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.


The United States Constitution isn’t magic. 

The mere existence of roughly 7,500 words and 39 signatures on parchment does not guarantee that we the people of the United States will have justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare or the blessings of liberty and prosperity the document promises.

The Constitution is more a recipe, or instruction manual, for how millions of people with diverse backgrounds and competing self-interests can coexist to collectively form a more perfect union. 

It’s shared belief in, and faithfulness to, the ideas and institutions spelled out in the Constitution that makes this country the United States. That’s why elected officials swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Former two-term Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, speaking in December at the 100th annual meeting of the Montana Taxpayers Association in Helena, warned that the Constitution — and the Republic as a whole — are at risk as fidelity to the founding document decays.  

“The most probable way for our republic to vanish is through a lack of honor and fidelity,” Racicot, who served as chair of the Republican National Committee in the early 2000s, said. 

The world watched a horrific display of lack of honor and fidelity on Jan. 6 last year as a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to block Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote confirming Joe Biden’s election as president. 

Called to action by outgoing president Donald Trump, the mob overwhelmed security, smashed windows, dragged, beat, pepper-sprayed and tased Capitol police, and nearly breached the Senate chamber where Vice President Mike Pence had been presiding over the certification. More than 700 rioters, including six Montanans, have been criminally charged.

The process those insurrectionists sought to disrupt is spelled out in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and it was the first time since the nation’s founding that the peaceful transition of power from one elected president to another was threatened. 

In the wake of the violence, I reached out to current and former members of Montana’s federal delegation to get their reactions to the events of Jan. 6. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who was in the Senate chamber when the rioters invaded the Capitol, described it as “one of the most horrible dark days in our democracy.”  

Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, who almost never speaks directly to the press, released a statement condemning political violence but confirming that he would continue to oppose certification of electors from certain states Biden narrowly won in the Nov. 2020 election. 

Montana’s senior Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, criticized his Republican colleagues for “perpetrat[ing] the lie that caused a coup.”

One year later, Congress continues its investigation into the Jan. 6 attack, despite resistance from Republicans

In a recent interview with Montanan Public Radio, Daines tempered his opinion of last year, calling the assault on the Capitol and the Constitutional certification process “a protest.” He accused Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of trying to “politicize” the issue with Congress’ investigation, which Daines said he wants to end. 

He’s joined in downplaying the events of Jan. 6 and dismissing an investigation of its causes by an overwhelming majority of his fellow Republicans. One notable exception to the party line is former Vice President Dick Cheney, who attended this week’s anniversary memorial at the Capitol.  

“I am deeply disappointed at the failure of many members of my party to recognize the grave nature of the Jan. 6 attacks and the ongoing threat to our nation,” Cheney said.

In his speech last month, Racicot described democracy as the voluntary association of individuals who choose to believe in it. Racicot said he believes a majority of Americans are tired of leaders prioritizing partisan advantage over allegiance to the common ground of the Constitution.

“Let us abandon the fruitless and solitary search for power and control and get about fixing the problems, with fidelity…” he said. 

Hear, hear.

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

Character Study

Last November, when we first reported on the Office of Public Instruction’s 90% employee turnover rate, we mentioned several then-recent departures of key administrative staff. One of those departures, Communications Director Anastasia Burton, seemed especially noteworthy, given that Burton was the third person to vacate the post in a year — or fourth, if you count Chris Shipp, the former Montana Republican Party executive director who temporarily stepped in as interim comms director during the legislative session.

Two weeks ago, OPI quietly named Burton’s successor: Dennison Rivera. A Helena resident and owner of the consulting firm Rivera Marketing Strategies, Rivera has a deep streak of activism in state Republican politics. He testified before the Legislature last spring in favor of the state’s new vaccine discrimination law and a proposed personhood amendment to the state Constitution in his capacity as chair of the Lewis and Clark County Young Republicans. Rivera also made several appearances in front of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission last fall, speaking as chair of the Montana Young Republicans. During one of those meetings in October, he argued that adoption of electorally competitive districts advocated by the commission’s Democrats would be “breaking the law,” and said he was “tired” of hearing testimony about the marginalization of people of color.

“I think it’s quite racist,” Rivera said. “I’m a person of supposed color, right, and I say that because I hate the term. I’m Latino, my family comes from Colombia. I don’t think that should matter. I’m a Montanan here, I live here, and in no way, shape or form am I marginalized.”

Rivera is also a Republican candidate this year for Helena’s House District 79. It’s the second time he’s sought the seat, and during his first race in 2020, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan found Rivera in violation of campaign finance law for failing to disclose in-kind contributions and file a disclosure report on time. Rivera acknowledged the violations and amended the filings, explaining to the Helena Independent Record that the delay occurred because he was stuck in COVID lockdown while visiting family in Colombia. Rivera lost his 2020 bid to Democratic incumbent Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen.

