The Cascade County Republican Central Committee candidate forum at the Vaughn Volunteer Fire Station in 2016. Shown from left to right are Wendy McKamey, Randy Pinocci, Steve Fitzpatrick, J.C. Kantorowicz, former Cascade County Republican Committee Chairman George Paul, Sheridan Buck, Fred Anderson, Lola Galloway and Cleve Loney. Credit: DAVID MURRAY / Great Falls Tribune

HELENA — The longstanding rift within the Montana Republican Party is likely to flare up again this week as a bill that attempts to rein in county central committees has its first hearing.

House Bill 318 clarifies the meaning of “vacancy” in a party central committee, governs how a committee chair can appoint proxies, and requires committee rules to be filed with an election administrator before they go into effect. The bill also prohibits anyone but a local or state party committee from registering business trademarks for that committee.

The goal of the bill, according to its sponsor, Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, is to prevent “fraud” within local political committees.

“It sets some reasonable expectations for us with these (central) committees,” Garner said.

While the proposed changes to the law contained in the bill might seem simple — mundane, even — they stem from years of simmering conflict within Montana’s GOP.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, is carrying a bill in the House that would reform rules governing state party central committees.

“What it comes down to is, there’s a group of fake Republicans in Cascade County that are really Democrats, but they know they can’t get elected to office as Democrats. Their goals are vastly different than those of the Republican party, ” said Matthew Monforton, a former Republican legislator, a current member of the Gallatin County Republican Central Committee, and the lawyer representing the Cascade County Republican Central Committee.

As the 2019 Legislative session began, a group of moderate Republicans, called the “Solutions Caucus,” seemed prepared to work with Democrats to overhaul House rules and curb the power of the Republican speaker.

When a Solutions Caucus GOP lawmaker first presented a draft of the rules change, intra-party mudslinging was rife. Republicans called each other “oligarchs,” “terrorists,” and “RINOS,” short for “Republicans in Name Only.”

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Ahead of the legislative session, House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, sent a letter urging county central committees to put pressure on legislators to vote against the rules change. The move was unprecedented, and some local committees took up the cause. Central party emails sent to members called Solutions Caucus members “RINOS.” Social media posts outed individual lawmakers presumed to be in the Solutions Caucus, listed their phone numbers and emails, and urged precinct members to contact them.

Solutions Caucus members responded with op-eds in Montana newspapers, accusing fellow party members of “insider politics” that killed bills and calling out party leaders for trying to “profit from the status quo.”

But, in the first surprise of the 2019 session, House Republicans came together and voted as a block on a set of reformed House rules by the time the fight hit the floor.

The vote appeared to signal a truce among GOP lawmakers.

“On Day 1, Republicans are united. They’re ready to get to work,” House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said in a brief press conference following the rules vote. “We’ve heard from Montanans that we should find ways to come together, and we’ve done that.”

Weeks later, HB318 may test Hertz’s assurances that the party is unified.

Deep-rooted debates

The GOP infighting has brewed for the better part of a decade, and it boiled over in Cascade County around 2014.

That’s when a faction declaring its loyalty to the state GOP party platform ascended to leadership roles in the Cascade County Republican Central Committee and attempted to push out moderate members, according to a complaint filed with the Montana GOP by Roger Hagan.

Among those moderates is Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, a member of the Solutions Caucus. He said the caucus is a group of people “who want to solve problems.”

“It’s not people who come to the Legislature to make noise and score political points,” he said.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, wrote House Bill 318 after years of bitter dispute over control of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee.

The Solutions Caucus has been known by many names throughout the past decade, including “Moderate Republicans” and “Main Street Republicans.” Regardless of its name and its changing membership, the group has irked some Republicans for its tendency to sometimes vote with Democrats instead of toeing the party line. In 2015, for example, the group helped pass Medicaid expansion and a major campaign disclosure law, two bills most GOP lawmakers opposed.

While Rep. Garner is sponsoring HB 318, Sen. Fitzpatrick wrote it. The senator said he drafted the bill in response to conflicts he experienced with the Cascade County Republican Central Committee.

“They demand their very far-out agenda gets followed. If you don’t kowtow to them, they… accuse of you of not being a real Republican, which is ridiculous,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Republican and Democratic parties both have county central committees, and the committees govern political party affairs. They endorse candidates and ballot initiatives, they send representatives to state conventions to help draft party platforms, and they support local campaigns.

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In Montana, committee members are elected from county precincts every two years.

Bickering and power struggles have marked much of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee’s interactions since 2014. The conflict reached a boiling point in 2015, when five county central committees, represented by Monforton, filed a lawsuit to nix open primaries.

The lawsuit argued open primaries allowed Democrats and moderates to vote in Republican elections, violating the party’s right to assemble.

But Solutions Caucus Republicans supported open primaries. During the 2015 session, Fitzpatrick introduced a bill that nullified points in the central committees’ lawsuit.

A meltdown ensued.

In March 2015, the Cascade County Republican Central Committee censured Fitzpatrick, accusing him of “exhibiting behavior unbecoming an elected public official.”

As the bill made its way through the legislative process, central committee representatives assembled in force.

“The Senate hearing was just, it was rank. It was really bad,” Fitzpatrick said.

At the Senate State Administration hearing, committee chair Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, had the chair of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, Sheridan Buck,  removed from commenting at the podium for lack of decorum. She gaveled down a few other opponents.

One opponent representing the Gallatin County Republican Central Committee accused Democrats of being behind the bill with the support of “self-serving” Republicans.

