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When Republicans in the Montana House of Representative first refused to allow Rep. Zooey Zephyr to speak on the House floor last week, the Missoula Democrat took to Twitter. Her post about what she called the “fundamentally undemocratic” maneuver has since garnered more than 15,000 retweets and 77,000 likes. Buried in that deluge was a signal from a uniquely situated supporter: a retweet from David Gianforte, the second-oldest child of Montana’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte.
David had first raised his online voice about Zephyr’s circumstance a few hours earlier, though to little immediate effect. At the time, the 32-year-old from Bozeman had 18 followers on the social media site.
“I stand in support of @ZoAndBehold and the entire LGBTQ+ community of Montana, which includes myself and many of my friends. I have worked to oppose bills in the current MT Legislative session including SB 99 and SB 458,” he wrote. The post sat quietly for days, with no retweets, comments or likes.
The following Monday, thanks to a tip, David’s tweets made it onto the radar of a Montana Free Press reporter. The resulting story, which subsequently made headlines around the country, can be read here.
In the Tuesday evening interview with MTFP, David, who is nonbinary and uses he/they pronouns, said they began lobbying their father in March to veto several bills regulating transgender Montanans and the LGBTQ+ community more broadly, including Senate Bill 99, a ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors. In a statement he read to his father in the governor’s office, David described the bills as “immoral, unjust, and frankly a violation of human rights.”
Despite that direct and personal appeal, David said they felt as if the governor hadn’t really heard the issues they raised. In mid-April, Gianforte returned SB 99 to the Legislature with a request for changes, saying he shared GOP lawmakers’ “profound commitment to protect Montana children from invasive medical treatments.” When he read that news, David said, he felt offended and dismissed.
In another time and political climate, that might have been the end of David’s lobbying and public advocacy. But with trans-centric bills advancing in Montana and other states, David kept seeing examples of other opponents only getting louder. In Nebraska, state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh spent weeks filibustering another version of a gender-affirming care ban. In Montana, Zephyr refused to apologize for saying lawmakers would have “blood on their hands” if they voted for SB 99. When she was blocked from debating policy, protesters derailed business in the House chamber by chanting “let her speak” from the gallery. Seven people were eventually arrested and charged with trespassing.
Those and other instances of elevating the fight for trans rights dovetailed with David Gianforte’s personal philosophy about tough conversations: It’s better to talk about conflicts and disagreements than to sweep them under the rug. And so when a Montana reporter called to ask if they wanted to share their story more publicly, David agreed.
“I feel like I have a voice and I can be heard. And I feel, not only in communicating with my father, that’s not necessarily the main point, but also just showing support for the transgender community in Montana,” David told MTFP this week. “I think that could be meaningful, especially at this time.”
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Kicking off spring in Missoula, people from across the region gathered to sing, drum, and dance for the 54th annual Kyiyo Pow Wow at the University of Montana last weekend. The celebration, organized by the Kyiyo Native American Student Association, was an opportunity to honor movement, family and culture, connect generations, and show off dance styles and regalia from different tribes. Missoula-based photographer John Stember documented the event in a photo essay for MTFP this week.
3 Questions For
Monday’s events in the Capitol are by now well-known, having made headlines across the country. Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, once more requested to speak on a bill, and House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, once more passed her over. Dozens of attendees in the House gallery erupted in chants, resulting in seven arrests for misdemeanor criminal trespass and, two days later, Zephyr’s banishment from the House floor. Montana Free Press caught up with one of the arrestees — Missoula resident Kenzie Carter, 25, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community — to hear first-hand about their experience.
MTFP: Kenzie, you were in the gallery Monday when events unfolded. Can you paint that picture for us? What was the atmosphere like up there?
