Arthur “Art” Noonan, one-time executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, former lawmaker, 2022 legislative candidate, and member of an influential old guard of Irish-American Butte politicians, died this week of a heart attack, his nephew, the former legislator Pat Noonan, said. He was 70.
Noonan worked as a policy aide to Pat Williams, the last Democrat to represent Montana in the U.S. House, in the 1980s and ’90s, and came to the state Legislature as a representative of House District 73 in 2005. In 2007, as minority party floor leader, he engaged in fiery debates with Republicans as he worked to help shepherd the agenda of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer through a near-evenly-split lower chamber. He was named the party’s executive director the same year, and served in that role until 2009, his last legislative session.
“Art Noonan lived a life of public service, serving the people of Butte and his home state for forty years,” current MDP Executive Director Sheila Hogan, herself a Butte native, said in a statement. “He weathered storms and sea change, never wavering in his resolve to fight for the dignity of working Montanans and families.”
Noonan was still active in politics at the time of his passing. He presided over a policy committee at the recent state party platform convention, and was in the midst of a run to represent House District 73, the seat currently held by the retiring Jim Keane, another titan in Butte Democratic Politics.
“His breadth of knowledge of Montana politics and his love of Butte was just fantastic,” Keane told Montana Free Press Thursday. “He was really looking forward to going back to the House, and it’s just so sad that he won’t be able to.”
The Butte-Silver Bow County Democratic Central Committee will meet Sunday to select a replacement for Noonan in the race, committee chair Faith Scow told MTFP. The Republican candidate is Jason Freeman.
The Montana secretary of state’s office was informed of Noonan’s death on Wednesday. Pursuant to statute, the replacement candidate must file with the office by 5 p.m. this coming Monday, Sept. 26, spokesperson Richie Melby said.
“Art’s passing is extremely tragic and has left a huge hole in the Butte community,” Scow said in an email. “Art was extremely passionate and loved getting young people excited about the government. He was a larger-than-life figure and is deeply missed.”
“Art was very articulate, that’s one of the main things,” Keane said. “When you had a conversation with Art, you better have had a little time on your hands.”
In 2007, Noonan wrangled a fractious Democratic caucus against Republican efforts to split Schweitzer’s consolidated budget into eight separate bills. The fight was so bitter, a contemporary profile noted, that Noonan skipped St. Patrick’s Day in Butte that year. Ultimately, the Legislature failed to pass a budget and had to meet in a special session to fund the state’s spending.
“Butte legislators, more often than not, get their way,” Pat Williams said in the profile. “Up until Art, they did that through quiet strategy, which some people call backroom dealing. Art is more open and transparent. He has matured the Butte tradition.”
The Noonans settled in Butte in the 1880s, according to a soon-to-be-published obituary shared by family members. Art, one of six children, was born in the Mining City in 1951. He received statewide recognition as the first 19-year-old to register to vote in Silver Bow County following a 1970 constitutional amendment lowering the voting age, the obituary says.
After his service to the federal delegation and in the Legislature, Noonan worked as deputy director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks until 2011, and then advised NorthWestern Energy on government affairs until 2018.
With Noonan’s death and Keane’s retirement, the number of old-school Butte Democrats in active political service is dwindling.
Keane and Noonan were taught by their predecessors to stick together as a delegation and ceaselessly fight for their community’s interests above all else, Keane said. Now, a younger generation has looked to the old guard — including Keane, Noonan, Bob Pavlovich, Jon Sesso and the late J.D. Lynch — for those same lessons.
“Both [Democratic state Sen. Ryan] Lynch and I have really taken it on to spend time with those folks and get to know at least a small percentage of the knowledge that they have,” said Rep. Derek Harvey, a Butte Democrat wrapping up his second term in the Legislature. “They’re icons.”
In a Wednesday appearance billed as the first in a series of events announcing policy priorities for next year’s legislative session, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wants to raise the exemption threshold for Montana’s business equipment tax.
This fall, 20 school districts across the state are exploring a new approach to standardized testing. The Office of Public Instruction-led pilot, backed by $3 million in federal funding, seeks to replace Montana’s year-end exams with incremental tests throughout the school year.
Despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs. In Missoula, that means a battle to attract employees.