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Last weekend, I watched the Montana Democratic Party, at its biennial platform convention, attempt to straddle the yawning gap between its past and its future.
On one side was Butte, which hosted the convention, and its history of militant labor activism, conflict between environment and industry, and a particular strain of European immigrant-tinged Democratic politics that for a time ruled in Helena. To commemorate the convention, the party printed blue T-shirts with an image of a donkey and one of the defunct mine headframes that still dot the Butte skyline.
Much of the language in the party’s updated platform indeed looks toward that and more recent history: boosting organized labor, opposing “partisan” efforts to repeal or replace the 1972 Montana Constitution, and buttressing public access to land and water.
On the other side of the chasm is an uncertain tomorrow.
The Montana GOP has emerged as the dominant force in the state Legislature, and 2020 saw Republicans take every statewide office, plus the governor’s mansion, for the first time in 16 years. Republicans have a good shot at gaining a bicameral legislative supermajority in a November election that could spell trouble for Democrats nationwide. At the GOP’s own platform convention in Billings last month, party delegates — though not without dissent — embraced a continued hard-right turn, supporting a total ban on abortion and elevating unfounded claims of election fraud.
Just Thursday, in what looked like a sign that familiar ground is shifting under the feet of the state Democratic Party, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, one of the state’s most influential unions and one helmed by a former Democratic lawmaker, surprised many political observers with an endorsement in the race for Montana’s eastern U.S. House district — not of Democratic party nominee Penny Ronning, but of independent Gary Buchanan.
Planting one foot so deeply in the past while stretching for a toehold in the future makes for a difficult balancing act. Whether the party has the flexibility to perform such a split — to remind voters of the way things used to be while reclaiming a say in the politics of today — is a question that won’t be answered until ballots are counted in November.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Miles logged on Bird brand e-scooters in Bozeman since the company came to the city in 2021.
“It isn’t exactly nice in Washington, D.C., the first of August or the end of July. And last night, we had one heck of a thunderstorm. Rolled me right out of bed. Those folks were out there, they were making their names be heard, they were making the policies be heard that they’ve fought for.”
—Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, in a floor speech Tuesday, praising the dozens of military veterans who camped on the steps of the U.S. Capitol earlier this week demanding action on a bill to extend health coverage to millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Senate Republicans initially rejected the measure, known as the PACT Act, on procedural grounds July 27, prompting a nationwide uproar and inspiring the days-long protest in D.C. One of those Republicans, Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines, drew widespread criticism for fist-bumping Texas Sen. Ted Cruz moments after both voted against the measure last week. Daines switched to a “yes” vote Tuesday, and the PACT Act passed 86-11. Tester, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, hailed the bill as putting America on the path to “recognizing the toxic wounds of war.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The race for Montana’s eastern congressional district spawned a surprising development this week when the Montana Federation of Public Employees — the state’s biggest labor union — endorsed independent candidate Gary Buchanan for the seat. In announcing the union’s decision Wednesday, MFPE President Amanda Curtis referred to Buchanan as “exactly what Washington, D.C. needs.”
“He’s an independent thinker who is more concerned with getting the job done right than performing in partisan political theater,” Curtis said in a statement. “Our country needs leaders who can bridge divides and pass policies that help our pocketbooks, not partisan hacks who sew [sic] division and follow a party line.”
Why is that so surprising, you ask? Well, the last time a Montana congressional seat was up for grabs, in 2020, MFPE handed its endorsement to Democratic candidate Kathleen Williams in her bid against now-incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale. Prior to that, the unions that merged in 2018 to form MFPE — the Montana Public Employees Association and the state’s teachers union, MEA-MFT — had long and reliable track records of supporting Dems on the congressional ticket. Both unions endorsed Rob Quist in the 2017 special election that ultimately sent Greg Gianforte to Congress, Denise Juneau in her 2016 race against Ryan Zinke, and John Lewis in his 2014 race, also against Zinke. The Democratic candidates lost each of those races.
In contrast, MFPE’s endorsement announcement this week made no mention of the eastern district’s Democratic contender, Penny Ronning.
As anticipated as a Democrat endorsement may have been, though, the unions haven’t always tacked exclusively left. Endorsements at the state legislative level have historically gone to a wide array of candidates, Republicans included, building a strong contingent of labor support that’s helped fend off controversial right-to-work proposals. At the statewide level, MEA-MFT carved out an exception to its largely-left lineup of 2016 endorsees to support then-incumbent Republican Attorney General Tim Fox. And years before its merger with MFT, MEA made waves in 1996 for endorsing then-Gov. Marc Racicot for a second term — the union’s first ever Republican endorsement for the governor’s office.
Also on the list of prominent Montana voices that have lined up behind Buchanan? Marc Racicot.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
A reader writes: KPAX reported that the governor has asked the state Supreme Court to “reconsider” a ruling they made in support of abortion rights in the 1999 Armstrong ruling. I would like to know whether this is a legal process. Can the governor ask the SC to look into issues? Would this be a violation of the separation of powers (exec vs judicial)? Would the SC decision if it did follow the request be binding? Or would a law need to be brought before the court to reexamine the 1999 Armstrong ruling?
