Uncommon Ground

Decades Later

During my time in Helena, the chamber was twice split 50/50 between the parties. There was no policy without compromise.

By Mike Jopek

As January rain fell from the sky, I headed north to Dog Creek Lodge. I’d been there before for a wedding, years back in the summertime. Dog Creek was bustling with Nordic skiers. A sign outside indicated there was wood firing pizza inside. What a place, I thought, so great, so Montana.

Flathead Democrats hosted a forum on extremism in the Montana Legislature at one of the numerous lodge rentals. I sat on a panel with Mandy Gerth, Rep. Dave Fern, and Monica Tranel. A hundred Flathead locals sat in the Olney audience.

The audience appeared older than the last time we’d met. I said so to break the ice. They laughed awkwardly. We’d met decades ago when local Democrats, friends and community worked hard sending me, then a young farmer, to the Montana Legislature. 

I chuckled to myself. Yes, decades passed. I felt just as passionate about community. The thought made me happy and outwardly sad. Having served there, I knew what was coming.

Republicans gained supermajority powers at the Montana Legislature with over 100 of the 150 members in the state capitol belonging to one party. Today, Republicans control all Montana absent local powers like city councils and school boards. 

In the last two years Republicans passed a handful of laws to preempt local control. Last time the Legislature convened they outlawed Whitefish’s worker housing program, hamstrung local health boards across Montana, and told K-12 and higher education what to do, regardless of our state Constitution. 

During my time in Helena, the chamber was twice split 50/50 between the parties. There was no policy without compromise. The next decade, one party controlled the executive branch while another ran the Legislature. 

Montana got used to it, after two decades of good government and compromise politics. A sudden right turn in state politics will prove rather alarming to many locals.

As someone whose politics have been groomed by moderation, I told the Olney visiting friends that our democracy was in jeopardy. 

In the past couple years, we saw legislators trying to muffle constitutionally created boards, elected officials not releasing public documents, politicians not talking to the press. The Legislature is intentionally provoking the Supreme Court seeking rubber-stamp approval and knowingly passing unconstitutional laws trying to obstruct fundamental rights like the youth and Native vote. 

The new supermajority wants to select justice by district versus statewide like the Constitution guarantees. They’re forcing partisan judges upon the electorate and seeking to draw their own reelection districts. 

Privacy rights of women and Montanans are at risk. So are local zoning and other ordinances. Whatever the right-wingers find objectionable, I’d say. As I recall, it was a lot.

It’s hard to imagine that the supermajority is actually “bat-crap crazy” enough, as former Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Montana GOP bills made the state party look a decade earlier, to convene a Constitutional Convention with their new superpowers. 

Voters resoundingly defeated convention votes in two past cycles and it’s prescheduled for statewide ballot at decade’s end. Montanans like things left alone and no one’s articulated a need to change.

As I left the active Olney event and drove toward the farm, the words that Tranel spoke resonated. She reminded people that national Republicans pushed a lot more power, control, and responsibility to the state level. Concurrently Montana usurped much self-governing power away from local jurisdictions. They want total control. All power vested at the state level.

Earlier I reminded listeners that our state Constitution, the one Republicans are proposing to change over 50 different ways, still allows, even demands, public participation to govern. 

It’s your future friends. You hold it in trust to benefit the kids. Don’t normalize fanatical behavior, especially from politicians barely elected by slim majorities of the electorate.

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