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January 20, 2023
Second-term Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, resigned last weekend, vacating a seat in House District 50 and igniting a conversation about the Montana GOP’s tolerance for contradictory viewpoints from members who don’t fit the party’s traditional mold.
Stromswold, now 21, was a teenager when she became the first Republican to win the central-Billings legislative seat in 2020. In her first session, she quickly established a reputation as a libertarian-minded conservative unafraid to buck the party when her principles or the constituents in her purplish district demanded it. That was on display in 2021 when she voted against a pair of billsin the House Judiciary Committee restricting the rights of transgender Montanans.
But her voting record didn’t endear her to all her colleagues. In her resignation letter, she cited not only the difficulties of serving in the Legislature while a college student but also “significant backlash from members of my caucus because I did not fall in line.”
Now there’s a chance for a new Billings Republican to come to Helena. The executive board of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee spent the last week identifying replacement candidates to submit for approval by the Yellowstone County Board of Commissioners. On Friday, the executive board announced three finalists: former Billings City Council member and Yellowstone County commissioner Denis Pitman, civil attorney Anthony Nicastro and small-business owner Naarah Hastings.
Central Committee Chair Jeff Essmann told Capitolized the county commissioners plan to interview candidates on Monday and make a decision the next day.
The future of the seat aside, Capitolized wanted to better understand Stromswold’s political journey and experience in the Legislature, so we hopped on the phone with the former lawmaker Thursday to hear her take. For the record, she says she hopes for another young, independent voice to replace her. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Capitolized: You tried to withdraw your candidacy over the summer, but it didn’t work out. You resolved to serve anyway and now you’re resigning. What has changed over the past few months?
Mallerie Stromswold: Not much has changed, and that is the problem. You know, I had a rough time last session. I don’t really want to say a rough time because I handled it — it was fine. I just faced quite a bit of backlash for a lot of the choices I made for myself and my constituents. And that made serving all that much harder. Being a young woman who comes from somewhere where mental health isn’t necessarily an area of conversation, struggling with that became very difficult when I was put into a situation where I was dealing with so many other things, and it just became very clear I wasn’t able to serve properly with the conditions I was facing.
Capitolized: Can you describe the pressure or backlash you felt? Did that come from legislative leadership, or other members, or where?
Stromswold: I’m not necessarily one to go into specifics just because, you know, I’m not trying to virtue signal or anything or call anybody out. But yeah, it comes from any number of places. And it came from news sources, one specifically was the Montana Daily Gazette, because I was berated in their news source multiple times. I was even sent a RINO [Republican in Name Only] of the Year award by them. I almost threw it away when I first got it, and my mom was like, “You can not, you have to save this forever.” But yeah, it came from news sources, it came from advocacy groups, it came from fellow members of my caucus. Whether that was leadership, not necessarily. I mean, last session, leadership was pretty understanding of my choices, last session, at least. But it definitely came from other forms of leadership, that aren’t necessarily elected forms of leadership, but given [leadership positions]. It was a lot easier to ignore the Montana Daily Gazette and the messages I got from people who were sent the copy-and-paste messages from advocacy groups, but it’s a lot harder when it’s your actual work environment and your fellow colleagues.
Capitolized: As for the causes of the backlash, I think your votes against the transgender restrictions are the things a lot of people point to. But I’m wondering if there are any other votes or issues that come to mind for you.
Stromswold: One specifically was a bill from Sen. Brad Molnar. The purpose of the bill was awesome. The purpose of the bill was to allow disabled people to use crossbows during archery season. The essence of it was awful. It had too many loopholes for people to abuse the system. I’m a big hunter, I value the importance of fair chase and whatnot. Crossbow versus bow, they’re very different. I wish people would look past the façade of the bill and at the unintended consequences. Of course, it’s gonna look bad when you vote against the bill that’s been touted as this veterans bill, when in reality a lot of groups that want to abuse hunting laws are supporting it. That was going to get blasted, and I basically spent two days trying to kill the blast motion, and so many people kept asking me, “Is this the hill you’re going to die on? Are you really gonna put your neck out for this?” I’m like, “Yeah, because it’s important, and I’ll put my neck out for anything that’s important.” It’s wrong. We can’t be legislating like this.
Capitolized: In general, do you feel the Montana GOP is tolerant of contradictory viewpoints within the caucus? If not, how do you change that?
Stromswold: No, I do not think it is. In my first campaign, there were some questions going around of whether I was conservative enough to run. And within Billings, there were people who were skeptical of me. And I remember being sent an email by somebody very prominent who was like, “OK, here’s the Montana Republican Party platform. Do you agree with everything on this? Is there anything you don’t agree with?” And I remember just being so appalled by, like, “Oh, I have to fit into this category even if it’s not representative of myself and my constituency? OK.” But the thing to change it — yeah, I think it’s just going to take time and generational changes. People of my generation are way more independent. You know, they align with one side more than the other. Just like me, I align with the conservative side of the political spectrum a lot more. But I don’t think we care as much about fitting into this perfect party. And so I think it will get better with time, hopefully, as long as those people who decide to run don’t just continue the same traditions and norms.
