Republicans Select Regier, Ellsworth as House Speaker and Senate President

In Wednesday’s pre-session caucus meetings, Democrats selected Kim Abbott and Pat Flowers as House and Senate minority leaders

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

House and Senate Republicans on Wednesday selected Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell and Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton as the leaders of their respective caucuses, cueing up a 2023 legislative session in which the GOP will enjoy the first two-thirds supermajority since Montana drafted its modern Constitution in 1972. 

“Smile everybody, we’re running the place,” said Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, who presided over the House caucus, to kick off the proceedings. 

In the lower chamber, Republicans voted for Regier as Speaker of the House over Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta. And in the Senate, Ellsworth emerged as President over Matt Regier’s father, Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell. Both leaders pledged to lead the expanded Republican majority as a united front to achieve conservative policy goals and advance the well-being of the state.

“We can all coalesce around the foundation that makes up the Republican brand: That is freedom and liberty and respect for the people of Montana,” Matt Regier said in his pre-vote pitch to the caucus Wednesday. “This session, we are all going to take some very impactful votes, but arguably none will be bigger than the vote you’re going to take here this morning. This vote for leadership will determine how effective the Montana House of Representatives is.”

Ellsworth also struck a collaborative tone, telling Senate Republicans, “We all have the same agenda.”

“It’s really about what we did last session, which was have a good session, no surprises, no games, everybody gets an opportunity and just fairness,” Ellsworth later told Montana Free Press of his appeal to lawmakers. We did that under Sen. [Mark] Blasdel, the last president, and that’s all I wanted to do, is continue that same legacy.”

The 2023 legislative session begins Jan. 2. Legislative chambers will take binding votes as a whole on speaker and president at the beginning of the session, though such votes are usually perfunctory. 

In the House, lawmakers re-elected Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, as majority leader over Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, and chose Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, as Speaker Pro Tempore over Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings. After winnowing a list of several nominees, the caucus selected Reps. Brandon Ler, R-Sidney; Terry Moore, R-Billings; Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan; Neil Duram, R-Eureka; Steve Gist, R-Cascade; and Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, as whips, lieutenants in party leadership who work to get votes in order.

In the Senate, Republicans selected Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, as majority leader over Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel; Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, as Speaker Pro Tempore over Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings; and Usher along with Sens. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings; Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux; and Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, as whips. 

Votes for leadership positions are conducted by secret ballot and not made public. 

Such elections often become proxy fights over ideological and strategic divides in the caucuses. While none of the candidates highlighted a conflict dynamic in their speeches, the game was nonetheless afoot, especially in the House, where the loose coalition of self-described pragmatists that brands itself the Conservative Solutions Caucus sought to rally support behind Casey Knudsen, who served as Speaker Pro Tempore in the 2021 session. The Solutions Caucus has existed in various configurations for several sessions, and was especially active in passing bipartisan policy with Democratic colleagues under the consecutive gubernatorial terms of Democratic Govs. Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock. Capitol observers regard the two Regiers, on the other hand, as generally more friendly to the Republican caucus’ right-flank. 

One significant challenge for Republican leaders — a perennial one that will become even more important with a 102-seat majority in the Legislature — is to stitch party factions into a policymaking coalition without provoking internal backlash. 

“We have a diverse group of conservatives who span a broad spectrum of ideas,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, who is aligned with the Solutions Caucus, in an interview with MTFP. “And I think that it’s always a challenge to bring a diverse group like that together. We’re hopeful that the new speaker-elect recognizes the diversity of opinion in the caucus.”

Democrats also caucused to select their leaders Wednesday. In the House, previous minority leader Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena fended off a challenge from Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, who called for the caucus to be more vocal on issues before the Legislature.

“Our caucus had a strong focus on staying silent, and people noticed our silence across the state,” Marler said. “We need to get our message into our record and out across the state so voters know what we stand for.”

Abbott said she wanted to work to advance the Democratic agenda despite the overwhelming Republican majority. 

“I want this job because I want to leverage all of you, every single vote we have, every single relationship we have, to create opportunities to move things when we can and to stop things when we can,” Abbott said.

House Democrats also selected Reps. Derek Harvey, D-Butte; Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning; and Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, as whips, and Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, as Democratic caucus chair. 

The nominees for minority leader and whips in the Senate Democratic caucus were all unopposed. Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, will be minority leader. Sens. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, and Susan Webber, D-Browning, will be whips. 

Lawmakers will continue meeting throughout the week for orientation ahead of the 2023 session. The next step is to assign legislators to committee chairmanships, which should be finalized by next week. 

In the Senate, standing committees are appointed by the Committee on Committees. Sens. Hinebauch; McGillvray; John Esp, R-Big Timber; Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings; Mike Lang, R-Malta; and Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, will serve on the panel. 

In the House, Regier, as speaker, has unilateral control over committee chair appointments, a power that often leads to conflict as different members vie for committees based on a variety of criteria. In the 2021 session, for example, Speaker Wylie Galt’s appointment of Solutions Caucus leader Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, as House Appropriations Committee Chair generated ire from hardliners in the caucus.

Regier said his approach will be to treat everybody fairly, and that he’ll consider seniority, talent and goals in his appointments. 

“It’s a puzzle and everybody’s got a piece to play,” he told MTFP. 

Bedey said he believes seniority should be a primary consideration.

“Our view on committee assignments is that seniority and expertise and experience matters and should be respected when making committee assignments,” he said. “We think that the expertise of people, especially the first-term legislators coming on board, need to be considered. Now, you can’t make everyone happy all the time, but these are general principles of fairness that we think are correct.”

Mara Silvers and Eric Dietrich contributed reporting.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.