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte did file such a request with the Montana Supreme Court earlier this week. It’s a tool called an amicus brief — or “friend of the court” brief — which allows people or groups with lawyers to present their arguments about an ongoing case. It’s like saying, “Hey judge, seems like you have a lot on your plate. Here’s our two cents.”
It’s worth noting that, in the scheme of the ongoing case, this brief was filed pretty late. Rules of legal procedure says that permitted groups should not make new arguments about a case when justices have already started deliberating. It seems the governor’s office thought this situation was worth the Hail Mary.
The case before the Montana Supreme Court requires a bit of explanation. Lawmakers in 2021 passed several bills that add red tape to accessing an abortion. Those laws were later challenged by Planned Parenthood of Montana; Billings District Court Judge Michael Moses temporarily blocked the laws from going into effect in October; the state attorney general’s office appealed that decision; the state Supreme Court has yet to respond.
So, back to the governor’s amicus brief. Gianforte’s lawyers are zeroing in on a central part of Montana’s abortion debate: the state Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Armstrong v. State, which guaranteed abortion access in Montana under the state Constitution’s Right of Privacy. The governor’s office said that Armstrong relied, in part, on the federal abortion protections outlined in Roe v. Wade. Because Roe was overturned this June, the governor is suggesting the state Supreme Court “reconsider” Armstrong and issue a ruling that returns unfettered authority over abortion to the state Legislature.
For the record, the justice who wrote the Armstrong decision, James Nelson, has previously said that he intentionally grounded the 1999 ruling in the state Constitution so it did not depend on Roe. Who knows how much the governor’s suggestion, or the end of Roe, will factor into the court’s eventual decision. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🦌
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game wardens were called to a Great Falls home Sunday to remove an adult mountain lion that was found under a deck inside city limits. Shortly after the wardens’ arrival, the mountain lion broke a window and entered the house’s basement. No people were injured, but the lion did sustain injuries from broken glass.
FWP does not relocate mountain lions. That policy and the animal’s injuries led the department to tranquilize and later euthanize it. Based on the wardens’ observation that it was not lactating, they believe the female lion did not have kittens.
The department said in a release about the incident that mountain lions are typically solitary and secretive animals that avoid people, but “it is possible to encounter a lion anywhere in central and western Montana.” Other lions have been seen in Great Falls and other Montana cities in recent months.
People who encounter a mountain lion are advised not to approach it or run from it. Instead, make noise and try to make yourself appear larger.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
The Viz 📈
The first six months of legalized marijuana in Montana saw nearly $94 million in non-medical adult-use sales, according to data compiled by the state Department of Revenue’s newly formed Cannabis Control Division.
The sales included in that sum, which equate to $85 for each Montana resident, haven’t been spread evenly across the state, however. Because of how the Montana Legislature chose to implement the legalization initiative passed by voters in 2020, sales are currently legal in only half of the state’s 56 counties. (Counties where a majority of voters opposed the initiative must opt-in to sales with new votes; Granite County voted in July to ban non-medical sales there).
Adjacent to North Dakota, where adult-use marijuana is still illegal, Richland County reports the highest per-capita sales figure, $263.
Editor’s note: This section and graphic were updated Aug. 26 to correct the calculation for adult-use marijuana sold on a per-capita basis in Madison County. A prior version of this section had mistakenly reported Madison was the highest-selling county in the state on a per-capita basis. The actual figure was $68, which ranks as one of the lower figures for counties allowing adult-use sales. Hat tip to legislative analysts Erin Sullivan and Dan Kayser for the catch.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Almost every time I reached out to Cory Cheguis to ask about coal seam fires, he was out mapping a burning coal seam. Cheguis, DES coordinator for Custer County, is on a mission to map the smoldering underground seams and make that information public this fall. Once the location of a burning seam is known, he says, it will be easier to track and understand the risk it might pose when fire conditions worsen, as they are starting to this summer.
So far this summer, DNRC’s eastern land office reports seven fires started from the heat of burning coal seams, as was the case with last summer’s largest wildfire, the Richard Spring Fire.
—Keely Larson, Fire Reporting Intern
On Our Radar
Amanda — This funny and honest ode from Christopher Solomon to his best friend of two decades was a delight. Solomon, one of my favorite writers, captures the quirks and comforts of one of his most important relationships in this engaging essay published by Esquire.
Mara — For a dip into the surreal, check out the video footage and news coverage of Infowars host Alex Jones’ defamation trial. A Texas jury this week decided Jones owes about $4 million to two Sandy Hook parents for spreading falsehoods about the 2012 elementary school shooting and intentionally causing parents emotional distress. As the plaintiff’s lawyer told the jury this week, “Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for.”
Arren — The New York Times has this fascinating — if a little imprecise — look at support for abortion access in various states based on the resounding defeat of an abortion restriction ballot initiative in Kansas this week. Montana still has legal abortion thanks to privacy protections in the state Constitution, but lawmakers passed a series of restrictions on the practice last session that are now held up in court.
Eric — Meanwhile in Georgia, a long-running Atlanta music festival was apparently canceled this year because a new state law guaranteeing Georgians the right to carry guns on public property means organizers couldn’t stop attendees from bringing firearms into the event. This story by Billboard includes some thought-provoking nuance about the legal dynamics and concert security considerations involved. Montana, of course, passed a similar permitless carry measure last year.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.