In a race that could very well be decided by Flathead County’s robust block of Republican voters, the GOP primary for western Montana’s commissioner seat on the state’s Public Service Commission features a pair of well-known former politicians and a three-time contender vying for the party’s nomination.
Kalispell’s Derek Skees, a former state legislator, is pursuing the District 5 commissioner seat on the five-member PSC against East Helena’s Brad Johnson, a former Montana secretary of state, and Kalispell’s John M. Campbell, a truck driver and auditor for a local transportation company who has ran for the post twice before.
The three candidates are seeking their party’s nod for the general election against Democratic state Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh of Helena, who does not face a primary challenger.
Voting for the primary is underway as mail-in ballots have been delivered and are due back by June 3. Polling places will be open that day at Flathead County Fairgrounds.
Incumbent Travis Kavulla of Great Falls ran unopposed as the commissioner in District 1.
The PSC is a quasi-judicial executive branch of the state government that is responsible for overseeing regulations of public utilities, including electric, gas, telephone, water and private sewer services. The commission also regulates intrastate railroads and certain motor carries, including taxis, while overseeing natural gas pipeline safety rules. Its primary task under state law is to ensure that public utilities in Montana provide adequate service to customers at reasonable rates.
The District 5 seat represents six counties in Northwest Montana and across the Rocky Mountain Front, including Browning, Conrad and Choteau.
Local voters will likely recognize all three GOP candidates seeking the four-year commissioner post.
Skees, a general contractor in the Flathead, emerged as a candidate for state government with the nascent Tea Party in the fall of 2010 and was elected into the House of Representatives for House District 4 representing Whitefish. He served one term, appearing in the 2011 Legislature, before opting to run for state auditor in 2012. He lost to incumbent Monica Lindeen.
After a two-year down period, Skees is back seeking a position in the state’s executive branch, particularly one that he says would help him achieve his chief ideal of taking control away from the federal government and giving it back to the state.
“We need a strong PSC, and in the next four years we need a strong 10th amendment guy in the PSC,” Skees said. “I have a long history of standing and fighting an autocratic federal government.”
Regarding issues related to energy development, which the PSC could play a large role in, Skees touted himself as a strong proponent of pipeline infrastructure, like the Keystone XL, and a good liaison who would work closely with the Legislature to “find out what’s wrong with the way Montana is doing business.” He also stands in strong opposition to any of the proposed regulations in President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to address climate change.
“Global warming is a scam based on bad science,” he said, adding, “It’s just crazy. We have some of the cleanest coal in the nation in the ground here in Montana and we need to be using it.”
Johnson, an energy consultant, is running yet again for the PSC after narrowly losing to Bill Gallagher in the 2010 primary. Johnson served as secretary of state from 2005-2008 and has also been a member of the State Land Board. Gallagher is not seeking re-election after being diagnosed with cancer.
Johnson said he stands in strong opposition to the state’s renewable energy standards, calling it a “bad law that has not been productive in terms of reaching the goals of sustainable and affordable high quality utilities for Montanans.” He also is a strong supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline, which he says would help address lingering concerns surrounding heavy volumes of rail traffic crossing the state. Like Skees, he also opposes the president’s proposed regulations on carbon emissions linked to coal plants.
“To arbitrarily say we’re just going to dump coal from the nation’s energy portfolio is very shortsighted in terms of the energy future of our state and our country, and it’s irresponsible,” Johnson said.
Campbell owned his own trucking company for 12 years and has also worked in the state’s Department of Transportation for six years, before joining a construction firm in Kalispell as a truck driver and auditor of driver logs. He ran unsuccessfully for the PSC in 1994 and 2006.
He joined the race once again with a strong focus on answering the lingering “problems of deregulation.” Like his opponents, he’s against renewable energy, like wind farms, which he says don’t produce enough power to justify their taxpayer costs.
Campbell said the increase in rail traffic should be better controlled from the state level, and that the PSC should have better involvement with the rail companies, like Montana Rail Link, to address issues.
“They’re transporting highly volatile stuff and we need to have better control of hazardous material,” he said.
If the last PSC primary is any indication, this year’s race will be tight. In a two-person race in 2010, Gallagher edged Johnson, 11,083 votes to 10,951. Johnson did well in northwest Montana, garnering 5,913 votes to Gallagher’s 5,069.
Skees, feeling confident as the hometown candidate, predicts the Flathead will once again play a major role in deciding who wins the GOP’s nomination.
“This race is won by the Flathead. All you got to do is win the Flathead,” he says.
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