The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.
I will admit, Montana Free Press’ reporters-in-residence program initially gave me pause.
I’m all for broadening my horizons by spending some time in smaller newsrooms and learning about new parts of the state. But I was sensitive to the fact that wherever I went, I’d be an outsider — not only new to town, but relatively new to Montana, where I’ve covered state politics since 2021.
And I didn’t want to look like the national reporters whom the local press breathlessly criticize, sometimes unfairly, when they show up in Montana cities and towns and file dispatches about how either the rivers run thick with fentanyl or how great it is that the state now has wine bars.
So, when I arrived at the newsroom of the Glendive Ranger-Review and learned that the town of 4,900 not far from the North Dakota border was beset by political chaos, I was faced with a dilemma. The story was right up my alley as MTFP’s designated political drama reporter. But the local paper had tracked every development for almost two years, chronicling the unexpected election of a new mayor, her conflict with the city council, a slate of resignations and firings and various allegations of impropriety. I didn’t want to just repeat their work and call it my own. I’d never even been east of Billings, after all. How could I write a story that entertains and educates MTFP’s audience while also providing some useful information to the thousands of Glendivians who are affected by their town’s political strife?
I realized, as I began talking to people around town, that there had been so many twists and turns in the saga that it was hard for some residents to remember where it all began and how it got to this point. That’s where I came in.
The Ranger-Review staff and I drew connections between all the principal players on a whiteboard and created a timeline of events going all the way back to 1974. I set up interviews with as many people as I could in that week. Almost every time, I started with the same question: Where did this start for you?
Some interviews stretched hours and covered years of time. People supplied me with historical records, screenshots and video recordings. I worked the crowd at bars. I pored over binders of documents at the restaurant across the street from my hotel. I think — I hope — even the dogged staff at the Ranger-Review learned some new stuff through this process. I certainly learned how to be a better reporter.
I was aided by my fresh eyes, the historical knowledge of the Ranger-Review and the impassioned testimony of about a dozen residents and town officials. With that, and with more words than there are people in Glendive, here’s what I came up with: “Trouble in the badlands.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
Back in 2021, Republican-led changes to Montana election laws produced a pitched legal battle, with critics arguing that new voter ID requirements and a ban on same-day registration made it harder to exercise one of America’s most fundamental rights. Now a similar challenge has emerged against an election administration measure passed by this year’s Legislature that puts stricter requirements on voter registration.
On Oct. 3, the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) filed a lawsuit in federal court in Helena alleging that this year’s House Bill 892 violates the U.S. Constitution. The law was framed by proponents as an effort to prevent individuals from voting in two separate locations during a single election — what it refers to as “double voting” — by requiring that they provide previous registration information when registering to vote in a new location in Montana. Failure to comply with HB 892 could result in a $5,000 fine, 18 months in jail or both.
Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, argued while carrying the bill that double voting was a “manipulation of the electoral franchise” that should not be tolerated in Montana. The measure picked up a smattering of Democratic votes in the House.
In their court challenge, MFPE and MontPIRG counter that the new law goes much further than Montana’s previous ban on such activity, which simply stated that “no person may vote more than once at an election.” They also say they believe the new law isn’t clear enough about what information it requires would-be voters to provide and that the criminal penalties for failing to comply will “chill political expression in Montana by making it riskier for individuals to register to vote.” Taken together, the plaintiffs contend, that stacks up to a violation of the right to vote and the right to due process. They’ve asked the U.S. District Court in Helena to declare the law unconstitutional and to bar its enforcement.
Two of the three defendants — Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus — declined to comment on the litigation this week. A spokesperson for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who is the third defendant, said Knudsen will “defend the law.” Knudsen’s office is expected to file a response to the complaint within the next month.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Public Comment 🗣️
Last week, MTFP reported on the Montana State Library Commission’s move to eliminate a professional standard that requires the directors of the state’s eight largest libraries to hold graduate degrees. As we noted then, the proposal will now go out for public comment, and one reader reached out with a pretty straightforward inquiry: I’ve got a comment, and I can’t find out where to send it.
The answer gets into the weeds of how changes to administrative rules — the twisting tome of regulations that govern how Montana agencies operate — are officially adopted. Now that the library commission has voted to strike a particular standard from the books, it has until Oct. 24 to file that change with the purveyor of the Administrative Rules of Montana: the secretary of state’s office. Once filed, the proposed change will be published in what’s known as the administrative register for widespread public consumption.
According to State Librarian Jennie Stapp, the public comment period on this specific change officially begins on Nov. 3, at which point the Montana State Library Commission will post a public comment form on its homepage. The comment period will last for 30 days. After that the commission will have a chance to respond to the public’s input and consider revisiting their approach. In the meantime, members of the public can submit their comments via email to Stapp at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to the state library’s administrative assistant, Genevieve Lighthiser, at email@example.com.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🎣
Newly bound by a settlement between a wolf advocacy group and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the seven-member Fish and Wildlife Commission charged with the “wise management” of the state’s fish and wildlife resources conducted its business with a particular eye toward transparency when it met Thursday.
The settlement, reached last week with Wolves of the Rockies, aims to close the book on a year-long dispute over open-government violations, more specifically allegations that commissioners acted unlawfully in 2022 when they discusseditems on their agenda outside the public process. Six of the body’s seven commissioners were implicated in those closed-door meetings conducted via email — enough to form a quorum and thereby violate right-to-know guarantees enshrined in the Montana Constitution.
