Democrats Try to Regain House District 4

By Beacon Staff

After Democrats lost Whitefish’s House District 4 seat as part of a clean legislative sweep by Republicans in 2010, two Democrats are battling for a chance to give the seat back to their party.

Attorney Tom Muri and retired forester Ed Lieser, both of Whitefish, are vying for their party’s nomination in House District 4 as the June 5 primary nears. The winner will face Republican Tim Baldwin of Kalispell in the general election.

In either Muri or Lieser, the Democrats have an opportunity to regain control of a seat that had been good to them until 2010, when Republican Derek Skees narrowly defeated Democrat Will Hammerquist by only 87 votes – 1,936 to 1,849. Democrat Mike Jopek had held the seat for the previous three terms.

Skees is running for state auditor, leaving his House seat vacant.

After the 2010 election, Democrats no longer held a single elected office in Flathead County, including their one seat on the county commission. Muri believes a Democrat needs to be able to reach out to both sides of the aisle to win the seat.

“The Democratic candidate is going to have Republican support,” he said. “I don’t believe in this war between Republicans and Democrats.”

Muri, 60, says he is an old-fashioned Democrat, in the vein of Pat Williams and Mike Mansfield, “who still knows what working men and women are all about.” Two of his foremost concerns are protecting Whitefish Lake and reopening the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant.

Muri has served as a city attorney and city council member for Whitefish. He ran unsuccessfully for justice of peace in 2006. He is a retired military judge advocate general (JAG) officer.

“I am a very fiscally conservative Democrat that is very supportive of liberal causes provided that they are financially neutral,” Muri said. “I don’t think we should pursue liberal causes on the taxpayers’ dime any more than we should pursue conservative causes on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Lieser, 62, retired in 2008 after a 30-year career with the U.S. Forest Service but still works as a forestry consultant. Besides a stint on the school board in Idaho, Lieser hadn’t seriously considered running for an elected position before. But after people began asking him to run, he jumped at the “special opportunity to serve the community.”

He believes his long career in natural resource management will be useful in the Legislature.

“I’ve worked hands-on in the woods, on the ground, designing projects that comply with state and federal laws and I’ve managed forests in a manner that’s sustainable,” he said.

Like Muri, Lieser is placing high priority on protecting Whitefish Lake, particularly in light of a recent report on septic contamination in the lake. He said conservation easements and property taxes are also important to the constituents of House District 4, both of which can be addressed by the Legislature.

Lieser sits a number of boards, including for the Whitefish Legacy Partners, Whitefish Fire Service Area and Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.

“This whole process is a matter of talking to folks, finding out what’s important to the residents of Whitefish and learning how to fit that into the structure of the Legislature,” Lieser said.

House District 4 candidates were asked the following three questions:

1. What can the Legislature do to encourage economic recovery and job growth?
2. Besides the economy, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing the Legislature?
3. Given that the Legislature appears to be starting with a surplus, what would be your budgetary approach heading into the session?


Name: Tom Muri
Age: 60
Occupation: Retired Military JAG Officer
Years in the valley: Since 1964

1. Having served as a city attorney for Whitefish, as well as on the Whitefish City Council, it has been my experience that too many laws are passed without giving thought to unintended consequence. Having served in both the private and public sector, I find governments too negative and willing to say no rather than yes. My military background was always about getting the job done by providing solutions and leadership. The Legislature should cut out the posturing and party politics and recognize that we all – Democrats and Republicans – want an economy that provides jobs and security for all.

2. The increasing hostility and sometimes downright hatred between Republicans and Democrats. Montana’s Constitution is well written and provides a lot of the solutions to many of the issues that divide us. Whenever possible, our arguments should reference Montana’s Constitution and make certain that we are not overlooking appropriate guidance before we get into a name-calling contest over proposed legislation. Thus, I believe the most pressing issue facing the Legislature is behaving in a civil manner toward one another. We need to be role models for all of those Bobcat and Grizzly fans throughout Montana – except for that one day in November!

3. Montana’s projected surplus has to be tempered with the acknowledgement that our federal government’s deficit continues to grow. Montana has relied heavily upon federal dollars in the past that will not be forthcoming. We have to anticipate such and ensure vital and basic governmental needs are met. Additionally, Montana has unfunded liabilities in various retirement programs and school tuition is twice as expensive as when I attended college in the 1970s, so I will oppose additional costs being imposed upon college and tech students. I want to provide today’s generation the opportunity that my parents’ generation provided us.

Name: Ed Lieser
Age: 62
Occupation: Forester
Years in the valley: 22

1. Actions the Legislature can take to encourage economic recovery include preparing our workforce to be competitive by providing a variety of educational opportunities. These educational offerings can be provided at middle schools, high schools, community colleges, technical schools and universities. However, that means that public schools and higher education must be adequately funded. I believe teachers, instructors and professors must be paid a competitive wage. In my view, good schools are the foundation of our economy.

In addition, the state can offer incentives to startup businesses or businesses that are interested in relocating to Montana. For example, restructuring the business equipment tax would encourage new businesses. Also, it is important to invest in technology infrastructure to improve broadband delivery service and mobile calling.

2. From a statewide prospective, I believe the westward movement of energy production – specifically oil and gas development – is going to provide opportunities and challenges to communities. The job opportunities related to oil and gas drilling will certainly help everyone and in many ways. However, the communities affected by these changes should be supported with the revenue generated by the state in the form of police protection, infrastructure and health care. Energy independence is a statewide and national imperative, but we cannot develop these resources at the expense of the local communities.

3. If a surplus does in fact exist, the first and highest priority is to fully fund the public employees’ retirement system. In my opinion, it is unconscionable to allow a budgetary surplus of this magnitude and not work toward ensuring the retirement contract with state employees. In addition, I would fully support an increase in pay for state employees. I would also support an increase in funding for public schools and higher education. In addition, I will evaluate the effect of reduced revenue from a lower business equipment tax and look for opportunities to invest in technology infrastructure.

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