House District 11, just south of Kalispell, is not particularly large or densely populated. But the outcome of a competitive race for that legislative seat could have an outsized effect on the Republican caucus in 2021.
For nearly four years the district has been represented by Republican Derek Skees, one of the Legislature’s most zealously conservative members. His hard-line stances on abortion, gun rights and natural resource exploitation are rarely understated.
“There are certain things that I will not compromise on, because many of my constituents won’t compromise on them,” Skees said.
The incumbent, 51, is facing a primary challenge from Dee Kirk-Boon, 55, a former chair of the Flathead County Republican Party and longtime public figure in the district, which includes Kila, Lakeside and Somers.
Kirk-Boon, who co-owns a diesel service business with her husband, said she doesn’t consider herself at odds with Skees on many issues. Both candidates told the conservative advocacy group Montana Family Foundation that they oppose new regulations to combat global warming and support heavy restrictions on abortion, for example. But the candidates differ, Kirk-Boon said, in their willingness to compromise with legislators both within and outside of the Republican Party to pass necessary legislation.
“It’s negotiation all the way. Nobody’s going to get 100%,” Kirk-Boon said. “At the end of the day, you’re here for all Montanans, not for your political career.”
The political dynamic between Kirk-Boon and Skees has been significantly shaped by the larger schism between the state Republican Party’s more ideological and pragmatic factions — a divide that was on sharp display during recent legislative sessions, and that has set the stage for several competitive primary races this spring.
The race in HD 11 is a stand-off between two candidates with strong personalities and political convictions. It also asks voters to answer nuanced questions about governance: What makes a lawmaker effective? What does it mean to represent the public interest? And what qualifies a candidate as conservative?
Skees, a self-employed construction consultant, grew up in the Flathead Valley and later attended college in Florida, where he was born. After returning to Montana in 1998, Skees became increasingly involved in local politics. He was elected to represent House District 4, which includes Whitefish, in 2010 — a political upset that flipped the seat from blue to red. Propelled into office by the tea party movement, Skees said he was motivated to join the ranks of government to reduce government, which, he said, too often infringes on “personal freedoms” with regulation.
“I wanted to be a stopgap, the little boy at the dike with my fingers in the holes of the dam, trying to find a way to stop this inexorable push that is the radical left in their desire for ever increasing amounts of regulation,” Skees said. “I wanted to be able to add my two cents to stop that and, God willing, reverse it.”
Skees has since introduced several memorable policy proposals in the Legislature. He sponsored unsuccessful bills that would have allowed Montana to nullify federal law, cut the number of Montana public school districts by half, and eliminate the state’s Office of Political Practices, which oversees campaign finance and lobbying.
Skees did not seek re-election in 2012, instead launching a failed bid for state auditor. After several years out of elected office, during which he worked in construction, Skees ran for and won the HD 11 seat in 2016. He has since climbed the ranks of leadership in the House, serving as vice chair of the House Ethics Committee and chair of the Rules Committee during the last session, while also working as House majority whip to wrangle votes on Republican bills.
“Every legislator, the longer they’re there, the more knowledge they give,” said Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who said Skees has learned how to deftly navigate legislative procedures. Hertz — who has contributed to Skees’ campaign, along with outgoing Stevensville Sen. Fred Thomas and former Billings Rep. Jeff Essmann — added that the legislator is “very open, he’s matured a lot over the years.”
Skees has not been known, however, for passing his own legislation. Only a handful of Skees-sponsored bills have passed through both the House and Senate; just one, a 2019 measure to allocate grant funding to Montana’s civil air patrol, has been signed into law.
“The crowning achievements for me have not been legislation that I passed, because I think that sometimes some of my ideas are maybe ahead of their time and/or too, dare I say, radical for some of the members of my caucus,” Skees explained. “Either that, or [they have] been vetoed by the veto kings, which are Schweitzer and Bullock,” he said, referring to the state’s previous and current Democratic governors.
Rather, Skees said, he’s made his impact by serving on committees and fighting legislation he opposes, such as the Medicaid expansion bill that passed in 2019. That debate, among others, reflects a split between Skees’ political ideology and that of the state GOP’s more moderate Solutions Caucus, whose members Skees refers to as “oligarchs.”
“Win or lose, it doesn’t matter,” Skees said. “I can’t win any individual fight with the oligarchs because they’ve crookedly worked a deal behind the scenes. That’s irrelevant to me, because the fight has to be fought.”
Skees’ reputation as an unblinking conversative has helped him gain loyal support. Last July, when Skees announced on Facebook that he planned to run for re-election, fans were quick to post well-wishes and praise. A few commenters urged him to run for governor or the U.S. House. One woman suggested she wished Skees could be cloned.
Nonetheless, this spring’s primary may be the most aggressive legislative challenge Skees has ever faced. HD 11 is considered a reliably conservative district, and Skees was re-elected by a 71% landslide over a Democratic opponent in 2018. His margins over fellow Republicans, however, have been thinner. The last time Skees faced a primary challenger, in 2016, his opponent was Jean Barragan, a local community college professor who filed late in the season. Skees claimed victory by a margin of 89 votes.
Dee Kirk-Boon, who grew up in St. Ignatius, is a familiar name to many Flathead Republicans, in part because of her track record with local political organizations. She spent part of the last decade in leadership positions with Flathead County Republican Women after initially joining the club in the early 2000s. She also served multiple terms as chair and vice chair of the Flathead County Republican Central Committee.
