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When I was assigned a story about the race for Montana’s newly created Western Congressional District a few months back, I immediately began procrastinating.

In my defense, it seemed overwhelming. Five Republicans, three Democrats and one Libertarian are running primary campaigns for one U.S. House seat in a district that has never before existed. With this inaugural June 7 primary, the Western District — encompassing Glacier County, the Flathead Valley, Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley, Butte and Gallatin County — will begin to sketch out its own political contours. And few people, candidates included, know what to expect when the results roll in.

As if that wasn’t enough, the political range of candidates on the June 7 ballot is significant, a factor that resonated more after I attended a candidate forum in Butte earlier this month. The event was open to all candidates, though only four showed up: Republicans Mitch Heuer and Matt Jette and Democrats Monica Tranel and Tom Winter. Audience members I spoke with afterward told me they hadn’t known it was an all-party event.

“If I had known Republicans would be here, I probably wouldn’t have come,” one man said. “But I actually liked a lot of what they had to say.”

As I was leaving, I mentioned that sentiment to the event organizers from Forward Montana, a nonprofit voter engagement organization. The executive director, Kiersten Iwai, nodded appreciatively, indicating that inviting all candidates was the obvious choice. After all, she noted, Montana is one of the only states with an open primary system.

Being able to vote for any candidate in the primary, regardless of the voter’s or candidate’s party affiliation, is an electoral system well-suited to this field of Western District candidates. The Republicans (including one who is pro-choice) represent many shades of red. At least two have campaigned aggressively to challenge presumptive frontrunner Ryan Zinke from the right. The Democrats are also eclectic: One has previously campaigned as a Republican. Two have never held political office. Only one identifies as “progressive.”

If eligible Montanans register to vote (before primary day, as of this week’s Supreme Court ruling) and actually cast their ballots, the Western District may begin to reveal its true colors.

I hope my story on the Western District race this week captured the questions facing both voters and candidates. And I can’t wait to watch the map light up with answers on June 7.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Alex Sakariassen/MTFP

Last December, Quinlan Roe, pictured above, was among the first 10 graduates from Missoula College’s new paramedic program, and he quickly landed a job at Missoula Emergency Services, Inc. During a brief lull in a 24-hour ambulance shift this week, Roe chatted with Montana Free Press about his experience joining a profession plagued by an ongoing worker shortage, including how his first shift as a licensed paramedic compared with his past experience as a volunteer EMT.

“It was weird being on the rig by yourself and you being the highest level of care,” Roe said. “That’s what was kind of mind-boggling. ‘OK, I’ve got to make the right decisions,’ because everyone’s going to be looking at you when you show up on the scene, like, ‘What’s our next step here?’”

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“I just want to talk to you for a few minutes about a critical primary election taking place in your state on Tuesday, June 7. That’s coming up right around the corner. And absentee voting is already underway. I’m not a big fan of absentee voting, as you know, because we’ve seen a lot of bad things happen. A lot of rigged elections. I mean rigged more than anybody ever thought. Go watch that movie “2000 Mules.” You’ll see some things that nobody would even think possible. But absentee voting is already underway and the big day is June 7 and it’s very important. I’d like to ask each of you to get out and vote for Ryan. He’s a great friend of mine, he’s a great person, great family, great everything.”

— Former President Donald Trump speaking on a campaign call-in Monday, May 13, for Western District Republican congressional candidate and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Glad You Asked 🙋🏻

Late last month, a reader in the Bitterroot Valley reached out via email with concerns about an endorsement in a nearby Republican legislative primary. The situation involved a letter sent to voters by state Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, offering full-throated support for House candidate Alan Lackey in his primary contest against Wayne Rusk. The endorsement, which attracted a public rebuke from former state Rep. Ed Greef, was penned on Manzella’s legislative letterhead, and according to our reader’s query it arrived in the mailboxes of several Rusk donors, prompting the reader to question whether Manzella had used her elected position — and, potentially, taxpayer-funded resources — in an unethical manner.

So we did some digging. No complaint was filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices, so we spoke with Commissioner Jeff Mangan about the situation. He explained that the rules and laws governing the conduct of elected officials differ depending on which branch of government is involved. Statewide elected officials and state employees, Mangan said, are held to an ethical code overseen and enforced by his office. That’s why Mangan was the enforcer who weighed in when former Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney faced an ethics complaint for conducting gubernatorial campaign business from his office in 2020. Mangan ruled that Cooney had improperly used state facilities for campaign purposes and fined him $1,000.

But when it comes to legislators, oversight primarily rests with the Legislature itself. Todd Everts, the legal director at Legislative Services, emailed MTFP half a dozen documents detailing the rules that apply to lawmakers. There’s a wealth of material, but it boils down to two points: First, questions and complaints about individual legislators’ ethical conduct are reviewed and resolved by the Legislature’s Ethics Committee, which is only active during legislative sessions. Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, has been on that committee a handful of times during his eight-session tenure in the House and Senate. He told MTFP that, in his experience, the committee “rarely meets,” and even when it does, the question at hand typically centers on potential conflicts of interest regarding bills.

Second, the broader rules regarding legislator activity during interims don’t really speak to the specifics of Manzella’s endorsement letter. Mangan said he discussed the situation with Manzella, and MTFP contacted Manzella directly. She said she is unaware of any rules or statutes prohibiting her actions, adding that the letterhead she used, while stamped with the state seal and her official Senate title, was paid for personally, as was the postage. 

