notes of a freshman legislator

I ran for the legislature for many reasons but one of them was to take on the challenges of a new career after my many years of work for the National Wildlife Federation.  While the results of the elections in Montana were devastating for Democrats, and while every Democratic legislator expects an extremely difficult session and many setbacks for progressive and democratic policies, the first couple of weeks of being a Representative-elect have been full of new experiences, most importantly and most enjoyably, the process of building new relationships with my legislative colleagues in the House Democratic caucus. 

On Wednesday, the caucus convened virtually and elected our leadership.  As with any group of thirty-three people, there are all manner of personalities and a great diversity of outlooks and experiences. From this group emerged five legislators who all impressed me with their leadership abilities and their abilities to project a positive vision for Montana and for Democrats.  We elected Kim Abbot from Helena as our minority leaders because of her thoughtful presence, her proven ability to work across the aisle and her legislative experience.  We chose Tyson Runningwolf from Browning, Laurie Bishop from Livingston and Derek Harvey from Butte as our whips.  These legislators represent a spectrum of interests within the Democratic party and their diversity by way of geography, experience and vision will bring power despite our small caucus size.  Finally, my friend Marilyn Marler of Missoula was elected as our caucus chair. Marilyn’s great organizational abilities will be enormously valuable in the pandemonium otherwise known as a legislative session. 

If the first couple of weeks in this new career have been about starting to know my own team, soon it will be time to begin the actual legislative process and start interacting with the other side of the aisle also known as the Republican caucus.  One of the things I’ve always enjoyed most about my work for the National Wildlife Federation has been the opportunity to develop unlike partnerships and to work with business people, loggers, ranchers, farmers and others in finding durable and balanced solutions to natural resource issues.  While I certainly look forward to similar opportunities in the legislature, I’m warned by Democratic colleagues that many Republicans are plenty tough and this has been made clear by how our caucuses convened.  Where the Democrats met remotely and observed every COVID precaution, the Republicans convened, many of them maskless, in the House and Senate Chambers and the Senate Majority leader observed that he thought masks were all about personal choice.  I have no objection to legislators meeting private and deciding to take off their masks, even if I wouldn’t personally make the same choice. But I’m just so puzzled by individuals who frame the masking decision as a personal choice when the real concern is about protecting other people from the spread of COVID.  Just the first difference between the parties.  I expect there will be more.