The last day to file is approaching for perhaps Flathead County’s most important elected office — a seat on the county commission — and the job has already attracted a number of relatively high-profile candidates, at least on the Republican side. And, if recent history is any indication, that primary will likely determine the winner.
On Feb. 23, incumbent County Commissioner Gary Krueger filed for reelection. Based on how long he waited, I was curious if he would run to defend the seat. Krueger is finishing up his first term on the commission: a three-member board currently consisting of all Republicans who serve staggered six-year terms. He is the only member on the ballot this year, but he faces some formidable challengers who should make the primary interesting.
First, there is Randy Brodehl, a termed-out Republican lawmaker who has represented House District 9 in Evergreen since 2011. Brodehl is well-known in the community as the former Kalispell fire chief and often votes with the area’s more-conservative bloc at the state Legislature. In an interview before the last election, he said one of the pressing issues facing Montanans is “reducing the role of the federal government in our lives.” He added that he supported “transferring most public property in the hands of the federal government to state management.”
Then there is Gerald “Jay” Scott, the former fair manager who previously challenged Krueger. Scott galvanized support in 2010 after the Flathead County Fair Board chose not to renew his contract after more than a decade at the helm. Scott ended up losing to Krueger by a razor-thin margin in the 2012 GOP primary. Following a drawn-out recount, Krueger prevailed by just 23 votes.
Another Republican challenger is Ronalee Skees, a member of the Flathead City-County Board of Health and the Kalispell City Planning and Zoning Commission. She previously challenged the more moderate incumbent Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, in 2014, who has riled some area conservatives — most recently for supporting a gas tax to fund infrastructure. Skees is also chair for the Flathead County Republicans Central Committee and married to Kalispell Republican Rep. Derek Skees.
Finally, there’s Krueger, who is difficult to parse as a moderate or conservative. The Flathead County Commission often votes in unison, but if there is a dissenting voice, it’s often his. When fellow Flathead County commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist voted to cut funding for a patio at the Kalispell Senior Center, Krueger dissented. In 2015, he also vehemently objected to the way in which his fellow commissioners sent letters to lawmakers opposing the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water compact. He specifically took aim at Mitchell during the controversy, calling his statements regarding the water compact and the tribes “an embarrassment.”
Krueger’s support for the water compact will almost certainly be a point of contention as the June primary approaches. Right now, the race is unpredictable. Krueger’s advantage of incumbency may be matched by the name recognition of his opponents. Nonetheless, whoever prevails will be in a good position to serve on the board for the next six years. Krueger won the 2012 general election with 68 percent of the vote. Mitchell won the 2014 general election with 66 percent of the vote. Holmquist won the 2016 general election with 69 percent of the vote.
As of Feb. 23, no Democrat has filed to run for the office. The deadline is March 12.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the 2014 race between Ronalee Skees and Frank Garner was for an open seat.