On Aug. 12, 21-year-old Billings Republican Rep. Mallerie Stromswold signed a letter withdrawing from her legislative race and forwarded it to the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee, which, after a delay, mailed it to the Montana secretary of state.
In theory, Stromswold would thus be removed from the ballot, and the county party would select a replacement to face the Democratic candidate, James Reavis, running to represent the central Billings district in November. In practice, the county party did get as far as selecting a new Republican candidate. But the person who beat Reavis in the general election was Mallerie Stromswold.
Now, Stromswold says she will assume her seat in House District 50 for the second time come Jan. 2.
How she arrived at this point, despite volunteering to end her candidacy three months before the election, offers a window into both the difficulties of elected office as a twentysomething and internal friction within the state GOP. Questions about Stromswold’s status and the exact reasons for her attempted withdrawal have swirled around the Capitol since lawmakers met for pre-session caucus meetings last week, especially given Stromswold’s occasional stances in opposition to her party in the 2021 session.
Stromswold said she attempted to withdraw primarily for personal reasons related to her physical health and education, but has since resolved to return to the Legislature. That story hasn’t quieted confusion over why and how things changed so quickly for her.
“People can do what they want with this information, but I’m here to serve,” Stromswold said in an interview this week with Montana Free Press.
The technical reason that Stromswold will retain her seat in the Legislature is that the county party missed a deadline. Pursuant to state law, candidates who wished to withdraw their candidacies this year had to submit signed paperwork to the secretary of state’s office by 5 p.m., Monday, Aug. 15, a spokesman with the office said. Stromswold’s letter, which MTFP obtained through a public records request, didn’t arrive until later that week. She said she had her letter notarized and delivered to the county party on the day she signed it, Aug. 12, and didn’t realize that her withdrawal wasn’t accepted until she received a phone call from the secretary of state’s office.
“There was some miscommunication,” said Tim Stark, the Yellowstone County party chair. “We didn’t read the fine print, that it needed to be at the SOS by that date.”
The party had already gone ahead with interviewing possible replacements, including Curtis Schomer, a unionized worker at the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Co. who had just lost a primary in a neighboring district, and Edward Walker, a former state lawmaker previously connected to the controversial dark money group Montana Growth Network. Schomer, who could not be reached for comment, was the eventual pick.
Walker said county party officials conducted telephone interviews with the candidates in the week before the deadline, but that the audio quality was bad and finalists were asked to interview in person the following week. Walker did so and interviewed with a selection of central committee members and Yellowstone County Republican lawmakers, he said. He heard the next day that the party had decided to go with Schomer, but by then, it was too late to replace Stromswold. Walker said he organized support and fundraised for Stromswold when it became apparent she would run the race.
“We interviewed a few people that were interested if that had come to fruition,” Stark said. “Obviously it didn’t, and yeah, here we are.”
The blown deadline coincided with a renewed interest from Stromswold in running for re-election. When she signed the withdrawal letter, she said, she was recovering from health challenges and struggling to figure out how to manage both her legislative responsibilities and her ongoing education at Montana State University. She was also facing a potentially unpleasant welcome back in Helena.
While serving on the House Judiciary Committee in 2021, Stromswold was the only committee Republican to vote against a pair of bills restricting transgender rights and health care access in Montana. On the House Human Services Committee, she tearfully defended a Democratic proposal that would allow minors to stay in shelters without parental consent as most Republicans on the committee were poised to table the bill.
“My whole political ideology lies with the fact that I don’t think we should control people’s lives,” she said in January 2021.
Her votes and strongly held personal views made her a target for right-wing activists. Far-right pastor and agitator J.D. Hall lambasted her votes on the transgender restrictions and gave her the “Freshman RINO Award.”
Stromswold previously told MTFP she sometimes felt ostracized for her principles by other members of her party. She said even she was surprised that she didn’t face a primary challenger this year.
Asked this week whether she volunteered to withdraw her candidacy for personal reasons or in response to pressure from Republicans, Stromswold said her choice was “due to a mix of a lot of things.”
“My main reason was to focus on school,” she said. “But there were some factors that made Helena not the most pleasant place for me.”
Even so, she said, if she doesn’t return to Helena to take a stand on issues important to her, “who will?”
Walker, the former lawmaker, said he didn’t get the impression that there was Republican dissatisfaction with Stromswold’s votes so much as her lack of life experience. Nonetheless, he said, he thinks she’s done a good job representing the district. Stark said his understanding is that Stromswold wanted to go back to school but must have “caught the bug” again and decided to serve. You don’t see someone with that level of conviction at her age very often, he said.
“She’s made her decision, and she’ll serve the term,” Stark said. “Lesson learned, if we got the paperwork in sooner, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Stromswold’s decision to serve her newly elected term came as a surprise to some in Yellowstone County Republican circles this week.
“I have heard a lot of different stories, a lot of different waffling on her part,” said Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings. Seekins-Crowe said she didn’t know any of the background behind the attempted withdrawal.
She said she now wishes the best for Stromswold heading into the next session. Stromswold will serve on the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Transportation and State Administration committees.
“I hope that she’s prepared for it and ready to be a part of the Republican caucus,” Seekins-Crowe said.
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