With Crowded Field, H.D. 8 Race Impossible to Predict

By Beacon Staff

The winner of the legislative race for House District 8, which encompasses downtown Kalispell, is perennially difficult to predict – but this year, it’s downright impossible. In 2008, Democrat Cheryl Steenson defeated incumbent Republican Craig Witte by a mere 14 votes, 2,029 to 2,015. The previous election saw Witte beating Democrat Randy Kenyon 1,590 to 1,553.

In November, three candidates face off to represent this swing district: Democrat Bryan Schutt, Republican Steve Lavin and Independent Bill Jones. With an already unpredictable electoral landscape heading into the elections, the impact of a moderate, well-known third candidate on the H.D. 8 race makes it a complete toss-up, and the balance of power in the House could hinge on the outcome.


Jones, a dentist with a practice on Kalispell’s west side, previously represented Bigfork’s House District 9 in the 2005 and 2007 sessions. He left the GOP after the deeply partisan 2007 session, when he joined a handful of other moderate Republicans to pass a budget in a special session, following a failure by the Legislature to do so in a regular session. He sat out the 2008 election so he could run as an Independent this year, but lobbied for the Montana Catholic Conference in the 2009 session.

In 2007, Jones also butted heads with some fellow Republicans for his support of expanding health insurance for children, and on that point he is unapologetic.

“I call myself an advocate for children, an advocate for children’s health, an advocate for helpless people,” Jones said. “I want to see all children healthy, all children educated – then we can tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Jones points to accomplishments like writing a bill expanding well child care coverage, and defeating a measure allowing parents to avoid vaccinating their kids. If elected, he plans to reintroduce a bill expanding dental care to uninsured children. He also pushed hard for a bill that would have created a teen suicide prevention program and joined Democrats in supporting a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana.

Jones wants to re-evaluate the practice of selling or trading parcels of state school trust land in valuable areas like Woods Bay or Whitefish, questioning whether what he calls a “short-term mentality” will provide maximum return for education over the long term.

“This is what Independent means: you latch onto issues,” Jones said. “What we actually do is as valid as what we say we’re going to do – the places we’ve actually made a stand are important.”


Schutt, a Democrat, was appointed to replace Steenson when she resigned to take a teaching position in Central America, but he remains largely a political newcomer. An architect and member of the Kalispell Planning Board, Schutt sees the crafting of the state budget as the key issue in the upcoming session.

“I want to be able to listen to all sides and come up with a decent, moderate compromise,” he said, adding that he is “not going to run off the deep end carrying the torch for fringe elements in our political system.”

Schutt has recently done some substitute teaching, experience that showed him education funding must be maintained at a level so class sizes don’t grow too large.

“We need to make sure that our funding keeps class sizes reasonable,” he said.

Concerned by a Supreme Court ruling relaxing limits on campaign spending, Schutt hopes to help maintain Montana’s relatively strong political spending laws.

“I don’t see how more money makes the political system work better; in fact I see just the opposite,” Schutt said. “There will be a tussle over that in Helena and I would like to be a part of it.”

With jobs also a major issue, Schutt acknowledged there is only so much the Legislature can do to improve the employment picture.

“The state can nudge things, but we’re in a national tide,” Schutt said. “The best thing that can help things is a recovering national economy.”

He pointed out Montana’s finances are more stable than nearly every other state, which Schutt thinks speaks well of the leadership of the state under Democrats.

“I think, generally, Democrats have done a good job wrestling with a lot of these issues,” Schutt said. “I would certainly like to continue that with my participation.”


Campaigning door-to-door in Kalispell, Republican Lavin has encountered many empty homes, and a lot of people struggling, which has them, “energized about politics.”

“I haven’t seen people struggling like this in a long time,” Lavin said. “Not raising taxes on people when they’re struggling is appropriate.”

“Jobs is the number one thing that I hear; we need good jobs around here,” he added. “We need to freeze and cut some taxes to get businesses rolling again.”

Like most Republicans, Lavin favors getting rid of the business equipment tax: “Hopefully that would encourage business to come to the valley.” He believes this could also help accelerate natural resource development, particularly coal.

