The unexpected death in May of state Sen. Mark Sweeney, D-Philipsburg, has created an open seat and contested race to fill out the two-year remainder of the late lawmaker’s term in a historically Democratic district that presents an appealing target for state Republicans this cycle.
The contest between Democrat Jesse Mullen, CEO of the Mullen Newspaper Company, and Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Commissioner Terry Vermeire, a Republican, will also put into focus one of the region’s central conundrums: what to do with the beleaguered Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs.
“It’s not just that we need to save this facility for the jobs, it’s we need to save this facility because we have a massive mental health crisis,” Mullen told Montana Free Press this week.
Montana elects its state senators in staggered four-year terms, with half the chamber up for re-election every two years. Sweeney’s seat in Senate District 39 wasn’t scheduled to be up for grabs until the 2024 cycle, after legislative redistricting, which would have allowed him to return to his seat during the 2023 session if his bid for Montana’s eastern U.S. House district didn’t succeed.
But Sweeney, a moderate Democrat, passed away not long after he launched his congressional campaign. (Former Billings City Council member Penny Ronning won the June 7 Democratic U.S. House primary with 61% of the vote.)
Per statute, the four county commissions encompassed by Sweeney’s sprawling southwestern Montana Senate district selected a replacement, local Teamsters official Jessica Wicks, a Democrat from Anaconda, to fulfill Sweeney’s duties in the legislative interim.
Party officials, meanwhile, advanced Mullen to run in a Nov. 8 special election to serve out the remaining two years of Sweeney’s term.
Mullen founded the Mullen Newspaper Company in 2019. It’s since grown to include several small papers in Idaho, Nebraska, Colorado and Montana, including the Bitterroot Star, the Silver State Post (Deer Lodge) and the Philipsburg Mail.
Besides his publishing business, Mullen also reestablished the Powell County Democratic Central Committee and holds a variety of volunteer community positions.
Vermeire, a longtime Anaconda-Deer Lodge County commissioner — who took over that position after Sweeney resigned from the position more than a decade ago, he said — was tapped by the party as the GOP candidate for the SD 39 seat last week. Prior to entering public service, he had a 25-year career with the Montana Power Company and later owned a graphic design firm in Anaconda.
Both candidates are self-professed moderates. Vermeire said he’s proud of his lengthy record of nonpartisan accomplishments on the county commission, such as negotiating salary increases for public employees and advocating for economic development in Anaconda, a town long saddled with one of the country’s largest Superfund sites.
“I always felt and always believed — and I still do — that if your community has good infrastructure, that will attract more business than anything else,” he said.
But the highly partisan statewide political environment will be hard to ignore. Montana Republicans need two more seats in the state Legislature to establish a bicameral supermajority that would allow for, among other things, the passage of constitutional amendment ballot referrals without Democratic votes. The special election for SD 39 puts one more race in play in an election already expected to favor the GOP.
“It’s definitely in play,” said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who chairs the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. “The Republican Party will be focusing on that race. We have a real good candidate there who’s well known to the communities and the voters. He fits right in.”
The district has been represented by Democrats since the 2011 session, mostly by Gene Vuckovich. But one of the two House districts that make up the Senate district, House District 78, elected Republican Rep. Greg Frazer of Deer Lodge, a corrections officer, in 2020, flipping the seat from D to R. And both HD 78 and the other component district, House District 77, supported President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
That same year, Sweeney beat Republican opponent Suzzann Nordwick by about a point and a half, though 12.6% of the vote went to former Democratic lawmaker Gordon Pierson, who ran as a write-in independent in the general election, Mullen noted.
“I’m a fairly moderate Democrat, a businessperson,” Mullen said. “I do have extensive ties with Republicans and Democrats in these communities.
“I do have quite a bit of appeal to that independent and a fair amount of the Republican base who’s frustrated with their own party,” he added, referencing the state GOP position on abortion in the fallout of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision, among other issues.
Both Mullen and Vermeire say improving and protecting the district’s two major state institutions, the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and the Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs, are among their top priorities.
In July, the federal government authorized Montana to use Medicaid coverage at large inpatient addiction treatment facilities. But health authorities also delivered a significant set-back for the state’s overall plan: they would not allow Medicaid to cover treatments at large hospitals that handle serious mental illnesses, including the problem-plagued Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.
Warm Springs in particular is on a “critical path,” Vermeire said. The publicly operated psychiatric institution has faced a slew of problems, including patient injuries and deaths, staffing shortages and infrastructure problems that culminated in a federal investigation and the loss of the institution’s accreditation with Medicare and Medicaid programs.
And last week, officials from the Department of Public Health and Human Services office did not commit to pursuing federal re-accreditation for Warm Springs, a roughly 220-patient facility with a $97 million biennial budget. Some state politicians have called for deinstitutionalization and increased investments in community-based care, which could have major ramifications for the hospital.
On Wednesday, veteran House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, distributed a newspaper op-ed advocating the use of a chunk of the state’s $1 billion-plus budget surplus to invest in a regional service provider model to provide better mental health care outcomes.
Both candidates in SD 39 said the state should pursue federal re-accreditation of Warm Springs and keep the facility open.
“Obviously a lot of it comes down to more money, but when you’re talking about how that money is spent, the first priority has to be getting accredited again,” Mullen said. “And that means infrastructure improvements to the building.”
Both the hospital and prison are “major, major employment centers for this district,” Vermeire said. “I’ve got relatives and friends that work there, and in the prison, and it would be pretty devastating to the area if we lost either one.”
Closing the facility without clear alternatives would not only deliver an economic hit to the district, he said, but would also put pressure on the already stressed hospital and carceral systems in the state.
“We’ve cut and cut and cut mental health in this state,” Mullen said. “While Warm Springs is far from ideal, it’s still a resource. And it’s a resource that can be buttressed.”
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