Carter: I just remember Zooey punching in and [Democratic Missoula Rep. SJ] Howell, my representative, asking the speaker why she hadn’t been acknowledged. It was like the air was air, and then you could cut the air like cheesecake. There was a person a ways away from me who just yelled “bullshit,” and we were like, “yeah, that is what that is.” Then everyone around me and myself, one by one, stood up and started chanting, “Let her speak.” That was the most violence I witnessed from any attendee, was just standing. It was so intense, and I was scared, mainly for my friends. But I was also overwhelmed with love for my community and for these people who care enough about ourselves and who care enough about their community to speak up when something just isn’t right.
MTFP: In the days since then, that scene has been framed a lot of different ways, from a peaceful protest to a violent riot. What’s your take on the ways lawmakers and the media have described it?
Carter: When it comes to it being characterized as a violent insurrection, I get this feeling of frustration and exhaustion, but far from surprise. It is fundamentally a mischaracterization. If one believes that what we were doing in the gallery on Monday, which was standing and asking for our representative to be allowed to speak, is a violent insurrection, I’m worried about what that person might believe about democracy. But I saw some characterizations of it that were pretty much exactly what I told you. Just people — trans people, cis people, queer people, straight people, people who believe in the democratic process — showing up to watch and engage with the House session at their state Capitol, in the people’s house, and when we were denied our right to be represented, standing up and making noise about it.
MTFP: This was arguably one of the most gripping moments of the 2023 Legislature. How does it feel for you, as a Montana citizen and a member of the LBGTQ+ community, to have been part of that?
Carter: It feels very far away, like something I’m looking at through a telescope, or it feels like I’m recalling it from long, long ago. It feels like part of my history now. For a second there I had an instinct to say, “Well, no, everyone should be caring about this because this is a matter of preserving democracy.” And to an extent I believe that, 100%. But I can’t deny that the personal is political when you are a queer person, when legislators are intent on legislating your existence or making your body the focal point of their legislation. There’s absolutely an element of, “No, this is more than a theory.” This isn’t political theory. My body and the bodies of my friends are battlegrounds. And we didn’t frickin’ sign up for that.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
News of the News 📰
The University of Montana’s School of Journalism this week announced the launch of ICT’s mountain bureau on the UM campus.
The regional news bureau will contribute to ICT’s national and international coverage of Indigenous affairs. (Happy disclosure: ICT, formerly known as Indian Country Today, and Montana Free Press are partners in an Indigenous Legislative Fellowship currently held by yours truly.)
The Arizona-based Native news nonprofit’s expansion is aimed at creating opportunities for Indigenous reporters and the communities they cover to have their stories told. The mountain bureau was made possible by a $1.3 million grant from the American Journalism Project and will be housed in Don Anderson Hall, which also houses the journalism school, on UM’s campus.
ICT editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, pictured above, spoke at an April 25 reception announcing the bureau’s launch, and recalled a time when just she and a few other reporters worked for the organization.
“Now we’re here expanding, I think of all of the kids back home who we’re showing that they deserve a place in this career and in this industry,” Bennett-Begaye said. “I’m just really excited to partner with the university, thank you so much, and to just be inspiring them and be creating allies too to help tell our stories in all forms.”
—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow
The Gist 📌
The past few weeks have kicked loose several significant nuggets of news regarding the Office of Public Instruction’s pursuit of third-party services. It’s a complex process, known as procurement, that involves finding eligible vendors from the private sector and negotiating contracts for essential items such as technological equipment, software, even food and school buses. Last week, OPI had its authority to independently secure contracts over $10,000 suspended after failing a compliance review of its recent procurement activity.
With the agency’s corrective action report due Friday, OPI’s path forward will become clearer in the coming weeks. But in the meantime, lawmakers say the clock is ticking on a major database project designed to update and improve the digital systems OPI uses to collect a wide range of student achievement and school quality information. The effort is being funded with $13.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief money, $8 million of which expires in September. In order to fast-track that work, the Legislature passed House Bill 367, which gives the Department of Administration direct oversight of OPI’s use of the funding. The bill is now awaiting Gov. Greg Gianforte’s signature or veto.
