HD 90 state Rep. Marilyn Marker photgraphed at her home in Missoula on Jan. 12, 2021. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

MISSOULA — Rep. Marilyn Marler had one word to describe the opening days of her second session in the Montana Legislature: “Surreal.” 

Standing on the sidewalk of her quiet midtown Missoula neighborhood Tuesday morning, with an overcast sky threatening a repeat of an earlier cold drizzle, the Democrat ticked off the items on her day’s docket. A 7 a.m. meeting of the House Minority Caucus, which Marler chairs, followed by hearings on two bills in the House Taxation Committee. Next up, she said through a mask advertising the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, was a lunch-hour meeting and the House floor session, then a 90-minute drive to Helena and her small rental near the Capitol. From there she’ll continue to participate remotely as the representative of House District 90, just as she did throughout the session’s first week.

So far, she’s ventured into the Capitol only once during the 67th Legislature, to take her oath of office in person and to vote to approve the rules allowing her to participate remotely.

“There’s just so many strange things,” Marler said of this year’s session, being conducted in the midst of a global pandemic. “Thinking about last session, we had 44 Democrats in the House and we would all meet in person in a room in the basement of the Capitol for our morning meeting. Hell no, that’s not going to happen. So we’re all getting on Zoom and people are doing it, even people who are not used to Zoom are doing it, and everybody’s adapting and being a good sport.”

Despite the physical detachment, Marler is still adhering to the legislative dress code. Her only concession to at-home comfort on Tuesday was a pair of jeans. Her legislative ID badge hung from a lanyard adorned with a silver owl pin and the thumb-size red-and-gray fob she needs to cast her votes. Lawmakers have to log in to voting software with a password and code name, she said, then the fob generates a random number for remote legislators to input online “so that they know it’s really us voting in the floor session.” Marler added that her workspace is set up with two computer screens, one for live-streaming video and one for the interactive voting panel.

“If I’m in a place where I don’t have a professional backdrop, I’ll choose one that looks like the Capitol,” Marler said. “I have a nice Zoom background that looks like I’m in the rotunda.”

There are certain aspects of the legislative experience that Marler misses. Regular lunches hosted in the rotunda by citizen and lobbying groups were a great time to meet and chat with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, she said, and she’s disappointed not to be in the House chambers. She’s sorry, too, for the pandemic’s impact on constituents, whether they wish to testify on an issue or simply monitor the democratic process. They are still free to enter the Capitol, Marler pointed out, but to date it appears most have opted, like her, to participate from afar. 

In some ways, Marler said she hopes the options for remote public participation will continue to be available once the public health concern abates.

“Last session was my first session, and we had some terrible winter weather,” Marler said. “I felt like people should not have to risk their lives to drive six hours to Helena to testify on a bill, so maybe going forward we can keep some of the remote testimony as an option. Embrace some technology where it’s useful.”

The pandemic had already given Marler plenty of reason to tune in remotely even before the session began. But in the past eight days, the virus’ presence in the Capitol has become more than prospective, with the Legislature’s COVID-19 panel issuing notifications of two legislators testing positive. And security concerns have heightened beyond personal and public health following the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol last week by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump. As the Helena Independent-Record reported this week, security at the state Capitol has been increased in the wake of an FBI warning of potential armed protests at other government buildings around the country leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

That added consideration has made Marler “anxious.”

“There’s already plenty of reason to do the remote thing,” Marler said, “but that’s another reason people might want to do it.” 

Marler is holding out hope that the situation will improve enough for her to occasionally attend hearings in person. Initially, though, Marler does feel as though she has some presence in portions of the Capitol. Fellow lawmakers acknowledge her with hellos during committee meetings and have been diligent about recognizing when her Zoom hand is raised with a question. Floor sessions may be a different story as the session wears on. There’s been nothing particularly controversial yet, she noted, but when contentious debates inevitably spring up, she wonders how the testimony of legislators participating via Zoom will play out.

“My understanding from some of my colleagues who have been on the floor, they have this projected, the Zoom people are projected onto big screens and they can hear us quite loudly when we talk,” Marler said. “So maybe we’ll be at an advantage. Maybe we’ll be like a giant head looming over the chamber with a booming voice.”

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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...