrat John De Neeve of Kalispell has also filed to challenge Witte.

The owner of the Perkins restaurant in Kalispell, Witte said he was undeterred by the bitter partisanship of the 2007 Legislature, and didn’t miss a chance to lambaste Schweitzer for hiring several Democratic state lawmakers for state jobs. “The Legislature is the oversight for all those state departments,” Witte said. “When they’re employed by that department, it tends to be similar to the fox guarding the henhouse.” As long as that practice continues, he added, he anticipates the political tone in Helena to remain contentious.

In House District 6, Democrat Scott Wheeler will once again challenge incumbent Republican Bill Beck. And incumbent Republican Mark Blasdel of Somers is running for re-election in House District 10. Candidates have until March 20 to file for elected office, so there will be many more aspiring elected officials filing in coming weeks.

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