Asked by MTFP this week why he decided to join his fellow Republican Elsie Arntzen’s administration at OPI, Rivera wrote that he’s “always been the type of person to step up when there is a need,” referencing the workforce shortage that Arntzen has cited as a major factor in her office’s struggle to fill vacant positions. And in response to a question about how he plans to perform his new role, Rivera echoed his new boss’ oft-stated agenda: 

“I’m hoping to advance the State Superintendent’s mission of putting students and their families first,” Rivera said.

Alex Sakariassen

By the numbers

Percentage of positive COVID-19 tests sequenced in Montana during the last week of December that identified the omicron coronavirus variant — an increase from the 17% recorded two weeks prior.

Mara Silvers

Verbatim

Thursday, Jan. 6, marked a year since supporters of President Donald Trump forced their way into the U.S. Capitol as Congress certified electoral college votes in the election won by President Joe Biden.

Here’s what members of Montana’s federal delegation had to say about the riot, which left multiple people dead, both at the time and at the one-year anniversary this week.

On Jan. 6, 2021, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, called them a “despicable and dangerous attack on our democracy.”

Tester tweeted this week that he is “still stunned and saddened by the violent attack on our nation’s Capitol.” He added: “If we don’t get serious about defending our democratic values, this kind of attack will happen again.”

Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, called Jan. 6 “a sad day for our country” last year. “The destruction and violence we saw at our Capitol today is an assault on our democracy, our Constitution and the rule of law, and must not be tolerated,” he wrote on Twitter at the time.

Daines was silent about the Jan. 6 anniversary on his Twitter and Facebook accounts this week, but press secretary Katherine McKeogh said in a statement that Daines continues to believe Jan. 6 was a “sad day for the country” and that he “strongly condemns the violence.”

McKeogh also wrote, “The Senator believes we should move forward and that it’s disappointing Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats have chosen to continue to politicize this day to further divide our country.”

Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican, called Jan. 6 “an absolutely terrible day” in a tweet on the day of the riot. He also defended his vote against certifying electors from states where Trump supporters had disputed the results.

Rosendale didn’t acknowledge the anniversary of the attack on his Twitter or Facebook accounts this year. He said in a statement that he continues to “unequivocally condemn political violence of any kind” and compared the events of Jan. 6 to violence at racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd.

“We need to move past the events of January 6th and focus on getting things done for the American people and confronting the many crises our nation faces today,” Rosendale also said.

Eric Dietrich

The Viz

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks made this map to demonstrate a subadult grizzly bear’s many attempts to cross Interstate 90 near Drummond before and after the 2020-2021 denning season.

After he killed chickens on private property, bear managers relocated bear 11072874, aka “Lingenpolter,” from the northern edge of the Flint Creek Range to an area closer to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Recovery Zone. FWP biologists used red Xs to indicate when Lingenpolter’s GPS collar showed he was within 500 meters of the interstate. They estimate he made at least 46 attempts to cross the corridor between fall 2020 and spring 2021. (He denned in the Mission Mountains during the interim winter).

“This suggests that the I-90 transportation corridor (which also includes a railway) is at least a partial barrier to movement by wildlife,” FWP wildlife biologist Cecily Costello wrote in an email to MTFP. Lingenpolter finally crossed I-90 in May of 2021. Biologists suspect he crossed beneath interstate and railroad bridges that span the Clark Fork river.

Lingenpolter’s saga illustrates what road ecologists call the “barrier effect” of roadways, and it will be featured in the final installation of a three-part MTFP series on wildlife crossings in Montana. The first story, published this week, recounts Montana’s history building wildlife crossings in light of a new $350 million federal pilot program dedicated to building more of them. Parts two and three will be published next week.

Amanda Eggert

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers: Well-written government budget stories are a treat, in my book. This one from ProPublica digs into how states aren’t spending their stockpiles of federal dollars for low-income families, even as requests for aid are dropping.

Eric Dietrich: This piece from the Billings Gazette explores how staff shortages have left the Office of Public Defender’s Billings branch apparently unable to meet its constitutional duty to provide criminal defendants with adequate legal representation.

Brad Tyer: This one has been out for a while, but ProPublica’s collection of social media videos filmed by people who were present at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, documents what happened that day from literally hundreds of angles. With “what actually happened” having since been subject to partisan dispute and obfuscation, it remains a powerfully unmediated view.

Amanda Eggert: I’m double-dipping this week and pairing the Netflix movie “Don’t Look Up” with the article  “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine. Here’s What Happens If You Try.” The former is already seeding interesting conversations, and the latter, though published almost a year ago, has some of the keenest insight and sharpest writing I’ve read.

Alex Sakariassen: Over the past few days I’ve read quite a bit about the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, from detailed accounts of the day’s events to op-eds about the attack’s long-term implications. But one of the most intriguing stories was this short look by the Atlantic at a troubling mystery the FBI has yet to solve: Who planted a pair of unexploded pipe-bombs around Capitol Hill?

*Linked articles may be behind a paywall.