The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.
As journalists who cover state government, it’s our job to understand and explain how the levers of power are pushed and pulled, and by whom.
As the sign above reporter Eric Dietrich’s desk reads: “We’re here to explain Montana to Montanans.”
I might amend that to add: “…and to anyone who cares about this state and what happens here.”
To do that job, we rely on the state’s constitutional guarantee of transparency in government. We ask tough questions of those who hold offices in the public trust. We regularly request documents and other public information from government agencies and elected officials. We pore over data. We travel — sometimes very long distances — to witness newsworthy events or to interview expert sources. We attend lengthy and often boring public meetings, sometimes for days on end.
We do these things so we can effectively communicate the details and nuances of complex issues and events to readers, so they can be better informed, too.
We do this job regardless of which political party happens to be in power. When we describe our coverage as nonpartisan, that’s what we mean. We’re beholden to no party. We report on the exercise of power no matter the party exercising it.
Whether elected leaders are Republicans or Democrats, it’s our duty to scrutinize the job they’re doing so the people of this state — and those who care about it — can understand the who, what, when, where, why and how that make Montana tick.
At present, nearly every statewide political office and majorities in both houses of the Legislature are held by Republicans. Naturally, that means journalists’ scrutiny focuses more heavily on one political party: the party in power.
As some MT Lowdown readers have recently pointed out to me, these dispatches tend to focus on the actions of Republican officials. There’s a simple reason for that: Republicans are running the state. If and when Democrats, or Libertarians, or Independents, or Greens, or some yet unimagined coalition of political power takes the reins, they’ll get the same scrutiny.
The scrutiny, not the target, is what defines a free and independent press.
This work is expensive to do, and it’s funded by you, our readers. We need to raise $125,000 by Dec. 31 so we can advance our accountability journalism in 2022, but we’re still $51,952 short of our goal … and time is running out.
From now until the end of the year, your tax-deductible donation to Montana Free Press will be doubled. If you value the hard work our team does every day to bring you news you can’t find anywhere else, then will you help us hit this crucial fundraising goal?
— John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
When Lt. Gov. Kristin Juras introduced Gov. Greg Greg Gianforte’s pick to lead the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department during Henry “Hank” Worsech’s Feb. 9 confirmation hearing, she noted that the governor had received more inquiries about FWP’s incoming director than about leadership of any other agency. She said “a wedge” had developed between sportsmen, landowners and outfitters, and Worsech was just the man to “reestablish communication between the groups.”
Worsech told the Senate Fish and Game Committee that he grew up fishing and trapping in northern Minnesota, that his service in the U.S. Marine Corps shapes him still, and that in his recent post as executive director of the state Board of Outfitters he had identified a need for FWP to develop a stronger customer-service approach. He also said his time with FWP’s license bureau had familiarized him with the department’s controversies and players and “where all of the skeletons are buried.”
Worsech came out of retirement to lead the agency, describing the move as a kind of homecoming. He also emphasized his ability as a changemaker, so it’s no surprise that he recently proposed sweeping and controversial changes to elk management in Montana. Those proposals led to Worsech’s latest opportunity to rebuild bridges: He’s assembling a 17-member advisory committee to hash out some of the state’s thornier game management issues, and representatives from the Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Stockgrowers Association will all have a seat at the table.
Connect the Dots
Recent condemnations by local school officials of state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s leadership triggered a rebuke this week from a pair of school board trustees in Missoula and Kalispell. The letter praised Arntzen for her public defenses of parental rights and her work “eradicating waste, fraud and abuse” at the Office of Public Instruction — an oblique nod, perhaps, to recent revelations about high staff turnover at the agency. It also offered a Who’s Who of Arntzen’s most ardent supporters, a catalog of names familiar from some of the state’s hottest-button issues.
The letter’s authors have both been active on the parental-rights front this year. Michael Gehl was appointed to the Missoula County Public Schools board of trustees in June, and joined two other trustees in opposing the district’s universal masking policy in August. Gehl appeared alongside Arntzen at Missoula’s Crosspoint Church last month, where he asked attorney Quentin Rhoades to repeat what he’d suggested parents do about the superintendents who proposed the policy. Rhoades replied “shoot ’em,” a comment Arntzen later condemned and Rhoades later retracted. That event was sponsored by the Western Montana Liberty Coalition, which promotes parental rights and distributed the pro-Arntzen letter via email.
Gehl’s co-author, Jim Riley, moved to Montana from California in 2019 and was elected last spring to the board of trustees in Kalispell’s Smith Valley District 89. He’s the founder of a political committee called Liberty or Lose PAC, which lists supporting conservative efforts in California and prohibiting critical race theory in schools among its 2021 action items. Campaign finance records show Riley was also paid this fall to design a website for the 2022 state Senate campaign of Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, who sponsored a new law this year barring transgender women and girls from participating on women’s school sports teams.
The letter’s signatories include 21 Republican state lawmakers, one of whom has become a central character in Montana’s debate about election integrity. Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, claimed last spring that a public records request had revealed irregularities in Missoula County’s 2020 election results. He’s continued to press that allegation, and last month attended a meeting with Attorney General Austin Knudsen alongside election critic and MyPillow founder Mike Lindell. Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, who was also at that meeting, signed the letter supporting Arntzen as a private citizen.