When commissioners delivered their customary reports at the top of the Oct. 19 meeting, they were required by the settlement to explicitly disclose which groups they’d met with since the body’s last public meeting, a stipulation intended to provide the public with more transparency about who’s lobbying them. A number of commissioners said they’d had contact with the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, a couple had met with Trout Unlimited staff or members, and one commissioner said he’d met with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and local sporting groups also made the list. Only chair Lesley Robinson said she had nothing to disclose.
Other pieces of the settlement involve the disclosure of text messages and emails sent in the period between public meetings, a commitment to use only government phones and email addresses for commission business, and a requirement that commissioners, who are appointed by the governor to four-year terms, attend trainings on open-meeting and open-record compliance. The 7-page settlement, inked on Oct. 11 and first reported by the Missoula Current, also includes clauses specific to Wolves of the Rockies — for example, a requirement that the commission post comments the group submits online and allow it an hour of public comment during the June 2024 meeting.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Los Angeles-based screenwriter and novelist W.A.W. Parker grew up near Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, whence he drew much of the inspiration for “The Roof,” his new short film now screening as part of the “Launchpad” series on Disney+.
The film follows an unnamed two-spirit teenager (Phoenix Wilson) as they arrive at the home of their grandfather (the iconic Wes Studi) in Lame Deer, as the latter hammers away on repairs to his leaky roof. Though the two initially appear to have a fraught relationship, viewers soon learn the powerful history that binds them.
(“Two-spirit” is a broad term for people who identify with Indigenous cultural traditions that don’t necessarily conform to Western conceptualizations of gender.)
For Parker, both the material and the community from which it sprang are deeply personal:
“This past summer, the local college, Chief Dull Knife Community College, had their second annual two-spirit Pride event. Growing up, I never thought that I would see a two-spirit Pride event on the reservation. I was so happy to attend that. And also this past summer, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council passed a very sweeping resolution in support of two-spirit tribal members, especially the youth.
“It makes me so proud to be a Northern Cheyenne tribal member. I grew up as a kid who’s different, in rural Montana. When I was this character’s age, Matthew Shepard was murdered. Growing up, rightly or wrongly, I had the narrative in my brain that if I wanted to live, I needed to leave. And it’s only in seeing this love and support from the community that I’ve even opened up the idea for myself of what’s possible, of moving back to be even more involved in the community.”
READ MORE in Max Savage Levenson’s “The Sit-Down” this week with W.A.W. Parker.
Montana candidates seeking statewide and federal office in 2024 are coming out of the woodwork as next spring’s registration deadline approaches.
This week, for example, longtime Helena attorney and former Democratic state official John Morrison announced he’s running for chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
Morrison, who served two terms as Montana commissioner of securities and insurance, currently works in private practice in Helena. He’s centering the political conflict surrounding the judicial branch in his campaign.
“I’m running because our courts have been under attack in recent years,” Morrison told Capitolized, MTFP’s politics newsletter, this week. “I want to make sure that they remain open and fair and impartial and independent for all Montanans.”
That’s important, he added, because Montanans’ freedoms come from the state Constitution, “and those freedoms,” whether the right to privacy or the right to bear arms, “are only as good as the courts that are there to enforce and interpret them.”
Former federal magistrate court judge Jeremiah Lynch has also filed to run for chief justice.
In other campaign news:
- Former Montana Secretary of State and Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson, a Republican, is running for U.S. Senate, he said this week. He’ll join Belgrade businessman Tim Sheehy in the GOP primary. Political observers also expect Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale, a hardline Republican, to enter the fray.
- Former Billings state Sen. Ed Walker this week became the latest Republican to announce a potential bid for Montana’s eastern U.S. House district, which is currently occupied by Rosendale. A small army of Republicans have publicly announced that they will run for the seat if Rosendale indeed seeks office in the upper house.
- One of those Republicans is state auditor Troy Downing. Public Service Commission President James Brown, a Republican who ran for state Supreme Court in 2022, told Capitolized this week he will run for Downing’s position if Downing runs for Congress.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — I’m taking vicarious pleasure in these photos of a sea of tumbleweeds that came to rest (momentarily) at a Great Falls-area subdivision this week. Hat tip to the National Weather Service’s Great Falls office for the find.
Alex — In a feature story and series of gripping photos this week, the Guardian reported how rising sea levels have already overtaken much of the Mexican town of El Bosque. The rising tides have driven families from their homes, forced children out of their school, and prompted experts to speculate that the entire village of 400 people could be underwater within a year.
Arren — Montana Highway Patrol troopers accidentally tear-gassed some Boulder Elementary School students during recess, the Helena Independent Record reports. MHP was conducting a tear gas training behind nearby Jefferson High School and forgot to warn the elementary school, an administrator from the school told the paper.
Mara — Montana Free Press has no relation to the Flatwater Free Press, out of Nebraska. But a few reporters here, myself included, have crossed paths with their outstanding data reporter, Yanqi Xu, in recent years. She’s an admirable, astute and accountability-oriented journalist who immigrated to the U.S. from China to study journalism. Last week, she was subjected to xenophobic remarks from Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen who, in a radio interview, said he had not read Yanqi’s recent reporting about pollution surrounding his family’s hog farms, dismissing her as being “from communist China.” Yanqi responded on the social media platform X and her editor, Matt Wynn, wrote a longer editorial about Pillen’s comments, calling them “infuriating.” Both are worth a read.
Eric — Not that you’ve asked but yes you can in fact make wood glue out of gummy bears.
*Some stories may require a subscription. Subscribe!