It was an active year in politics on the Hi-Line, with the local state and national campaigns blanketing the newspapers, Internet and airwaves, highlighted by a note of sadness with the death of a long-time politician and public servant.
Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller, in the middle of his re-election campaign, died of complications of diabetes Aug. 18.
Friends and dignitaries converged on Harlem for Miller’s funeral, filling the Harlem High School gymnasium to capacity, and ending in a local park with a get-together and jam session in honor of the percussionist.
The death of Miller was the loss of the third public figure in Blaine County in little more than a year, with County Coroner Marvin Edwards dying in a plane crash in June 2011 and Blaine County Undersheriff Pat Pyette dying December 2011 from injuries he sustained when a vehicle struck him while directing traffic on U. S. Highway 2.
Miller’s health had been declining for some time before his death, but he was campaigning — unopposed — to win his third term as a commissioner.
He had a lifetime of public service, starting with his terms in the U. S. Army, including while he was stationed in Germany, and then serving as mayor of Harlem and as a county commissioner.
When reapportionment cost him his commission seat in 2002, Miller took over as executive director of District 4 Human Resources Development Council in Havre, then was re-elected in 2006.
Charlie Kulbeck, a Harlem businessman and city council member, was appointed to finish Miller’s term and to run as the unopposed Democratic candidate for the 2012 election.
A tumultuous election
The election season was highly contested across the region, ranging from the presidential election in which former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the Republican candidate facing President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and several off-party candidates also in the race, to incumbent U. S Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., of Billings challenging U. S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Big Sandy farmer running for his second term, down to statewide races, state legislative races and highly contested races for commissioners in Chouteau and Hill counties.
The results were mixed for Democrats and Republicans in the region, especially in the legislative races.
For probably the first time since the counties were created, the Republicans swept contested elections in Hill and Blaine counties in 2010. Democrats came back hard in 2012, putting a retired nurse and Family Planning director, Karen Sloan, against Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, running for her third term. Retired Montana State University-Northern professor Brenda Skornogoski, a Democrat, took on Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, an attorney running for her second term.
The local race for Senate was contested nearly a year before people could file to run.
After political newcomer Rowlie Hutton, pastor at Havre’s Fifth Avenue Christian Church, completed the 2010 Republican sweep by defeating Speaker of the House Bob Bergren, D-Havre, he announced two months into the 2011 legislative session he was resigning to move to Nebraska, his wife Suzette’s home state.
Bergren could not run again as a representative in 2010 due to term limits, while incumbent Sen. Ken “Kim” Hansen also termed out, creating the opening in the district filled by Hutton.
The Hill and Blaine County Republican central committees selected Harlem insurance agent Don Richman as its top choice to take Hutton’s place, but in a split vote, the Hill and Blaine county commissions appointed the second choice, Havre car dealer Craig Tilleman, to the position.
Once the election season rolled around — as an appointed seat the position in Senate District 17 came up for election for the last two years of Hutton’s term — both Tilleman and Richman filed as Republican candidates. Before the primary, Tilleman withdrew, leaving Richman as the sole GOP candidate.
On the other side, citing requests local residents made due to their perceptions of contention in the 2011 session, Democrat Gerg Jergeson came out of retirement to face Richman in the general election. Jergeson had served 22 years in the state Senate, then, after terming out, was elected to two terms on the Public Service Commission, where he served six years as chair. He said he had planned to retire after terming out from the PSC, but requests from Hi-Line residents brought him into the 2012 race.
In the race to take the place of retiring Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, a Democrat, farmer Mark Peterson won a contested Democratic primary, defeating Hill County Road and Bridge Department office manager Deborah Walker, and advanced to face Havre businesswoman Debi Rhines, the Republican candidate.
Peterson won the commission seat in Hill County to retain the Democratic 2-1 majority on that body — independent Jeff LaVoi, who had been endorsed by the Republicans, won in 2010.
Hansen and Warburton retained their House seats, while Jergeson defeated Richman to return to the state Senate.
State and national results
In the wider races, Blaine and Hill counties bucked the statewide trend for president. Both counties gave the majority to President Obama, while the state’s overall vote went for Mitt Romney.
Bucking the trend also was true in the race for U. S. representative, to fill the seat vacated by Rehberg’s run for the Senate. Blaine and Hill counties gave the nod to state Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, while the statewide vote gave the seat to Bozeman businessman Steve Daines on the Republican side.
Hill and Blaine counties also contradicted the statewide results to fill the attorney general seat vacated by Bullock’s run for governor. Those two traditionally Democrat hotbeds gave the win to Democrat Pam Bucy, who lost the overall race to Republican Tim Fox.
Advertising flies across the state, Hi-Line
The Hi-Line also had its part of the highest level of advertising in Montana history, including controversial third-party advertising that exploded after the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling allowed corporate spending in political campaigns.
The top spending in Montana was in the Senate race, where Tester and Rehberg spent $16 million — with Tester outraising Rehberg by $4 million — and third-party groups spending $30 million, with spending of that money for Rehberg $4 million more than for Tester.
The local races also had high totals. In two counties where, a couple of decades ago, fundraising was counted in the hundreds to a few thousands of dollars, candidates in contested Hill and Blaine county races raised, in the primary through the general election, almost $125,000 — which does not include third-party advertising.
The highest total was raised by Richman, who reported to the state Commissioner of Political Practices receiving $27,460. The candidate who defeated him, Jergeson, was second with $23,670.
Hansen was next, receiving $21,207, while her unsuccessful challenger, Skornogoski received $10,705.60.
Warburton reported receiving $12,610.08, while Sloan raised $6002.11.
In the Hill County Commission race, Walker reported receiving $1,290 for the primary. Peterson reported $1,100 for the primary but added immensely for the general, with his final total $10,110. Rhines reported receiving $9,939 by the end of the race.
That put the total raised for campaigns in contested elections in Blaine and Hill counties to $123,993.79.