The sight as a group of Montana lawmakers gathered at an event venue outside Clancy Saturday morning, a week into the 2023 session of the Montana Legislature, wasn’t necessarily pretty.

Chunks of chilled beef and fat were ground through stainless steel tubes, producing white and pink strands of pulverized meat. The resulting mixture was piped into another set of machines and squeezed into bulging translucent casings. 

You know the saying, as readily applied to politics as it is to the culinary arts: You don’t want to see how the sausage is made.

However, the ingredients provided Saturday by the Helena-based Old Salt Co-op were in fact about as wholesome as sausage fixings get: carefully selected aromatic spices, plus 50 pounds of high-quality Montana beef and tallow. Equally as wholesome was the political culture the event’s organizer, Helena attorney Jon Bennion, was hoping to promote by gathering a group of mostly freshman lawmakers. 

“This is an exercise in grassroots civility,” he said.

Social media, Bennion said, means it’s easy these days for people to end up in ideological bubbles. That dynamic, he said, sometimes makes it harder for them to relate to people who think about the world differently.

The Legislature can serve as an ideological melting pot, giving Republicans and Democrats alike the opportunity to exchange views as they debate proposals and negotiate the legislation that becomes state law. The Legislature also often becomes a focal point for some of the most divisive issues in Montana’s politics, leading to fraught discussions about appropriate policy on topics like abortion, election administration and accommodations for transgender people.

Bennion, who worked for the Montana Department of Justice under Republican Attorney General Tim Fox and ran for attorney general as a Republican in 2020, has held similar events in the past, but took a hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, he partnered on the event with the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center, which honors the legacy of Democratic Montana U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, who served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader from 1961 to 1977. As part of its mission, the center promotes civil discourse — something Bennion calls a “missing ingredient” in politics.

Organizer Jon Bennion speaks at a Jan. 7, 2023 sausage making event intended to promote civil relationships between Montana lawmakers. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Every freshman lawmaker new to the Legislature this year was invited, Bennion said, as well as a few old hands. About 15 lawmakers attended, the group split roughly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

As the sausage-making event geared up Saturday, Bennion read from a handout comparing sausage making to crafting good legislation. Among its analogs: “Keep ingredients cold”/“keep your cool”; “Read the recipe”/“Read the bill”; “Take some culinary risks”/“Relationship building across aisle.”

Montana lawamkers Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula, Rep. Sherry Essmann, R-Billings, and Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, case beef sausage Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Then the legislators, donning aprons and blue nitrile gloves, got down to business, chopping herbs and pushing cubes of beef into grinders. Occasionally, legislators working next to each other would realize they hadn’t yet introduced themselves.

As the work ebbed toward a conclusion, lawmakers gradually stepped away to chat with one another, pleasantries inevitably shifting into legislative shop talk. In one corner of the room, Missoula Democrat Zooey Zephyr, the first transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, chatted with a pair of Billings Republicans.

The sausage-making party, Zephyr said later in the event, gave her a chance to chat with her colleagues in a slower-paced environment than the “phrenetic” Capitol building.

“It’s nice to just hang out and talk to someone about where they grew up,” she said.

Rep. Sherry Essmann, R-Billings, echoed the sentiment. “We’re all human beings,” she said, “ adding “I’ve learned things about people today I didn’t know.”

Montana lawmakers Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, and Rep. Gary Parry, R-Colstrip, case beef sausage Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.