This isn’t her first dance with ethics-centric suspicion, either. In 2017, a Darby resident complained to Legislative Services after receiving a letter on Manzella’s legislative stationery thanking the complainant for attending a fundraiser for an injured rancher. The House Rules Committee absolved Manzella of any ethical breach, with then-Chair Rep. Bill Harris writing that use of legislative stationery “for constituent communication” was not prohibited.

The bottom line is that when it comes to ethical conduct, the Legislature polices its own. Though his jurisdiction over such matters is limited, Mangan did say that when discussing ethical conduct with people under his office’s purview, he makes a point to refer to rules and laws as the “bare-minimum standards” and encourages elected officials to “rise above that standard.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

One of the 30-plus litigation threads spooling out of the 2021 Montana Legislature

has come to an apparent close, with a May 11 court filing from Montana’s attorney general indicating the office doesn’t plan to appeal a February ruling that found lawmakers had broken a constitutional requirement limiting bills to a single topic.

Montana’s 1972 state Constitution requires most bills passed by the Legislature to address a single subject described by a formal bill title, with exceptions for budget bills. It also specifies that lawmakers aren’t allowed to amend a bill so extensively “as to change its original purpose.” The single subject rule is intended to keep Montana lawmaking more straightforward than the federal system, where proposals on different topics are routinely stitched into complex omnibus packages.

The bill at issue in the lawsuit, Senate Bill 319, titled “Generally revise campaign finance laws,” began life as a measure allowing for joint fundraising committees. But late in last year’s legislative session, after slightly different versions of the bill had passed both the Montana House and Senate, a small committee of lawmakers appointed to reconcile the bill’s differences added several significant amendments to its text. Among them: a provision banning dining hall voter registration drives and some other university campus political activity and another requiring judges to recuse themselves in cases where attorneys or litigants had made campaign donations for or against the judge’s election campaign.

Plaintiffs filed suit last year challenging both those provisions by arguing that the amendments stretched the single subject rule past its breaking point. District Court Judge Mike Menahan agreed, finding that the first provision dealt with “campaign activities” and that the second dealt with “judicial recusal” rather than the “campaign finance” issue specified in the bill’s title. Menahan also ruled that the amendments had altered the bill’s purpose sufficiently to violate the state Constitution.

It wasn’t clear immediately after Menahan’s lower court ruling was issued whether the attorney general’s office would fight it up to the Montana Supreme Court on behalf of the Republican-controlled state Legislature. This month’s filing by the AG, however, puts that possibility to rest.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of local emergency mental health crisis beds that are open and operating in all of Montana for people who are involuntarily committed, according to a May presentation by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. The two beds are operated by Western Montana Mental Health Center in Hamilton. Ten others in Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, Polson, and Helena have been temporarily or permanently closed since 2020. The state plans to reissue a request for proposals from health organizations that can operate additional crisis beds — contracts that would take effect in July 2023.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Say What 🤔

Last Friday, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s official Twitter account posted a photo of the governor shaking hands with former Vice President Mike Pence in the governor’s reception room in Helena. “I’m proud and honored to welcome Vice President @Mike_Pence to the State Capitol today,” the caption read.

For most people whose job it is to report what’s happening inside the state Capitol building, Gianforte’s tweet was the first announcement of Pence’s visit. “Anyone know this was happening?” tweeted Lee newspapers Statehouse Bureau Chief Holly Michels.

Typically, the governor’s staff sends out a daily public schedule for the state’s highest elected official. That happened on May 13 — but the only item on the governor’s public agenda was a meeting with members of his cabinet.

In a statement to MTFP, the governor’s press secretary, Brooke Stroyke, said Pence “did not discuss official state business” when he met with Gianforte, addressed the governor’s staff and cabinet, and toured the Capitol building. The meeting was not publicly noticed, Stroyke said, because it was “private and not an open press event.”
Lee newspapers reported, and Stroyke confirmed, that Gianforte also helped Pence travel from Billings, where the former vice president had been invited to speak to a Christian ministry group, to Helena. The two flew via the governor’s private plane.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers — One of the most valuable parts of campaign season is getting to hear candidates answer tough questions about their resumes and policy stances. For voters in the Western district (including Kalispell, Missoula, Butte and Bozeman), I highly recommend the candidate interviews put together by the team at Montana Public Radio. You’ll learn a lot about the politics and personalities of the people on your ballot.

Amanda Eggert — This story in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle about the country’s first federally inspected nonprofit meat processing facility brightened my day. Livingston’s Producer Partnership will help supply food banks across the state with Montana-raised meat donated by ranchers.

Alex Sakariassen — After last Friday’s curiosity-piquing Twitter buzz about Mike Pence’s visit with Gov. Greg Gianforte, I caught some illuminating background this week in a Politico piece dissecting the former vice president’s recent appearances across the country — a “tightly scripted comeback,” Politico wrote, that’s brought Pence back “from the political dead.” 

Eric Dietrich — I’ve never read anything quite like this difficult story from Business Insider reporter Matt Drange, who spent years investigating misconduct at his old high school, only to realize that the beloved teacher who first taught him the fundamentals of journalism had repeatedly groomed underage students for sex.

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.