Montana Democrats met in their historical stronghold of Butte this weekend for the party’s 2022 platform convention, reaffirming support for positions core to the party’s identity following a year of Republican control of the state that’s seen a rapid advancement of conservative policies emerging from Helena.
Amendments to the Democrats’ platform were generally statements of principle. The party, for example, now explicitly supports the right to access abortion and contraception and declares the planet to be in a “state of climate emergency.”
But delegates did approve several new policy objectives, such as the restoration of the Judicial Nominating Commission, which was eliminated by Republicans last session; establishing a panel to investigate human rights abuses in the state’s historical Indian Boarding Schools; and propping up programs to support workers “dislocated” by a transition away from fossil fuels, among others.
It was a relatively staid affair, especially in comparison to the GOP’s own platform convention a few weeks prior, and given the stakes that Democrats have identified ahead of the November election: The loss of two Democratic seats between either legislative chamber could give Republicans a bicameral supermajority, allowing lawmakers to pass constitutional amendment ballot referrals and other measures that require a two-thirds vote without Democratic votes.
There were no stump speeches from top candidates or party luminaries. Monica Tranel, the party’s candidate for Montana’s Western U.S. House district and likely Montana Democrats’ best chance of electing one of their own to Congress this year, given the deep red hue of the state’s eastern district, was absent. Factional fights over personality or policy were minimal, or at least private, set aside largely in favor of technical debates over syntax and semicolons.
“We are united moving into November,” the state party’s executive director, Sheila Hogan, said in a statement. “The recent Republican convention revealed internal strife and a radical agenda. This weekend, the Democrats laid out a very different vision for Montana.”
The platform “is extremely important because it’s our beliefs and our value statements,” Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, told Montana Free Press. “We refer to our value statements when we work on legislation. When I introduce yet again a livable wage bill for Montanans, like I’ve done for four different sessions — that’s in our platform.”
As with the GOP convention, language is added to the party’s platform in much the same way that a bill is amended or adopted in the Legislature. Delegates break off into policy-specific plank committees — outdoor recreation, health care and housing, for example — and then deliver amendments approved by the committees to the full convention. (The Democrats’ plank committees were open to the press; their equivalents at the GOP convention were not.)
Unlike the GOP platform, which, given the party’s near-total control of state government, has a real chance of influencing or even becoming state policy, the Democratic platform is primarily aspirational, and a statement of opposition to the conservatism that’s come to dominate state politics.
Indeed, the majority party loomed large over the proceedings, with several amendments adopted in direct response to Republican bills or votes in the last year.
In addition to the new abortion language and the amendment calling for the reinstatement of the Judicial Nominating Commission, convention delegates also adopted an amendment calling for legislation to improve health care for veterans “suffering injuries from toxic exposure during their military service.” Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s only Democrat in statewide or federal office, has been a prime driver of federal legislation to do just that. But the PACT Act, as it’s known, was blocked in the U.S. Senate last week after 25 Republicans, including Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines, took a procedural vote against the measure.
And Dems adopted language supporting local control and the separation of governmental powers, the latter a response to a wide-ranging dispute between legislative Republicans and the judiciary last year, as well as an amendment opposed to the “packing” of local governing boards — a response to recent political conflicts that have consumed local health, school and library boards across the state.
In a similar vein, delegates voted for plank language opposing censorship in public schools and libraries. “I know there’s a couple of boards I’d like to pack, but I’m in support of this language,” joked Art Noonan, a longtime Butte Democrat and former party executive director.
Dunwell was responsible for new language calling for a “fair and equitable property tax system” that adequately funds government services while protecting “everyday Montanans from unaffordable tax hikes.”
That’s one of the few areas where Montana’s Republicans and Democrats share some common ground, though their respective methods for enacting property tax relief differ. The taxation plank committee devoted much of its energy to workshopping the amendment’s language to emphasize that wealthy Montanans and vacation homeowners should not benefit from relief proportionally to Montanans on fixed or low incomes — an effort to distinguish the Democratic plank from, say, CI-121, the ballot initiative to cap property taxes backed by Republican State Auditor Troy Downing, among others. That initiative failed to make the ballot this year.
“It would have not been according to your income, so it would’ve affected everyone, even the wealthy homeowners who can afford the property tax on a half-million dollar home,” Dunwell told MTFP, referring to CI-121.
The convention also approved language calling for bolstered investment in housing affordability without shedding environmental or labor regulations.
Undergirding several of the amendments was a general statement of opposition to any partisan efforts to repeal or replace the Montana Constitution of 1972, the state’s governing document and a lodestar for Democrats on issues ranging from abortion to public lands access to judicial appointments. In particular, Republican efforts to restrict or ban abortion in the state would require the reversal of state Supreme Court precedent tying access to the procedure to the Constitution’s broad privacy protections.
“We are the most protected citizens in the United States thanks to our Constitution,” said Evan Barrett, a longtime Butte Democrat and former chief business development officer under Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Delegates on the hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation plank committee frequently invoked the Constitution when approving language affirming support for Montana’s stream access law.
“You should ask yourself, do you support public hunting opportunities? Do you support public fishing opportunities? Do you support the outdoor economy and the jobs and businesses it supports?” said Jayson O’Neill, a public lands activist and consultant for the Tranel campaign who introduced the language, referencing Republican efforts to boost private hunting. “If you do, you should side with Democrats.”
One of the weekend’s most substantive debates about electoral strategy arose in discussion of the outdoor recreation plank.
“To me, this is an issue that the Democrats, if we play our cards right, can pull a lot of voters away from Republicans if we just come out and present the bare facts to the people of Montana,” said Alex Newby, a delegate from Gallatin County attending his first convention.
But Democrats, he argued, have taken support on the issue for granted, and aren’t doing enough to directly message to conservative voters who might align with the party on public lands access.
“The assumption on the part of Democrats that all hook-and-bullet guys are on our side is not true,” offered Art Noonan, who presided over the plank committee. “It divides on other issues — how they hunt, where they hunt, the issue of guns. This is an issue where we need to say it over and over and over again.”
Public lands access isn’t the only issue on which Democrats risk ceding the field to Republicans, Newby told MTFP later. Democrats, he said, never campaigned in the conservative agricultural community where he grew up, and struggle to connect their messaging with voters’ hearts — a pressing concern given the party’s ambition to win at least one Republican-leaning seat in Congress, stave off a GOP legislative supermajority, and eventually claw back at least one statewide seat of power.
“I don’t know what the Montana Dems do except ask me for money,” he added. “I’m like, I don’t freaking have any money and I don’t want to send you any money because I’m not really seeing a lot of results. So stop congratulating yourself about the values that you stand for. I wanna see some fire. I wanna see some fight.”
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