- Senate Bill 154 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 18, along party lines with the committee’s seven Republicans in favor and four Democrats opposed. If adopted, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would stipulate in statute that the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy does not create or recognize “a right to abortion or to governmental funding of abortion.”
- House Bill 233, which would have required property rental companies to refund some application fees to unsuccessful apartment hunters, was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee Friday on an 11-8 vote. The bill was sponsored by Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, but had picked up some Republican support.
See MTFP’s Capitol Tracker guide for updates on other bills.
—Mara Silvers and Eric Dietrich
Hellenic names don’t do well in Helena
It seems nobody in Helena is immune from mispronouncing the name of new Great Falls Republican Rep. George Nikolakakos.
As two of his bills came before the House Wednesday, presiding officer Rep. Michele Binkley, R-Hamilton, said his surname just about every way but right: “Nik-o-ko-kakos,” “Nik-ko-kolakos,” “Nik-o-lakos.”
At the end of the floor session, Binkley apologized and declared she’d accept the “basketball” to make amends. It’s legislative tradition that members with rules infractions or other slip-ups on the floor put a few bucks in a holed-out basketball, explained House Rules Committee Chair Casey Knudsen, R-Malta. At the end of the session, the money goes to a charitable organization.
“I’m not trying to give anybody any incentive to break the rules, but if you do, it’s going someplace that deserves it,” Knudsen told lawmakers.
Even Gov. Greg Gianforte, in commending the freshman legislator during a press conference Thursday for his vote against tabling one of the governor’s tax bills, made consonant soup out of Nikolakakos’ name.
“George … uh … Nick-a-caucus,” Gianforte said.
Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, said on the floor Wednesday that she had met Nikolakakos’ spouse, who provided a handy pronunciation tool.
“She very helpfully reminded me that if you think of nickels and tacos, it helps.”
EYE IN THE CAPITOL
Republican Montana congressman Matt Rosendale speaks at the launch of the Montana Freedom Caucus in Helena on Jan. 19.
For weeks, political wonks across Montana have awaited an announcement on who will replace Jeff Mangan as the state’s next commissioner of political practices. Gov. Greg Gianforte gave them their answer Thursday, naming Butte native and longtime Montana attorney Chris Gallus as his pick for the post.
“Montanans deserve a political system that is transparent and ethical, and they count on an independent, nonpartisan, well-qualified commissioner of political practices to serve as a watchdog to preserve that system,” Gianforte said in announcing the news. “I have every confidence Chris Gallus will serve as commissioner with honor and integrity.”
The appointment comes after a legislative committee deadlocked in Decemberon which of five candidates, including Gallus, to forward to Gianforte for his consideration. All five subsequently landed on the governor’s desk. Now, Gallus will face confirmation before the state Senate.
While fielding questions from lawmakers last month, Gallus shared his view that it’s not the commissioner’s role to craft policy but rather to enforce the laws and regulations approved by the Legislature.
“I fully intend to defend the Constitution of the state and the laws that we have in place,” Gallus explained shortly after taking his oath of office Friday. “We’ll apply the facts on a case-by-case basis and move forward with what the law dictates, what the Legislature intended in adopting it and the administration did in signing each one of those [laws].”
Gallus’ past work representing various conservative interests in the political practice sphere gave Democrats on the selection committee pause. Former Commissioner Jonathan Motl referenced that work as well in speaking with Montana Free Press Friday. Gallus’ background as an attorney is “an asset to the office,” he said. But, Motl added, Gallus also has a history of pushing back against the COPP as an attorney representing political candidates who violated campaign practice laws.
“He can adapt,” Motl said. “There’s always hope. And he will be watched. That’s a highly visible office.”
Gallus acknowledged Friday that he has “vigorously represented” clients in disputes with past commissioners and did so “unapologetically.” But he added that in entering his new role as commissioner, he intends to “draw a line and we’ll proceed from there.” He plans to recuse himself from issues involving previous clients he’s represented as an attorney or during his three decades as a registered lobbyist.
Heard in the Halls
“I do not at the present time, Mr. Chair, but then, at this point in the session, things are falling out my brain and out my left ear. So that could be why.”
—Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, when asked Friday if he recalled a detail from an interim committee presentation during a hearing on Senate Bill 183, which would provide for jury trials in termination of parental rights cases. There are still 75 legislative days left, senator!
Stromswold resigns from Legislature, citing mental health and challenges in caucus: This story goes even deeper on Stromswold’s history and the challenges she’s faced as a young woman, a student and an idiosyncratic voice in the Legislature. (Helena Independent Record)
Looking back on six years as COPP: Read this for a full accounting of the six-year tenure of the last commissioner of political practices, Jeff Mangan. (MTFP)
Commission denies crossbow use in archery season for 4 disabled hunters: Read for background on the crossbow issue, and for one of the Montana Legislature’s all-time greatest photos. (Billings Gazette)
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