By SUSAN GALLAGHER Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Three Republicans and two Democrats are vying to be secretary of state, Montana's top election official who also sits on the state Land Board and serves as keeper of records required of businesses.
Voters in the Republican primary election June 8 will choose from among Todd O'Hair, an aide to Gov. Judy Martz; Brad Johnson, who recently sold a Bozeman business; or Bob Werner, a Helena painting contractor. The Democratic candidates are Bill Kennedy of Billings, a Yellowstone County commissioner, and Jon Ellingson of Missoula, a lawyer and state legislator. Republican Bob Brown, secretary of state since 2001, is running for governor.
All candidates say they want to foster strong voter turnout, manage state lands wisely and streamline interaction between the secretary's office and Montana businesses.
Outcomes of the primary are more likely to hinge on personalities and background of the candidates rather than on issues. There aren't many that distinguish one Republican from another, or one Democrat from the other.
But along party lines, one major issue is the voting requirements passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2003, requirements stiffer than at the federal level.
Montana now demands people show identification to vote. Ellingson and Kennedy say that as secretary of state, they would push for repeal, because the ID requirement and some others imposed by the state make it harder to vote.
Werner said it is important to see how the Montana requirements play out in the general election this fall.
''I don't see it as prudent to say, 'Let's do away with something' when we haven't been through the process,'' said Werner, making his third run for secretary of state.
O'Hair and Johnson say the Legislature created a necessary shield against election fraud.
''We don't have a problem with voter fraud here in Montana,'' Ellingson said. ''They offered a solution for a nonexistent problem.''
O'Hair, 37, said his experiences as the governor's natural resources adviser and as a staffer for former Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., contribute to his qualifications.
''You make the office of secretary of state what you want to make it,'' O'Hair said. ''It can be a paper-shuffling job, or it can be an exciting and dynamic office.''
He said his relative youth would be advantageous in reaching out to young people who opt not to vote.
His experience in his family's ranching business near Livingston heightened his awareness about the kinds of issues before the Land Board, O'Hair said, and through his wife's entrepreneurship he knows what it takes to help small businesses in their dealings with the secretary's office. She is a caterer.
Johnson, 53, who recently sold an auto parts store and works on his campaign full time, has a background in agriculture. Like O'Hair, he has been on a congressional staff, working for former Rep. Ron Marlenee, R-Mont., in 1983-84. Johnson twice ran unsuccessfully against Democrat Pat Williams for the U.S. House, and lost to Mike Taylor in a bid to be the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in 2002.
Johnson said that as secretary of state he would like to help make the Land Board more aggressive about developing natural resources.
''I believe we can do that in an environmentally responsible manner,'' he said.
Johnson said he is ''very proud of my resume in what I call the real world,'' and believes breadth of experience is important in the secretary of state's office.
''I have, as they say, signed both sides of a paycheck,'' Johnson said.
Werner, 57, said the state Land Board has been an effective land steward, and environmental protection must be the No.1 consideration in managing state lands.
He said it may be wise to conduct an inventory to see if there are isolated parcels of state land that could be sold, with the money then going to buy land connected to existing state holdings. Werner said that under no circumstances does he wish to reduce how many acres the state controls.
On the Democratic side, Ellingson said protecting people's right to vote is the main reason for his candidacy.
''The secretary is the chief elections officer and he can and should be at the center of protecting everyone's right to vote,'' Ellingson said. ''I'm particularly disturbed by what happened in the last legislative session ...''
Ellingson, 56, said the Land Board has been meeting its responsibilities well. Land management must include ''a vigorous effort to maintain public access to our state lands,'' he said.
In overseeing the business bureau in the secretary's office, Ellingson said, he would strive to ease public access to information about businesses, as well as making it easier for businesses to deal with the bureau.
Kennedy, 46, said he became a candidate after people he knows through county work asked him to consider the job because they desire an officerholder knowledgeable about local governments. So much of election work is handled at the county level that close-up knowledge of counties' operations is significant in being an effective secretary of state, Kennedy said.
Like Ellingson, he emphasized public access to state lands as a priority in serving on the state Land Board. For the past 10 years Kennedy has helped at his brother-in-law's butcher shop during hunting season, and land access is a recurring concern heard from hunters, he said.
Kennedy said he considers himself a well-rounded elected official who's background touches on many of the functions in the secretary of state's office.
''I have the day-to-day experience, where the rubber meets the road,'' he said.