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When I was assigned a story about the state’s campaign to entice graduates of Montana colleges to come back to Montana, I started lining up interviews with the help of my colleague Eric Dietrich, who was first clued in to a recent “Come Home Montana” mailing by a college friend. Using social media and word-of-mouth, I set up interviews with nine people who’d received the mailing, hoping to gather a representative mix of responses.

One person I interviewed said it inspired him to consider the path not taken. When he graduated from Montana State University in 2018, his professors told him his professional prospects would be better if he left the state. He took their advice, but now wonders about that decision. Maybe he didn’t have to leave. Maybe he could have gone to the University of Montana’s law school rather than Saint Louis University’s.

One particular phrase in the mailer — “What did you leave behind when you left Montana?” — hit him hard. He said it brought to mind a line from Mad Men,” the series about a Manhattan advertising firm set in the 1960s: nostalgia is pain from an old wound.

But someone else I interviewed, a woman living in Los Angeles who considers herself a Missoulian at heart, said the campaign made her “squeamish.” She felt like it included a not so subtle political message appealing to white conservatives.

“It’s just so funny, because the Montana I dream about coming back to is not reflected in this campaign,” she told me.

I love these details because they demonstrate how evocative advertising can be — and how personal our reactions to it are.

More than 120,000 copies of this mailing went out. Nine interviews won’t be able to reflect the totality of the feelings, questions, fears and desires the brochure elicited, but I tried to look for themes. Many of the issues recipients told me about could be mapped onto our larger national landscape. They talked about wages and housing costs, political divisions and quality of life.

One of the things I love about journalism is how it can help us understand larger themes through the exploration of smaller, discrete details. MTFP attempted to do that with this story, and I hope you find it helpful as you make your way through your day, whether you’re living in Montana, missing Montana, feeling secure in your decision to leave it, or some mix of the three.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“We’ve got nine Republican co-sponsors officially on it, close to 50 Democrats. There are some other Republicans that I’m confident if we had a vote, would vote for it. So, we’ve got the votes to pass the SAFE Banking Act as a standalone, if we’d like to.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, one of nine Senate Republican co-sponsors of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would protect financial institutions that provide services to marijuana businesses in legalized states. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, also a co-sponsor of the bill, told The Hill, “The bottom line is that banking bill’s been out there for a long time. It’s ready to go. It needs to pass.”

Brad Tyer, Editor

Viewshed 🌄

The Helena Indian Alliance displayed red dresses on the side of its health clinic building this week to mark Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Awareness Day on May 5. Making up roughly 7% of Montana’s population, Native Americans are more than four times as likely to go missing than non-Indigenous persons, according to the most recent data compiled by the Montana Department of Justice.

Mara Silvers, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

A March state district court ruling that blocked a ballot measure about switching Montana to district-based elections for state Supreme Court justices won’t be the last word in litigation over the proposal, with the office of Attorney General Austin Knudsen announcing Thursday that it is appealing the matter to the Montana Supreme Court — and asking the entire court to recuse itself from the case.

The backstory: Lawmakers voted last year to put the proposal, which would reconfigure the statewide elections Montana has used to select its high court justices since statehood, before voters this fall. As the measure was debated in the Legislature, Republican supporters said the change would better align the court with the state’s electorate. Opponents accused supporters of “judicial gerrymandering” — i.e., drawing a district map deliberately designed to elect more conservative justices.

The March ruling, issued by a district court judge in Bozeman, struck the measure from this fall’s ballot, noting that the Montana Supreme Court had declared a similar proposal incompatible with the intent of the Montana Constitution in 2012.

As the attorney general’s office tries to crack that precedent, the matter seems likely to re-up last year’s tense exchange over GOP-alleged impropriety in the state’s judicial branch. In a motion filed alongside its appeal, the attorney general’s office argues that every sitting Supreme Court justice should recuse themself from the case, since its outcome would directly affect their races if they seek re-election. “Each justice of this Court holds a clear, direct, and personal interest in the outcome of this case,” wrote Solicitor General David Dewhirst.

That line of argument echoes arguments Knudsen and his deputies made last year in a case stemming from the Legislature’s dispute with the Montana judiciary, where lawmakers argued it was inappropriate for the Montana Supreme Court to rule on a case addressing the bounds of the Legislature’s power to subpoena judicial documents — including internal judicial emails discussing the districting bill. That recusal push was rebuffed by a unanimous Montana Supreme Court (spurring Republicans to make an unsuccessful effort to appeal the matter to the Supreme Court of the United States).