Despite central committee protests, Fitzpatrick’s bill prevailed. Democrats and a smattering of Solutions Caucus Republicans voted to approve the legislation. Although Republicans controlled both houses, the bill passed with 12 “yes” GOP votes in the House and six in the Senate.   

The rift widens

The Republican Party infighting escalated in the years that followed, particularly in Cascade County. The central committee refused to allow some legislators to use booths at the county fair to campaign.

In a 2016 executive meeting reported by the Great Falls Tribune, central committee member J.C. Kantorowicz said “a bullet” could be used to prevent Fitzpatrick and his ally, Roger Hagan, from attending the state convention.

The rift among Cascade County Republicans became a chasm after the 2018 primary election.

The Cascade County Republican Central Committee meets on Thursday, August 6, 2015. Credit: RION SANDERS / Great Falls Tribune

The county elections office certified 36 elected precinct people in the Cascade County Republican Central Committee. Twenty of those members, including Fitzpatrick, supported reforming the committee, while the remainder supported Buck, the central committee chair, and other members of the executive board.

Ahead of the primary, there were 10 vacant seats where no nominees opted to run for a Republican precinct spot. The committee appointed five people sympathetic to Buck ahead of the election.

A few weeks after the primary, on June 28, 2018, Fitzpatrick’s “reform” supporters, now in the majority with 20 seats, called a central committee meeting. Buck presided over the meeting, but also called it “illegal.” Some members of the “reform” faction brought private security guards.

Roger Hagan. Credit: LARRY BECKNER / Great Falls Tribune

“There had been people on the central committee who had threatened other people,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to the 2016 “bullet” comment.

A recording shows the June 28 meeting quickly devolved before the committee even recited the Pledge of Allegiance, with Buck trying to have Fitzpatrick and Hagan thrown out.

Buck adjourned after only a few minutes, and the group of 20 reform supporters met in the hall to have their own meeting and elect new county officers.

Both sides appealed to the Montana Republican Party to intervene. Monforton, the central committee’s lawyer, claimed the “reform” faction was attempting to oust Buck as the duly elected chair.

Meanwhile, Hagan, on Fitzpatrick’s reformer side, argued that the Buck faction was damaging the reputation of the GOP. Hagan also claimed the committee’s pre-election vacant chair appointments were invalid, since they happened before the primary election.

The state party ultimately sided with Buck and determined the hallway meeting was not valid. But the state party also noted that seat vacancies had to be appointed by a quorum of the central committee after the primary, not before.   

A quorum conundrum

Some of Fitzpatrick’s supporters stopped attending the central committee meetings chaired by Buck in the months following the hallway meeting.

It was a strategy to prevent a quorum and block appointments to vacant seats, Fitzpatrick said.

“If they [the current executive board] can fill vacancies, they can stay in charge,” he said.

During the committee’s October 2018 meeting, Buck appointed proxies for three unexcused members. Proxies serve as substitutes, voting in meeting officials’ absence.

At least two of those unexcused members, Sen. Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls, and his wife Barbara, did not give their permission for other members of the body to vote on their behalf. In an interview, Hoven expressed his concerns.

“I did not sign any proxy. No one approached me for a proxy,” Hoven said. “You don’t forge someone’s proxy then use that to get a quorum.”

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Hoven is among the committee members supporting the reforms HB 318 could address.

“The existing central committee is not doing anything to help the Republican Party and Cascade County,” Hoven said.

Fitzpatrick claims the central committee’s use of unapproved proxies in 2018 was illegal, because committee seats are elected positions.

“They’re basically engaging in voter fraud in their meetings. They pick a person out of the crowd to vote by proxy without authorization,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think everyone in the world knows if you vote a proxy, it has to be authorized by the person who holds the vote in the first place. “

In December, a couple months after appointing those proxies to make a quorum, Buck and her supporters amended central committee rules to allow the chair to appoint proxies, a move Fitzpatrick also opposes.

“It’s pretty sleazy,” Fitzpatrick said.

Bill hearing

Montana Free Press made multiple attempts to contact Buck to interview her for this story. She did not respond. Instead, Monforton provided comment as the Cascade County Central Committee’s lawyer.

While Cascade County is “ground zero,” Monforton said similar fights have played out in other Republican central committees, including in Gallatin and Flathead counties.

Matthew Monforton

“What is motivating this bill is Fitzpatrick’s desire to fight the battle he lost,” Monforton said, referring to the state party’s ruling on the June hallway meeting. “He’s trying to take over control of the central committee through legislation, having failed to do it through fair vote counting.”

HB 318 attempts to address the fallout from the years-long central committee fight by clarifying the rules around vacancies and the use of proxy votes. It would apply retroactively to June 15, 2018 — after the primary and shortly before the Fitzpatrick reformers’ flare-up in Cascade County. It’s unclear if that would result in any legal ramifications for Buck or her supporters.

The House State Administration Committee will hear the bill at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 6.

Given past clashes between legislators and central committee members, Wednesday’s hearing could be heated.

“The House State Administration Committee is a menagerie of RINOs and fake Republicans, so HB 318 is likely to make it past the committee,” Monforton said. “Hopefully enough actual Republicans from throughout the state will show up to oppose it.”

As with prior years, Fitzpatrick said he isn’t feeling pressured by the escalating tensions.

“There are a lot of bullies who intimidate people. I get sick of it because I watch other legislators cower under it,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s why I bring these bills. Someone has to stand up and knock-off this nonsense, and I’m happy to take on the party when they’re wrong. I represent the people first.”

Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.