The Flathead County Commission has appointed Bryan Schutt as the interim legislator for Kalispell’s House District 8. Schutt, a Democrat running for the HD 8 seat in November, was chosen during an August 2 meeting to fill in for Cheryl Steenson, the former legislator holding the seat, after she resigned her post in July to take a teaching job in Colombia.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch received Steenson’s letter of resignation July 20.
State law mandates that when a legislator steps down or is otherwise unable to perform their duties, the county central committee of the lawmaker’s party, in this case Democrats, provides the county commission with a list of three nominees to fill the vacancy within 45 days. The commission must make its selection within 15 days of receiving that list and notify the secretary of state.
Since Joe Brenneman is the sole Democrat serving on the county commission, the other commissioners deferred to him, allowing him to choose from a list that also named Eve Dixon and John de Neeve. According to a letter from Scott Wheeler, chairman of the Flathead County Democratic Party, the three names were voted on with secret ballots during a recent meeting of the central committee.
Schutt found out two days later he had been appointed the interim HD 8 representative, and as of last week had not yet taken his oath of office. Though some legislative committees are holding hearings in the interim before the next session, in January, Steenson’s seat on the House Appropriations Committee is not scheduled to meet – which means Schutt might not have that much to do.
“It’s quite possible that there may be no legislative duties between now and Nov. 3,” Schutt said.
House District 8, which encompasses downtown Kalispell, regularly swings from Democratic to Republican control. In 2008 Steenson defeated incumbent Republican Craig Witte by just 14 votes, evidence that even a small advantage could be helpful in winning the seat.
But Schutt said he was concerned, should he be listed as an incumbent on the ballot in November, it could prove a disadvantage in the current electoral climate.
“I didn’t want the position if it was listed as ‘incumbent,’ because I think it’s going to be a tough year on incumbents,” he said. (Schutt will not be listed as an incumbent.)
With the House currently split 50-50, virtually any House race could hand either party the majority, making HD 8 a key election. Despite what is likely to be a close election, both Schutt’s opponents – Republican Steve Lavin and Independent Bill Jones said they felt the legislative vacancy had been handled properly.
“I expected it,” Lavin said. “I believe it would have been the same way if a Republican would have stepped away from the seat.”
“I feel it’s good the Flathead’s represented; I would encourage him to start attending committee hearings,” Jones said. “What would be inappropriate would be to let it sit there blank.”
As for whether holding the seat for a few months could give him an edge, Schutt wasn’t sure.
“How many people will it influence?” Schutt said. “Eh. Maybe a few – but a few can be all it takes to win HD 8.”
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