The Quest for Legislative Control Begins

By Beacon Staff

The extraordinarily high interest in this year’s presidential race is what’s likely to draw most Flathead voters to the polls for the June 3 primary election in record numbers. Once in the voting booth, Montanans will find themselves confronted by a very long ballot, with the opportunity to pull the lever for offices ranging from U.S. senator to state school superintendent to attorney general.

But the least exciting elections are, arguably, the most important: local legislative races for the state House and Senate. While these primaries garner little attention, if elected, these community members can – through their policy decisions in Helena – sometimes affect the everyday lives of Montanans in ways more profound and far-reaching than the president.

For this reason, the Beacon picked three elections around the valley remarkable either for the candidates involved or for the key role the district could play in swinging a legislative majority from one side of the aisle to the other. The outcome of the June 3 primaries sets up what looks to be a politically charged general election season at the national and local levels. So choose wisely voters, you’re going to be seeing a lot of these folks.

SENATE DISTRICT 2
In the 2007 Legislature, Democrats controlled the Senate by one vote. A vital part of that slim majority was the seat narrowly won by Sen. Dan Weinberg of Whitefish. The district, which stretches from Whitefish up the canyon to Marias Pass, was already a key target of Republicans before Weinberg decided not to seek re-election. With no incumbent, the SD2 race is one of the Flathead’s key battlegrounds.

On the Democratic side, Brittany MacLean of Whitefish faces off against Gil Jordan of Coram seeking the Democratic nomination. Jordan is the executive director of the Northwest Montana Historical Society and Museum at Central School in Kalispell. He also appears to be the party’s favored candidate, having notched a long list of endorsements, including Montana Conservation Voters and many prominent Flathead Democrats, including Weinberg, Whitefish Rep. Mike Jopek and Columbia Falls Rep. Doug Cordier.

Full-time mother MacLean holds a degree in nonprofit management from New York’s New School, and has established family health centers in Alaska. She is focused on preventive healthcare policy, and is interested in legislation, modeled after a California program, that would make it easier for workers to get paid leave to care for sick family members.

In the GOP race, retired Navy SEAL and Whitefish native Ryan Zinke takes on Suzanne Brooks of Whitefish, whose campaign is focused on banning abortions in Montana. Brooks is a Chicago native and former teacher with a legal degree who has argued against so-called “right to death” legislation in Wisconsin. Brooks believes Montana can restrict abortion by showing a “compelling state interest” that banning abortion would contribute to a workforce that can care for the state’s aging population.

A self-described “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” Zinke’s military biography boasts of having served 22 years performing operations in areas including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf. As a Whitefish native, Zinke has said he is concerned about the increasing property tax burden on Flathead residents as housing prices skyrocket, and believes property tax reappraisal will be a central issue in the 2009 session.

HOUSE DISTRICT 8

Encompassing the core of downtown Kalispell, HD8 has traditionally been a swing district, occasionally serving as a blue island surrounded by GOP controlled areas. In 2006, Republican Craig Witte narrowly defeated City Councilman Randy Kenyon by 37 votes. Undeterred by his Perkins restaurant temporarily closing after a massive kitchen fire in April, Witte will take on two Democrats campaigning hard door to door in Kalispell’s dense, in-town neighborhoods, Cheryl Steenson and John de Neeve.

Steenson is a Flathead native and an adjunct English professor at Flathead Valley Community College. Steenson’s grandfather is an Evergreen businessman, dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and also her campaign treasurer. Growing up in the Flathead in a right-leaning family, Steenson said she understands both sides of the political aisle and can work toward consensus, particularly on fiscal issues, in a way that the Legislature – which was mired in partisan gridlock for much of the 2007 session – desperately needs.

Her opponent, de Neeve, moved to Kalispell in 1971 and is a counselor at the Russell and Helena Flats elementary schools. De Neeve credits government programs providing student loans and first-time homebuyer assistance with helping him make a life for himself in Montana, and said as a lawmaker he would focus on maintaining and improving such programs. He also intends to seek solutions to what he calls “the disparity of wages to cost of living” in the Flathead, partly through modernizing state housing aid programs.

HOUSE DISTRICT 9
Bigfork’s HD9 has, perhaps, the oddest dynamics of any primary in the valley. In 2007, Republicans controlled the House with a one-vote majority provided by Constitution Party member Rick Jore of Ronan, who usually sided with the GOP. But HD9’s moderate Republican Rep. Bill Jones, who often sided with Democrats on healthcare and education issues, has opted not to seek re-election and plans to run as an independent in future contests. This left a big gap in Bigfork, which three Republicans promptly stepped up to fill. But the last-minute entrance of a fourth, former state Senate President Bob Keenan, into the race has caused some of the other candidates to back off. The winner will face the sole Democrat, Edd Blackler.

Republican Roger Daley has suspended his campaign and said he is supporting Keenan. David Carlson, owner of the Swan Bar & Grill in Swan Lake, is running a low-key campaign for the nomination he has sought twice before. Describing himself as a conservative who favors gun rights and multiple use on public lands, Carlson hasn’t raised any money or printed signs, and has been able to attend few candidate forums due to the constraints of running his bar.

Scott Reichner serves on the school board and is a father of eight. The owner of Flathead Mortgage Inc., he describes himself as a family man and a conservative. “I believe in conservative values, morally and fiscally,” Reichner said, but also sees himself as the kind of person who can work past the bitter partisanship that mired the last legislative session in gridlock.

Keenan’s name came up often as a potential GOP candidate for governor or U.S. Senate, but with two young kids, he said he doesn’t want to move from the Flathead. His wife urged him to run for the state House, since he is term-limited from running for state Senate, having served as Senate President in 2003 and minority leader in 2005.

While Keenan wouldn’t rule out a run for higher federal or state office in the future, for now he is focused on returning to Helena. He cites his previous experience as a lawmaker balancing the state budget, and he has an idea to use state coal trust money to offer no-interest loans to people who want to upgrade their septic systems and live in fragile watersheds, like the Flathead.

Keenan was not put off by the partisanship of the 2007 session he missed, saying such feuds occur naturally when a chamber of government is controlled by a party with a one-vote majority, and party unity is inevitably tested.

“Government is about politics,” Keenan said. “Politics are about party and party is about loyalty.”

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