Nearly 20 hours after polls closed, fewer than 100 votes separate the first- and second-place vote-getters in the Republican primary for the District 5 seat on the state Public Service Commission, the five-member board that regulates monopoly utilities in Montana.
As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, Flathead Valley physician Ann “Annie” Bukacek leads former state Rep. Derek Skees by 74 votes, earning 31.2% of the vote to Skees’ 30.9%. According to the secretary of state’s posted election results, all 102 polling precincts in District 5 have fully reported, so the numbers are unlikely to change. The race, along with county commission races in Flathead and Silver Bow counties, has been flagged by the secretary of state’s office for potential recounts.
If the margin of defeat for a statewide office is less than 0.5%, the defeated candidate can petition the secretary of state for a recount, per Montana law. In order to initiate a recount, Skees would have to post a bond with the Flathead County Clerk and Recorder sufficient to cover the costs of the effort.
As of press time Wednesday, Skees had not returned calls from Montana Free Press asking whether he plans to pursue a recount.
Helena farmer and rancher Joe Dooling also earned 29% of Republican primary voters. Shortly after noon Wednesday, he told MTFP he had called Bukacek to concede the race.
Dooling said he spent much of the morning on “pins and needles” waiting for more votes to be tallied in Lewis and Clark County, where he benefited from a home turf advantage. He said when he went to bed Tuesday night, he was up in the polls, and he’d lost the lead by the time he woke up on Wednesday.
“It’s kind of intense — you’re up, you’re down, you’re up, you’re down,” he said. “I don’t think I left anything on the table, and I gave it my best shot.”
Meet the PSC candidates who want to regulate your rates
Originally formed in 1907 to oversee railroad operations, the five-member Public Service Commission regulates monopolies in the power, natural gas, water, telecommunications and garbage collection industries. This year’s PSC race has drawn an eclectic mix of candidates vying for two open seats on the commission — among the highest-paid positions in state government — and…
In a Wednesday morning email to MTFP, when about three-quarters of the expected total vote had been counted, giving her a 57-vote lead, Bukacek said the race was still too early to call.
This is Bukacek’s first campaign for elected office. She resigned from her post on the Flathead City-County Health Board this spring to run for the PSC. She is probably best known for her positions on COVID-19, vaccinations, abortion and gun rights. She is the founder of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition, sits on the Montana Shooting Sports Association’s board of directors, and describes herself as a proven grassroots leader.
Skees, a Kalispell resident, served four terms in the Montana House of Representatives. During the 2021 session he chaired the House Energy, Telecommunications and Federal Relations Committee. He manages Glacier Tracks, a northwestern Montana jeep rental business. He ran unsuccessfully for the PSC in 2015, when voters sent Brad Johnson to the commission.
On the Democratic side of the District 5 primary, retired Whitefish executive John Repke pulled in 54% of votes to Helena telecommunications professional Kevin Hamm’s 46%.
Repke most recently served as the chief financial officer for SmartLam LLC, a Columbia Falls wood products manufacturer. He said his message of experience, professionalism and integrity appears to have resonated with voters.
“The people I talked to one-on-one certainly felt I was well-qualified,” he said, adding that six former commissioners endorsed his candidacy.
Hamm, who was one of the first candidates to declare for the seat, said he’s proud of the race he ran and appreciates the support of campaign volunteers.
“I know my insights and experience would be great on the PSC, but the results are in and sometimes you just don’t win,” he said in an email to MTFP. “I respect the choice of the voters, I congratulate John on winning the nomination, and hope he continues to connect with enough voters to beat whichever lunatic the GOP ends up foisting on the public.”
If the gap between Republican and Democrat ballots cast is any indication, Repke will face long odds in the November general election. About 35,000 voters in Lewis and Clark, Flathead, Lake and Teton counties cast Republican ballots, compared to 16,000 Democratic ballots.
The last time a Democrat was elected to the commission was 2008, when John Vincent and Gail Gutsche served single terms before losing their seats to Republican challengers.
“It’s an uphill battle, but I’m fully aware of that and I’m very confident that if I can get the message out, I can get a large portion of those Republicans,” Repke said. “I think there are a lot of Republicans who are interested in making sure the job is done right, and I can reach them.”
PINOCCI SAILS TO SECOND TERM
In contrast to District 5, the District 1 GOP race garnered swift and decisive results. With a 32-point lead over challenger K. Webb Galbreath, incumbent commissioner Randy Pinocci of Sun River is poised to coast into a second term. No Democrats filed to run in District 1, so Pinocci’s seat will be uncontested in November.
Pinocci said he’d like to continue working to increase energy efficiency and bring more hydroelectric power online. He said he also plans to pressure wind turbine manufacturers to build higher-quality components to increase their efficiency and longevity, and he’d like to further his efforts to replace power lines with high-efficiency lines.
“Power lines leak electricity like water leaks out of a hose with holes in it. They’ve made a new power line that cuts leakage by one-third, saving millions of dollars to the ratepayer,” he said. “Pinocci spearheaded the first one to be installed in Monarch. We’re saving $440,000 a year in wasted electricity. If you give me 10 of those projects I can save millions of dollars in wasted electricity.”
Galbreath, a Browning resident, rancher, and the Blackfeet Tribe’s operations director, said he thinks he ran a good race, but doesn’t anticipate a repeat candidacy.
“I think that the people in District 1 want to maintain the status quo. That’s fine, that’s why we have elections,” he said. “I’m happy for my opponent. He won, it was a good race and I wish him the best.”
During an interview late Wednesday morning, Galbreath indicated that he’d already started to turn his attention to other matters.
“A rancher’s life is never over, it’s never done,” he said. “I’ve got to move some cattle today.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE COMMISSION
The winner of the District 5 general election will be positioned to join Pinocci, Tony O’Donnell, Jennifer Fielder and PSC President James Brown, though it’s unclear if Brown will complete his full four-year term.
Brown, an attorney with a law practice Dillon and Helena, announced this spring that he’s running for the Montana Supreme Court. He received enough votes yesterday to continue on to the general election, and if he beats incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson on Nov. 8, Gov. Greg Gianforte will appoint a replacement for Brown’s seat on the PSC, per Montana law.
In the coming months, the commission is expected to take up two rate cases involving approval or disapproval of a utility’s proposed rate structure. PSC External Affairs Manager Dan Stusek said NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities are expected to initiate rate cases in the coming months.
Stusek said the PSC has fielded lots of public interest in NorthWestern Energy’s transition to smart meters, which supply more data on grid operations compared to the old meters, as well as an investigation into the functionality of CenturyLink’s telephone infrastructure in rural parts of the state. Wibaux County residents have said wired telephone service there can be so bad that 911 calls fail to get through.
Stusek said the commission isn’t currently working on any dockets pertaining to the uncertain future of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant or the natural gas plant in Laurel that NorthWestern Energy is planning, but both are on the commission’s radar. He said the commission and PSC staff are also tracking bankruptcy proceedings for Colstrip plant operator Talen Energy.
This story was updated June 10, 2022 to correct an error. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Derek Skees served two terms in the Montana House of Representative. Skees served four terms in the House. MTFP regrets the error.
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