Gubernatorial candidate Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, addresses delegates at the 2019 Montana Democratic Party officer's convention in Helena on Saturday, July 13. Schreiner is among three Democrats running to replace Gov. Steve Bullock. Former state Rep. Reilly Neill of Livingston, and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney are also running. Credit: Gary Marshall / Montana Free Press

HELENA — As Democrats settled into their seats in the ballroom of Helena’s Delta Hotel Saturday morning, outgoing party chair Mary Sexton gave the oratory equivalent of a backslap. The Democratic party in Montana is “alive and strong,” she said. As evidence, Sexton pointed to far weaker Democratic legislative minorities in neighboring states and the “amazing array” of candidates entering the 2020 election.

“We as the Democratic Party in Montana have to have common messages, common approaches, and common direction, and that’s how we win,” Sexton said. “Our strength is in our diversity, but also in our ability to come together.”

Throughout the party’s two-day rules convention, there was considerable commonality in the candidates’ messages. Nearly all of the 13 speeches by statewide office and congressional hopefuls featured promises to focus on health care, jobs and education, with the occasional nod to public lands for good measure.

Montana Democratic delegate Vance Larsen looks over proposed rule changes at the party’s Officers and Rules Convention Friday in Helena. (Gary Marshall/Montana Free Press)

Some framed themselves as champions of the underprivileged regardless of political affiliation, including Helena mayor and U.S. Senate contender Wilmot Collins. Others played off of Democratic frustrations, particularly the party’s loss of key statewide offices in 2016. In one exchange on Saturday, Melissa Romano, running a second time for superintendent of public instruction, vowed to “restore competent, focused leadership” to the office. Missoula County delegate Sue Reber Orr interjected with a wisecrack about Republican incumbent Elsie Arntzen, sending the room into a fit of chuckles.

In fact, among the sentiments that seemed to be motivating party faithful heading into 2020 was a view that the candidates emerging on the Republican side are deserving of humor-infused derision, harsh criticism, or both. John Mues, another U.S. Senate contender, spent much of his speech railing against incumbent Steve Daines as a man “born into great privilege” who has yet to display “a basic sense of empathy and compassion for others.” Jabs about the wealth of Congressman Greg Gianforte, now running for governor, were delivered loudly and often.

Speaking to Montana Free Press, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney indicated that recent developments on the Republican ticket have left Democrats with a sense of opportunity. He specifically mentioned what some have dubbed the “churn” — Republicans like Gianforte, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, and State Auditor Matt Rosendale opting to run for new seats despite not being termed out in the offices they now hold.

Democratic delegates break into groups before lunch during the Democratic Convention Saturday in Helena. (Gary Marshall/Montana Free Press)

“That’s kind of exciting to see this sort of thing happening on their side, and it shows we may have our act together a little better than they do,” Cooney said.

Cooney also suggested that spirits on the political left are riding high due to the quality and quantity of 2020 candidates flying the Democratic banner. Observers have for years questioned the depth of the state party’s bench — if one existed at all. That there’s primary competition in nearly every statewide race puts the question to rest, Cooney said. Furthermore, the field is a diverse mix of men, women, tribal members, political neophytes, and experienced lawmakers.

“It’s a very good reflection of what Montana is,” Cooney said.

For all the optimism and talk of progress, one couldn’t help but notice the absence of the party’s two top officials. Sen. Jon Tester did make a short appearance Friday, but had to bow out Saturday from a scheduled introduction of luncheon speaker Heidi Heitkamp in order to attend a family funeral. Though there was rumor of a fleeting walk-through Friday, Gov. Steve Bullock had no formal presence at the convention and was nowhere to be seen. His name was, however, on bumper stickers advertising his 2020 presidential bid — an aspiration Cooney acknowledged doesn’t sit well with some delegates.

“Where it goes is anybody’s guess,” Cooney said of Bullock’s White House campaign. “But this is where he wants to be.”

Despite Sexton’s call for common messaging, Democrats seemed to be wrestling with something of an identity crisis. Heitkamp’s speech cracked Saturday’s luncheon crowd upside its collective head, reminding attendees that the world outside the hotel remains the world that elected Donald Trump to the presidency. The former U.S. senator from North Dakota told delegates that their party isn’t doing enough to connect with rural America, and that absent serious improvements in messaging, further defeat is inevitable.

Montana Democratic delegate Margaret Mathers asks former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp about her One Country program at Saturday’s convention in Helena. (Gary Marshall/Montana Free Press)

“It may mean that those things that you desperately need in terms of changes in public policy have to be modulated, have to be responsibly promoted,” Heitkamp said.

Where Democrats most appeared to struggle, however, was in embracing the aims of the party’s younger, more progressive members. A motion to remove gendered terminology from the party’s rules on Friday hit rougher ground than one might have imagined. Several delegates questioned whether new nonbinary language would conform with state law, suggesting Democrats wait until the Legislature takes the initiative on the issue. Amelia Marquez, a Billings delegate and trans woman, argued tirelessly in favor of the amendment. 

In the end, it was approved, a move Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell said makes a statement that “everyone is welcome to have a voice.” Delegates added to that statement Saturday, electing Marquez as the first trans Latina to serve on the executive board of the Montana Democratic Party.

Subscribe to the Montana Lowdown Podcast and hear Alex Sakariassen and Montana Public Radio capital reporter Corin Cates Carney discuss the 2019 Montana Democratic Party Officer’s Convention with Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams.

That episode will be available for download on Tuesday, July 16.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...