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January 06, 2023

“I guess you can say I got off on the wrong foot.” 

—Sen.. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, who slipped down a Capitol staircase and fractured an ankle on the second day of the session.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus has, understandably, received quite a lot of airtime this week. Its roughly 30 members — including Montana’s Matt Rosendale — have been instrumental in stymying the speakership aspirations of former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, leading to a cascading series of failed attempts over the last four days to get the votes necessary to put McCarthy in control of the chamber. 

It’s not the only such caucus asserting itself this week. On Tuesday, reporters received a press release announcing the creation of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a coalition of 14 named members in both chambers — and, according to the release, several more who declined to be named — helmed by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton. 

“It’s a personal choice,” Manzella told a commenter on a Facebook post announcing the caucus. “Some don’t want to put big targets on their backs. Some feel they can accomplish more by keeping it under wraps.”

Manzella said 80% of the new Freedom Caucus has to agree on an issue to push it as a legislative priority, but that members have already started honing in on some ideas. 

“And I can tell you that we have a two-page list that we’re currently putting into priority, and they include school choice and medical freedom and judicial reform and election integrity and redistricting, constitutional amendments, the list goes on,” she told Capitolized. 

The Montana Freedom Caucus is part of a national organization called the State Freedom Caucus Network, an organization affiliated with the Congressional Freedom Caucus launched in late 2021. It’s led by Republican operative and former Club for Growth Executive Director Andy Roth and former House Freedom Caucus Executive Director Justin Ouimette. The chapter in Montana launched concurrently with new freedom caucuses in the Wyoming and Idaho state legislatures. 

“The men and women of the Montana Freedom Caucus are built out of conservative steel,” Roth said in the press release. “We’re delighted to work with them to help expand freedom and limit the size of government in the Treasure State.”

But it was Rosendale who initiated the process in Montana, Manzella said. The congressman reached out to her in September to see if she was interested in launching a chapter in the state. 

“This is something that I can definitely sink my teeth into and align with,” Manzella said of the idea. 

A spokesperson for Rosendale’s office did not respond to questions about his role in the formation of the Montana statehouse caucus. 

Manzella said the national organization will not supply the state freedom caucus with financial resources, though it will pay a state director, Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee chair Darin Gaub. Gaub declined to speak on the record about his role. 

The state caucus looks like it’ll take some cues from its parent organization in D.C. 

“Did you watch the House Freedom Caucus block the election of the left leaning Speaker today? Small in number, but strong and strategic,” Manzella wrote on Facebook Tuesday

“We hope to be as effective at the state level!”

Gumming up the works, Manzella told Capitolized, can be a good thing.

“Sometimes the process needs to be slowed down, quite frankly,” she said. “And if we determine that that is our job so that we can attempt to message more effectively to our citizens so that they understand where we’re coming from, then that will be a tactic that we will use. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.” 

The caucus presents a foil to the coalition of comparative moderate Republicans called the Conservative Solutions Caucus. Manzella said the Freedom Caucus wasn’t specifically founded as an official successor to the “.38 Special group” that battled the Solutions Caucus in the 2019 session, but said it could play a similar role of organized opposition. 

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said he’s not particularly worried about the effects of the new caucus on the Legislature’s ability to work efficiently and avoid the kind of disruption that has overtaken the U.S. Congress this week. 

“I mean, there’s always things that could come up, but Montana is not D.C. and I like it that way,” he told Capitolized. “And I think a lot of my legislator friends here like it that way, too. So I don’t expect us to mirror D.C., even if there is the same caucus.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

The Viz

The state House had its first major debate of the session this week, though not about big-ticket legislation. Rather, the body was thrown into conflict over its rules, with comparatively moderate Republicans joining Democrats to pass amendments to House rules lowering the blast motion threshold and limiting the authority of a newly created select committee on election integrity.

The rules package, HR 1, passed on a 57-42 vote, with 25 of 68 House Republicans joining all 32 Democrats. See the map below for a visual guide to how every House lawmaker but one — Rep. Doug Flament, R-Lewistown, who has been absent this week — voted on HR 1. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter. Data visualization by Eric Dietrich

New Faces 

The commencement of the 68th Montana Legislature has brought a slew of new lawmakers to Helena. None is newer, though, than Rep. Zack Wirth, R-Wolf Creek. 

The Lewis and Clark and Powell County commissioners on Tuesday selected Wirth to fill the seat in House District 80 left vacant by now-Sen. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, who herself was selected late last year to fill the vacancy left by retiring Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena. 

Wirth, who owns and operates the Rocking Z Guest Ranch in Wolf Creek, was sworn in a few hours after his appointment by the county commissioners on Tuesday, a day after the rest of the Legislature began its work. 

“I’m happy to be here. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be in the grinding zone, you might say,” Wirth told Capitolized. 

And in the “grinding zone” he quickly found himself. Not more than four hours after entering the building, he said, he started hearing about the controversial House rules resolution scheduled to come down the pike the next day. 

“Everybody else had had two months to prepare for that,” he said. “I didn’t know which players were which and which ones to follow, etcetera, and I definitely was confused.” 

That confusion, he said, is why he voted in favor of the resolution despite having meant to oppose it and one of its major elements — an amendment lowering the “blast motion” threshold from 60 votes to 55. His vote, he noted, wasn’t decisive either way, as the resolution passed 57-42. 

“Unfortunately, that caused a lot of ire with a lot of other people,” he said. 

Otherwise, he said, he’s interested in legislation concerning abortion, school choice and transportation infrastructure. He sits on the House Transportation, Agriculture and State Administration committees. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, reporter

On Background

House rules package passes key hurdle: Read Wednesday’s play-by-play of the bitter floor fight over House rules that resulted in a significant tactical victory for Democrats and comparatively moderate Republicans. (MTFP)

Rosendale among small group blocking McCarthy speakership: See how the national equivalent of the Freedom Caucus — and one of its prominent members, Montana congressman Matt Rosendale — is wielding power in the ongoing fight for the U.S. House speakership. (Lee newspapers)

House Freedom Caucus Takes Its Crusade to the States: This story offers a history of the formation of the State Freedom Caucus Network and its ties to national groups. (Route Fifty)

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