“The Legislature’s blanket request to disqualify all members of this court appears directed to disrupt the normal process of a tribunal whose function is to adjudicate the underlying dispute consistent with the law, the Constitution, and due process,” Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote then.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Ballots cast by voters in Missoula County’s 2022 school election on May 3, according to unofficial results reported Wednesday. The total was the highest the county has seen in any school election for at least the last decade. As in other school elections throughout the state, voter participation in Missoula’s election was fueled not only by proposed bonds and levies impacting local property taxes, but by unusually contentious and politicized school board races. A slate of Missoula candidates inspired to run by their opposition to the district’s COVID-19 masking policy last fall were largely defeated, with all but one of Missoula’s six contested school board seats going to candidates who supported masking and were endorsed by local school employees’ unions.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Campaign Dispatch

National headlines about the possibly imminent downfall of Roe v. Wade bulldozed into Montana’s congressional campaigns this week. The leak of a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion put the question of abortion access front and center for candidates of all political stripes, prompting one particularly sharp exchange on a Butte stage shared by Republicans and Democrats.

While all nine candidates for Montana’s Western district were invited to the series of forums hosted by the political nonprofit Forward Montana, only four RSVP’d to all of them: Republicans Mitch Heuer and Matt Jette, and Democrats Monica Tranel and Tom Winter. The first event was held Tuesday evening.

Asked what Congress should do, if anything, to protect abortion access if Roe v. Wade is overturned, Heuer was forthright and brief. “No,” said the 59-year-old Whitefish resident. “I’m not an advocate for abortion.” He then sat down. 

Winter was next, providing a considerably longer answer about why, in his view, abortion access should be preserved nationwide. “The government has no right to tell anybody what they do in their doctor’s office or in their families,” Winter said. “This is a Montana value. I will bring that Montana value to the federal government.”

If those first two answers simmered with intensity, Tranel’s response was boiling. 

“Yes, 100% on day one,” she said, speaking louder than anyone had all evening. The candidate then rounded on Heuer, linking his answer to the recent arrest and murder charge of a woman in Texas for an apparently “self-induced” abortion. The charge was later dropped. “You would support taking a 23-year-old woman out of the hospital in the middle of a miscarriage and put her in jail? That is wrong. That is morally wrong.”

She was far from done. In another nod to Texas, Tranel referenced that state’s financial reward for reporting someone who aids or abets an abortion. “Who incentivizes a woman’s best friend to turn her in after giving her a ride to a clinic in her hour of need? And giving that person $10,000 to do that? This is not about abortion, it’s about controlling women.” The room echoed with applause. 

Jette, a self-described pro-choice Republican, spent part of his answer rebuking Tranel. “I can see why our politics are so divisive. I don’t think you need to do that, to be honest with you, during a debate,” he said. “I get you disagree. I understand, it drives you crazy. I get it. But we still have to have the conversation.”

Minutes later, after the moderator had moved on to other questions, Tranel took her chance to push back. “Just very briefly, in response to the last question,” Tranel said, “please don’t tell me what I can and cannot do.”

Breaking political news notwithstanding, the candidates will continue campaigning until the June 7 primaries. After that, the highest vote earner in each party will proceed to the November general election. Local election officials will begin sending out primary ballots May 13.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers — It’s not every week that a news outlet publishes a leaked draft opinion from a U.S. Supreme Court justice indicating an eagerness to reverse one of the most significant pieces of legal precedent in the last century. Anyone else feeling overwhelmed? Either way, I recommend this interview with expert court watcher Dahlia Lithwick on the podcast What Next. I found it comprehensive and clarifying in a moment when the news cycle feels like an avalanche.

Amanda Eggert — Recent news of FWP confirming a grizzly bear’s presence in the North Moccasin Mountains near Lewistown caught my attention. Grizzlies, which were once plains animals, have been ranging farther and farther east in recent years. Now it appears they’re within spitting distance of the geographic center of the state.

Alex Sakariassen — The Chronicle of Higher Education recently took a close look at the challenges and frustrations faced by tribal communities — and, more specifically, tribal colleges — in accessing reliable and affordable broadband internet. The piece came complete with a data-driven map detailing the level of internet service available to individual tribal colleges nationwide, including six colleges right here in Montana.

Eric Dietrich — Because it’s been a week: Here’s six minutes of pet otters reacting to a popcorn maker

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.