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Clearing Primaries, Candidates Mount Legislative Campaigns

By Beacon Staff

The Montana Legislature that convenes next year will be facing a budget gap in the hundreds of millions of dollars, necessitating deep and painful cuts. Among other tough issues, lawmakers will grapple with how best to rewrite the state’s medical marijuana law, strengthen drunken driving enforcement and assess how to stimulate a job market that may still be struggling.

And yet these looming difficulties apparently failed to dissuade local candidates for the Legislature, veritable gluttons for punishment, from squaring off June 8 in hopes of winning enough votes to gain their party’s nomination, compete in November’s general election and represent the Flathead in Helena in 2011.

With only one statewide race at the top of the ticket, the nomination battle for Montana’s lone congressional seat, voter turnout in Flathead County for last week’s primary was predictably low. Out of 58,584 registered voters, only 16,528 ballots were cast, according to the Flathead County Election Department’s unofficial results. But while 28 percent turnout may seem low, it was still a higher percentage in the Flathead than other populous counties in the state, including Gallatin, Cascade and Missoula. In Flathead County, that turnout was likely driven by the three-way race for sheriff, which was won by Chuck Curry.

But as the election year progresses, several local legislative races are likely to gain statewide attention as key battlegrounds. In the 2009 session, the House was split 50-50, while Republicans held a 27-23 majority in the Senate. With Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, occupying the executive branch, competition for House and Senate majorities will be fierce.

In the Flathead, the two remaining Democrat-held districts are up for grabs, with Rep. Mike Jopek of Whitefish’s House District 4 stepping down, and Rep. Cheryl Steenson of Kalispell’s House District 8, doing the same.

Derek Skees, a general contractor, won the Republican nomination for H.D. 4 in a three-way race. Skees received 612 votes, compared to 330 votes for Damon Pace and 166 for Bill Geisse.

Skees is fully aware the H.D. 4 race will be tough, but he also acknowledged the cutthroat nature of Whitefish politics in the last few elections, which have involved misleading or negative mailings not always sent with the blessing of candidates, from political action committees (PACs). Skees plans to meet with his Democratic opponent, Will Hammerquist, who was unopposed in seeking his party’s nomination, to talk about running fair campaigns, despite the large amounts of money the state parties are likely to spend in the district.

“I really think that we should run a principled, above-the-board campaign,” Skees said, “and try to run something we can both be proud of when it’s over.”

Skees has the backing of several conservative groups, scoring 100 percent on a questionnaire from the Montana Tea Party coalition, gaining the support of the Northwest Montana Patriots, as well as the Montana Conservative Alliance, which is run by former Gallatin County legislator Roger Koopman. Skees also leads a group within the Freedom Action Rally that studies the U.S. Constitution.

But despite these endorsements and affiliations, Skees considers himself a moderate.

“I’m in the dead center,” Skees said. “The only reason you’d consider me hard right is because the left wing is too strong.”

He sees the budget as the key issue of the upcoming session, and proposes eliminating vacancy savings, privatizing public agencies where possible, and rolling the budget back to a year in the past where the current budget gap would be closed, and using that as the template for spending cuts.

Skees’ opponent, Hammerquist, has spent the last several years fighting proposed mining and drilling projects upstream from the Flathead as the Glacier Park program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Hammerquist worked previously in Helena as an advisor to Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, after working on his campaign in Yellowstone County in 2004.

Despite not having a primary, Hammerquist has been knocking on doors and talking to Whitefish voters, where he said he has drawn the conclusion that the key issue in the election will be about jobs and job creation.

“We’re going to have to take a real hard look at how we grow and build our economy in the Flathead that is diversified,” Hammerquist said. He is touting a five-point economic development plan that would use money from the state coal tax trust fund to offer credit to Montana businesses; provide a $5,000 tax credit for businesses that hire in certain industries; suspend the business equipment tax for two years; refocus small business training programs and boost workforce training scholarship programs.

Hammerquist also wants to work on channeling state grant money toward projects like the “Trail Runs Through It” trail system in Whitefish, and expand watershed protection laws to Haskell Basin to maintain the purity of Whitefish’s drinking water supply.

The other key battleground district in the Flathead, as in almost every election, is likely to be House District 8, where Steenson won her seat by only 14 votes in 2007. As a result, both parties are likely to pour resources into this district since a handful of votes could prove the margin of victory.

Democrat Bryan Schutt defeated Dane Clark, 329-91. On the Republican side, Steve Lavin defeated Carl Glimm, 486-458. Bill Jones formerly represented Bigfork’s House District 9 as a Republican, but left the party after the deeply antagonistic 2007 session. With a dental practice on Kalispell’s west side, Jones is now running to represent H.D. 8 as an Independent.

As of press time, Lavin did not return a call for comment, but according to his campaign website, he is a sergeant in the Montana Highway Patrol who wants to cut taxes and supports law enforcement and “traditional family values.”

Schutt is an architect and president of the Kalispell Planning Board. He sees closing the budget gap and clarifying state medical marijuana regulations as the two key issues of the upcoming session. Over the next couple of months, Schutt said he is arranging appointments with community leaders, from law enforcement to school principals to businesspeople, to gain a sense of what they need in their state representation in 2011.

Other key races in the valley could be Columbia Falls’ House District 3, where former state senator Jerry O’Neil won the three-way Republican primary for Columbia Falls’ House District 3. He will face Democrat Zac Perry, Independent Shawn Guymon and Shawn Bailey of the Constitution Party in November.

Voters in November will also have the opportunity to choose a new, fourth Flathead District judge. Out of four candidates, David Ortley, currently a justice of the peace, received the most votes at 7,026 for district judge. Heidi Ulbricht, Kalispell Municipal Court judge, received the second-highest number of votes with 4,237. Both advance to the general election.

Department 2 Justice of the Peace Mark Sullivan received the most votes out of four candidates, with 5,168, to defend his seat in November. He will face Deputy Sheriff Travis Bruyer, who received 3,953 votes. Two candidates ran for the Department 1 Justice of the Peace seat, so both advance to the runoff election. Daniel Wilson received 7,625 votes over Glen Neier, who received 4,454.

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