Two parental rights organizations signed the letter as well: Montana Parents’ Rights in Education and Stand Up Montana. The first is the state chapter of an Oregon-based nonprofit that opposes critical race theory, masking, vaccine requirements and comprehensive sex education in public schools. The second is a Bozeman-based nonprofit that filed an unsuccessful lawsuit this fall challenging Missoula’s school masking policy. Several individual plaintiffs in that case also signed the letter.
Some other familiar names popped up among Arntzen’s supporters. There was Justin Buls, a medical doctor who left a position overseeing the University of Montana’s residency program in Kalispell Nov. 30 after having several social media posts flagged by Facebook as COVID misinformation. There was Al Olszewski, a former Republican state senator from Kalispell now running for the U.S. House in Montana’s new western district. And there was Bobby Hauck, head coach of a UM Grizzlies football team that closed out a 10-3 season with an FCS quarterfinal defeat in Virginia last weekend. How Hauck might align with the letter’s constellation of agenda-driven signatories remains anyone’s guess.
Say What? 🤔
Setting an out-of-office message while you take a week or two off for the holidays? Chances are your auto-reply doesn’t take the form of a federal court filing.
In a notice filed with the U.S. District Court in Billings Dec. 9, Montana Assistant Attorney General Aislinn Brown indicated she would be out of the office in the most official way possible:
Tweetstorm, Explained 🌩
Montana Republicans don’t typically take to Twitter to criticize the National Rifle Association. But that’s what happened this week when Abra Belke, an attorney for the state Legislature and former chief of staff for Senate Republicans, shed light on her former stint as a lobbyist for the gun rights group.
In 2011, I took a job as an NRA lobbyist. As a survivor of domestic violence, I wanted to strengthen the right of self-defense. As a Montanan, I wanted to work on conservation/hunting policy w/ groups like @DucksUnlimited.— Abra Belke (@abrabelke) December 15, 2021
But the NRA wasn't the organization I thought it was.
The NRA has surely been subject to scathing opposition by both gun control advocates and extreme pro-gun activists (the NPR podcast “No Compromise” is well worth your time). Belke, though, leveled her criticism from the standpoint of a centrist.
“After the Newtown tragedy, the culture at the NRA changed dramatically,” she tweeted, referring to the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “There was no room for me in a group of hardliners who sold fiery rhetoric and cared little for good policy.” Her thread also disclosed that Belke was among the sources for investigative journalist Tim Mak’s book Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA.
Belke, of course, is not among the state’s most prominent Republican officials — people who don’t frequent the state’s political circles probably don’t know her name. And yet, taking a moderate stance against one of the most influential gun rights groups in the country is notable in a state where firearms and the Second Amendment are as highly valued and politically potent as personal privacy and public lands.
Belke’s tweets also underscore another fact worth keeping in mind: A 10-year-old entry on a resume doesn’t always tell the whole story.
On Our Radar
Mara Silvers: In case you haven’t noticed, abortion has been in the headlines lately. Critical to understanding the Texas law now working its way through the courts is how it’s enforced. Private citizens, rather than state officials, are empowered to sue other private citizens and abortion providers, a construction that gives the law real teeth. This Texas Tribune piece picks apart how that mechanism could be copied by other states to legislate issues far beyond the abortion debate, including gun rights and freedom of speech.
Eric Dietrich: I was intrigued by this Twitter thread discussing a new Executive Order from the Biden Administration that aims to reduce the “time tax” imposed on Americans by unnecessarily cumbersome government paperwork. It looks like there’s some real potential to improve the government’s usefulness-to-BS ratio — though, of course, the devil will be in the implementation details. (On a related note, see Gov. Greg Gianforte’s campaign pledge to “prioritize customer service” in state government).
Brad Tyer: Washington Post reporter (and former T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism) Eli Saslow has a resume packed with stories that humanize bloodless policy, but even in the context of that uncanny body of work, “The Return of the 10-Minute Eviction” is a whopper. Saslow follows Phoenix, Arizona, eviction constable “Lock-’em-out Lennie” on his newly flush and deeply disheartening rounds as the city’s pandemic-era eviction moratorium expires, exposing humanity on both sides of every knocked and locked door that’s almost too much to bear.
Amanda Eggert: Stories about land use can quickly turn into weedy rabbit holes, particularly if there’s anything legal involved, but a recent story in Outdoor Life impressed me with its clarity and scope. It tells the story of four hunters who used a ladder to cross from one corner of BLM land to another and the GoFundMe campaign to pay for their legal defense. The story centers on events in Wyoming, but should be of interest to Montanans, too: Both states have more than a million acres of “landlocked” public land that’s inaccessible to the public by virtue of its borders with private land.
Alex Sakariassen: For the past few months I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for national coverage that might relate to Montana’s election integrity debate. This week paid off big-time, first with a lengthy piece from BuzzFeed News about election skeptics taking their movement door-to-door, then with an Atlantic feature documenting the story of a Texas woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for voting illegally — an incident she maintains was a simple mistake.
*Linked articles may be behind a paywall.