Kirk-Boon is also well-known in Lakeside and Somers, where she and her husband lived for more than 15 years. (Neither Kirk-Boon nor Skees currently lives within the HD 11 boundaries; both reside in Kalispell.) Kirk-Boon moved between jobs at a bank and a dentist office while she lived in the district, and also spent nearly eight years as executive director of the Lakeside/Somers Chamber of Commerce. Many Flathead residents have come to know her as tough and opinionated.
“She’s a leader and has strong beliefs and is not afraid to tell you about them,” said Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, one of at least 10 current and former legislators supporting Kirk-Boon’s campaign, and a member of the moderate Solutions Caucus. “And yet she is fair, she’s willing to listen. And she’s a coalition builder. She’s the kind of a person that brings people together.”
Kirk-Boon’s community profile, in addition to a nearly year-long campaign, has helped her raise $8,300 in contributions, significantly more than Skees’ $4,890, according to recent campaign filings. Some of that financial support is from Solutions Caucus members, including Nancy Ballance and Joel Krautter, but some has also come from notable Republican figures in the party’s more conservative wing, including former legislator John Sinrud and Nancee Olszewski, wife of state senator and gubernatorial candidate Al Olszewski. Sen. Olzsweski has not endorsed a candidate in the HD 11 race.
For Solutions Caucus, the proof is in the primaries
GOP leaders promised a reckoning for Republican lawmakers who found middle ground with Democrats in 2019. Will voters make them pay?
Kirk-Boon expressed surprise at the number of donations she’s received, particularly from unnamed donors she described as “fringe conservatives.” But regardless of political stripe, Kirk-Boon said, she intends to be a politician who can communicate with anyone.
“When you’re elected to serve a district, it is your job to get into that district and find out what’s going on and how you can be of service to be the champion for that community,” she said. “Nobody expects one person to do it all. But [constituents] are expecting communication, [and to] have a chair at the table.”
The emphasis on constituent input and collaboration is the unsubtle backbone of Kirk-Boon’s campaign, and the core of her critique of Skees. The slogan on her campaign website reads, “You Deserve Better Representation.” (The top of Skees’ website reads, “Re-elect Republican HD 11.) Specifically, Kirk-Boon said, she intends to communicate clearly about policies debated in Helena and ask constituents for their opinions.
“We have [a] phenomenal amount of retirees and business owners that would love to be kept up to date as to what bills that they need to be concerned about,” Kirk-Boon said. “And yet nothing is being communicated.”
Skees called that characterization “patently false,” and described several ways he has been present and available in his district, including regularly attending Chamber of Commerce meetings and giving his personal cell phone number to constituents.
“After he was elected, one of the things that he asked was, ‘What can we do for the district?’” said David Fetveit, current president of the Lakeside/Somers Chamber of Commerce, who said he often sees Skees at monthly meetings. Fetveit has donated to the incumbent’s campaign, but said he won’t formally endorse either candidate during the primary.
And according to a Facebook event page, Skees held a town hall event in Lakeside for constituents in March 2019, after the session ended. He posted other invitations on his personal Facebook page about meetings in December 2016, a month after he was first elected, and in October 2018, shortly before being re-elected.
Skees also pushed back on the critique that he doesn’t work well with people who have different political beliefs, citing his role on the bipartisan Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee, which he chairs.
“Even though I’m an unapologetic conservative, I know what bills are partisan and what bills aren’t. And I will work with Democrats to bring good legislation that they bring to the table,” Skees said. “There’s a strength in my candidacy that my opponents are not going to tell you about. And unless you call the Democrats specifically in the energy sector, you’ll know nothing about my ability to communicate and get things done by going across the aisle.”
In phone interviews, three Democratic lawmakers on ETIC said Skees runs an efficient committee and is generous in allotting time for members of both parties to ask questions during testimony.
“We have a decent working relationship,” said committee Vice Chair Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings, who said she has worked with Skees on various proposals. “I’ve never tried to negotiate with him, but on the issues we agree on, we can work together,” she said. “I’m not saying he compromises on much — it’s just where he is.”
For her part, Kirk-Boon faces intense criticism from some Flathead Republicans who say she is too willing to negotiate with moderate Republicans and Democrats, and therefore unable to uphold conservative values.
Kirk-Boon’s name was not listed among the contenders for legislative office on a candidate mailer distributed in late April by the Flathead County Republican Women, making it appear that Skees is the only candidate for HD 11. The flier promises “Voter Information for the Flathead,” and includes short descriptions of the listed candidates, including their stances on Medicaid expansion and the CSKT Water Compact.
Asked why Kirk-Boon was excluded from the mailer, FCRW president Heidi Roedel told Montana Free Press, “Obviously, we do not endorse Democrats running as Republicans. There is a distinct difference within the Montana Republican Party between those that are pro-freedom and U.S. Constitution and those that believe government has the answers. Mrs. [Kirk-]Boon is in the latter group,” she said, adding that her group would not give Kirk-Boon’s candidacy “any effort or credence.”
“We wish Mrs. [Kirk-]Boon the best in whichever direction life takes her after Rep. Skees wails on her this primary election,” Roedel concluded.
Asked to comment on Roedel’s email, Kirk-Boon defended her conservative and political principles, which she said allow her to “respect other people, to listen to all sides of an issues, and to work amicably with everyone to effect solutions that will benefit our community and our state.”
Reflecting on her time in Republican politics, Kirk seemed frustrated by infighting among fellow conservatives. In her view, the Republican Party should return to its “big tent” roots, rather than constantly testing and doubting its members. Especially, she said, as lawmakers statewide prepare to address the social and economic damage wrought by COVID-19.
“I think that’s what this election is about,” Kirk-Boon said. “Coming together in an understanding that we’re not going to agree on 100% of our issues. But what do we need to do for the best interest of Montana?”