Considering that his legislative title contains the word “speaker,” Mark Blasdel is pretty non-verbal. Colleagues and political observers use the phrase “quiet leader,” or some variation that implies an ability to capably serve as speaker of the House without having to talk all the time.
The Republican’s quiet and modest nature was illuminated by two incidents on the 44th day of the Montana Legislature. With the House of Representatives discussing a bill to slash the state’s business equipment tax, Blasdel stood to voice his support.
“I don’t speak often,” he said to open his remarks.
Chuck Hunter, the minority leader in the House and essentially Blasdel’s Democratic counterpoint, then addressed the bill, citing a “rare opportunity” to follow up the speaker.
“I’m going to take that opportunity,” Hunter, from Helena, said.
Shortly later, it was Blasdel’s turn to address his own measure, a resolution reaffirming Montana’s commitment to its trade and cultural relationship with Taiwan. He promptly fumbled the introduction, drawing laughter and light-hearted teasing from his fellow representatives, and a self-depreciative chuckle from the speaker himself.
“All right, help me out here, folks,” Blasdel said.
Blasdel, 36, is in his fourth and final term as a House representative. He ran unopposed for speaker of the House and has embraced the role wholeheartedly, forgoing trips back to his hometown of Somers to focus on the Legislature.
In past sessions, Blasdel returned home on weekends to help run the family catering business and restaurant, the Vista Linda. He says the catering business is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the Flathead. He holds a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and business from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
But this session, Blasdel only made it back to the Flathead once before transmittal break began last week, he said during a Feb. 26 interview in his state Capitol office. On his one return trip home, he catered a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation dinner and was able to hear from a host of constituents, a valuable opportunity.
“I think you get somewhat insulated in Helena about what you think is going on and what’s being presented out there and what the public is actually seeing and hearing,” Blasdel said.
Blasdel entered the House at age 29 and has since developed a reputation on both sides of the aisle for being respectful, willing to listen to new ideas and quiet but friendly.
“You have to stand firm on your principles but you have to be willing to listen as well,” he said. “I don’t want everybody telling me I’m doing a good job if I’m not. I’m open to criticism.”
Blasdel said a number of people helped him learn the legislative ropes, especially his longtime friend Jon Sonju, a Kalispell senator who was previously a representative. The two have known each other since kindergarten, were friends throughout Flathead High School and have been roommates in Helena the last four sessions. They trade policy ideas at the kitchen table and keep an eye on each other’s work at the Legislature.
“Mark is a conservative but he’s open to all ideas, whether you lean left or right,” Sonju said. “He has a cool, calm personality that allows things to get done. In this business, it’s important to be approachable.”
Another representative-turned-senator shares a similar view of Blasdel, even if that view is from the other side of the aisle. Sen. Jon Sesso of Butte, the Senate’s minority leader for the Democrats, served with Blasdel for three sessions beginning in 2007. Sesso said Blasdel was “just as respectful of me” when the House was split 50-50 between the two parties in 2009 as when Republicans had the huge 68-32 majority in 2011.
Now observing him in his role as speaker, Sesso says Blasdel is as respectful as ever – “he’s still the same guy.”
“I think the world of him and I’m so proud of how he’s run the House so far,” Sesso said, adding that Blasdel understands the importance of relationships in the Legislature. “Those are the kinds of relationships it takes to ultimately find agreement – at the end of the day you have to find agreement. Otherwise you just advocate your role and your position. I think Mark understands that.”
“He’s a good man,” Sesso continued. “He’s my friend Mark from Somers and he’ll always be that first.”
Blasdel has his work cut out for him. Nearly 40 percent of the 100 members in the House are freshmen, and he is tasked with finding a balance between the free-flow of ideas and keeping citizen legislators focused on practical policymaking. That task, of course, extends to experienced lawmakers as well.
As an example, he mentioned Columbia Falls Republican Rep. Jerry O’Neil’s proposal to allow defendants to bargain for corporal punishment instead of jail. Blasdel discussed the issue with O’Neil, who “thought it out” and chose not to introduce the bill. He said he also spoke to legislators about certain proposals regarding state’s rights and gun rights.
“Does it help Montana? Are you going to get 51 votes? Are you going to be able to get the governor interested in possibly signing it? Have you considered all those things before you start this process?” Blasdel said of the conversations.
Yet, Blasdel says it’s not his job to limit legislators. He can offer guidance and input, but ultimately it’s up to them to decide whether to propose their ideas.
“You can’t constrain them,” Blasdel said. “They all filed. They all campaigned. They all have a constituent base to talk with and represent, and so they have to have their opportunities on both sides to bring forward those measures.”
Blasdel also must make sure Democrats’ voices are heard in a chamber where they are outnumbered 61-39 by Republicans. Hunter, the House minority leader, says Blasdel has gone “out of his way to be respectful to our members.”
“I think he cares about the dignity in the chamber,” Hunter said, adding that he also appreciates Blasdel’s “wry sense of humor.”
Hunter, however, said he would like to see Blasdel more pointedly map out the majority’s plans for the session. He also hopes the speaker addresses some Democrats’ concerns about unfair treatment at the committee level, where he said procedural motions were used to quash debate.
“I do think the speaker takes ultimate responsible for those, although it’s certainly a step removed,” Hunter said. “And the times that I have raised those issues I know that Speaker Blasdel has tried to respond but I don’t think we got 100 percent of the way to solutions.”
Heading into the second half of the session, budget and policy discussions will heat up, along with emotions. Blasdel said he will specifically be keeping his eye on business equipment tax bills, pension reform, tax issues and a tribal water compact that will impact western Montana and must receive approval from the Legislature.
Blasdel believes the first half of the session was a positive step in terms of rhetoric, focus and cooperation from last session. He is pleased with the improved communication between legislative Republicans and the governor’s office, and anticipates it will carry over into the session’s crunch time.
“We’ve got an open door policy both ways,” Blasdel said of his relationship with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. “I joked with him that this is the first session I’ve ever been in the governor’s office in four sessions, so it’s a good start.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.