Why does all this matter outside the Capitol? Montana’s K-12 and higher education systems have initiated a dizzying array of programs over the years to give students more opportunities to pursue an education that works for them. That’s led to increased access to dual enrollment, career and technical education, STEM programming and online learning. The 2023 Legislature is looking to expand many of those opportunities even further, but it all costs money. The way lawmakers and educators alike see it, collecting and sharing the right data across different state agencies can help identify where those investments are paying off — for taxpayers and for students. The right data in the right place also allows the agencies spearheading various initiatives to zero in on the educational pathways that are giving Montana kids their best shot at success. As Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, put it this week, without robust data, state education leaders are “really kind of shooting in the dark.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
“Those of you that are going to be coming back, I want to remind you that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian values, and that’s what made this country great. Legislation with a biblical foundation will serve Montana well. I always think of this phrase: ‘What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.’”
—Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, in a farewell address delivered on the Senate floor Wednesday, April 26. Regier, who has served in the Legislature since 2009, is facing term limits after four sessions in the Senate. His daughter, Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and his son, Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, is Speaker of the House.
A Republican-sponsored bill to study addiction recovery and mental health assistance programs for medical professionals cleared the House chamber this week. House Joint Resolution 38, brought by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, was drafted and introduced days after a Montana Free Press article examined some participants’ frustration and concerns about Montana’s current state-contracted recovery and monitoring program. Appealing to other lawmakers to support the bill on Thursday, Carlson said improving the program will help health care workers pursue recovery and, in doing so, make patients more safe.
“It’s been brought to our attention that there are some providers who are concerned that looking for help is going to cause them to have negative licensing impacts,” Carlson said. “We want them to have a way to seek care [and] get care.”
The bill has not yet been considered in the Senate.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🎣
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently released data on bull trout redds — nests — that doesn’t look very good for the native Montana species.
Biologists have been keeping tabs on bull trout redds in western Montana for decades, and the most recent data set indicates that redd counts are declining at 48% of FWP’s long-term monitoring sites. Just 12% of monitored sites are registering an increase in redds, and numbers are stable for the other 40%.
Biologists from FWP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attribute the decline to warming water, altered stream flows, habitat loss and degradation, and the presence of non-native fish that are eating bull trout or outcompeting them. Other factors that could be contributing to the fall-spawning fish’s declining numbers include hybridization with brook trout and thwarted spawning migration.
In an emailed release, FWP fisheries management bureau chief Eric Roberts said bull trout need “clear, cold water and complex, connected habitat” to thrive. “We’ve done a lot of work to provide for these things in bull trout streams, and we need to look at doing more,” he said.
Bull trout are particularly sensitive to sediment in their spawning streams, which can suffocate embryos, according to the Montana Field Guide.
“The bull trout may be considered the grizzly bear of the fish world in relationship to its need for unaltered habitat,” the guide says.
FWP said it will convene an inter-agency group with USFWS this winter to coordinate recovery efforts and provide input on a statewide conservation strategy.
“People might be seeing more about bull trout in the coming months and years,” Roberts told Montana Free Press.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — News this week about Fox News parting ways with Tucker Carlson had me thinking about Carlson’s run-in with one of his critics at a Livingston fly shop in 2021. Montana Public Radio’s exploration of all that followed remains as compelling now as when it came out a year ago.
Alex — Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester literally broke a wall this week … by shoving fellow Democratic Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey into it. According to The Hill, the two were filming a campaign ad together when their antics got a little rough, and Tester released the blooper reel on Twitter.
Mara — Yellowstone Public Radio reported this week that Helena became the first Montana town to install Narcan vending machines, an effort to make the lifesaving opioid overdose medication more readily accessible. Listen here.
Arren — A legislative effort to increase the signature threshold for third-party and independent candidates to qualify for the ballot failed this week. I keep turning to this Max Savage Levenson interview with Montana Libertarian Party Chair Sid Daoud, who said some Libertarians may just not vote in the upcoming election if their candidate isn’t on the ballot.
Eric — It’s been a long week. Here’s a cute dog video.
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