Lavin favors rolling back the recent controversial property reappraisal to 2003 values, “so we don’t have these falsely elevated appraisals,” and capping the amount property taxes can rise at a certain rate – though he acknowledged it’s a complex system he needs to learn more about.

As a sergeant in the Montana Highway Patrol, Lavin favors stricter drunken driving measures. He likes a recently adopted Missoula law that criminalizes refusal to take a breathalyzer test. Lavin also supports a pilot project, underway in Lewis and Clark County, that forces DUI offenders to take two breath tests a day, and makes them pay for it.

“It accomplishes the goal of prevention,” Lavin said. “It’s a program that really isn’t an expansion of government.”

With two kids in Kalispell public schools, Lavin said some school districts may be a “bit administration-heavy,” and wants to direct education funds away from administration and into the classroom.

“We need to figure out ways to make the system a little more efficient,” Lavin said.

“I’m certainly not a fan of cutting education,” he added. “I just think we need to streamline it a little bit.”


1. How should the state reconcile the increasing demand for assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid with the forecasted revenue shortfall?

2. How should the Legislature change medical marijuana regulation?

3. Do you support some state workers’ unions’ demand for salary increases, and why or why not?

NAME: Bill Jones

AGE: 70

PARTY: Independent


1. Revenue can be enhanced by downsizing parts of government, opening our forests and public lands for jobs, and developing our energy and natural resources. Our ethic of life, protecting life from conception to natural death, compels us to provide a basic level of health care, food and education.

2. Medical marijuana should be prescribed by physicians, filled by pharmacists and provided by drug companies, just like our other prescriptions. My constituents created this issue through the initiative process. If my constituents want to end the prohibition and associated organized crime activities, they have the option by initiative to legalize, regulate and tax – the same as tobacco and alcohol – and devote the revenue to the associated problems they create.

3. Montana public employees’ paychecks have consistently been 18 percent less than other Western states. Unlike other states, Montana public employees pay all family members’ health insurance out-of-pocket. At retirement they have no health insurance benefit. They have had a two-year wage freeze with resulting lower pay checks. I was a volunteer Dentist at the Community Health Center working with experienced, licensed assistants and hygienists working for 25 percent less than the private sector pays. I will support wage increases and funding retirement plans for our public employees.

NAME: Bryan Schutt

AGE: 46

PARTY: Democrat



1. I feel that we have a moral and societal obligation to provide assistance to the truly needy. I see very little wiggle room on this budget item. We will certainly try to find further efficiency in the system. We must remain vigilant against any fraud or abuse. But part of the proper role of government is to lend a temporary hand to those in need.

2. The 2009 legislation was half-finished in many aspects. I support the work of an interim committee that is recommending sound remedies to flesh out that bill. Ideas such as breaking the financial relationship between doctors who recommend and the caregivers who provide medical marijuana; ensuring a reasonable minimum standard of care; and controls on quantities are common-sense responses.

3. With all the pressures on the state budget, this is a simple question. I appreciate that we must provide an attractive salary to retain the highest quality workers to serve Montanans. And I appreciate that state workers got no pay raise in the last biennium. But at a time when many Montanan families are doing without paychecks, state workers can do without a pay raise.

NAME: Steve Lavin

AGE: 43

PARTY: Republican

OCCUPATION: Sergeant, Montana Highway Patrol


1. When it comes to helping the state’s most vulnerable populations, we should focus on the core programs within DPHHS – Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, food stamps, child support, etc. We need to evaluate the merit of continuing several new programs that have been created over the past decade. While tobacco prevention campaigns and billboards were a “nice to have” when the state was flush with money, they should be the first to go.

2. Immediate repeal to stop the current abuses. Once that’s done, the rational medical marijuana proponents can come back to the table with a proposal that will meet the needs of those who the initiative originally intended to help – hundreds, not thousands. If it is permitted to go forward, strict sideboards need to be placed on growers and users to protect against public safety threats and address interests of employers, hospitals and other health care facilities.

3. The recession has hurt the businesses and workers in the Flathead more than any other place in Montana. In the Flathead, people are thankful to just have a job, let alone worry about whether they are going to get a salary increase. The unions have to come to the table with this reality in place. Decisions regarding the pay plan must be factored into other budgetary spending priorities. I will put my constituents’ interests first.