By Ron VandenBoom
This is my first year covering the political beat for the Havre Daily News and I must admit that it has been an exciting roller-coaster ride of events that has taught me a lot since the election campaigns began last summer.
The job has allowed me to visit with, and to a somewhat lesser extent get to know, many of Montana's major political figures both locally and across the state. It has also allowed me to receive valuable insight into the democratic process from a viewpoint that is close, but not partisan.
Now that the 57th Legislative session has ended I feel I am finally free to reflect on everything that's happened and share with you just a little of what I've learned.
In the Montana House and Senate, Republicans won a majority of seats for the second consecutive biennium. I've been told that even in those districts where Democrats won, it was by a slim margin. My overriding impression is that Montana is currently a strongly Republican state with many of the original strongholds of the Democratic Party, such as unions, declining in numbers and power. I also learned that economic development has been a major issue the past four years and most Montanans believe the Republicans offer a greater chance of encouraging economic development and protecting the interests of agriculture than the Democrats. I'll let you be the judge of why this might be the case.
In the Havre area the Republicans handed a significant victory to Republican Merlin Wolery in the House District 90 race. In doing so they replaced three-term Rep. Antoinette (Toni) Hagener, a Democrat who is not only well liked and respected, but who was thought to be a shoe-in for reelection. I learned that economics outweighs likability when it comes to elections.
When the 57th Legislature started in January, I again worked to keep readers up to date on the issues and how our legislative team was doing in Helena. This included one, all too short of a, trip to Helena.
Now that the legislature has adjourned, I am struck by the great number of hard-working, well-intentioned people I met that are now working for the citizens of Montana. By in large, I found them to be honest and sincere individuals that truly believe they are doing what is best for our state.
Despite the jokes you hear about politicians and their inflated egos, their self serving attitudes, and their tendency to stretch the truth for political gain, I learned the reality to be quite different. Most politicians I now believe are truly honorable. Montana politicians are composed of people that live and work in the communities they serve. They are generally people that care about their communities, their state, and the people they serve.
This session saw 150 honorable men and women grappling with some of the most difficult and important issues ever to confront the state energy, education, and economic development. It led to a diverse set of opinions, particularly regarding the energy issue.
I've learned, not surprisingly, that Montana politicians will not always see eye-to-eye on such issues and I've learned that regardless of how right one side or the other might feel, both sides genuinely believe in what they preach.
I learned that because they are not full time professionals, they sometimes say things that more seasoned professional politicians wouldn't, and this Legislature, perhaps more than others, has seen its share of angry words and accusations.
I've learned how unfortunate painting the opposition with a broad brush can be. To say the other party is anti-this or anti-that is unproductive and generally no more accurate than similar stereotypes used by bigots to describe ethnic, racial, or religious groups.
I've learned accusations about back-room deals or being in the pocket of this, that, or the other interest group, when not provable, questions the credibility of all legislators, but none more so than the accuser. It suggests the opposition has no honor and is little better than self-serving thieves.
I've found that honesty, sincerity, and a dedication to a personal philosophy transcends party lines and I've come to respect the people first, even if I disagree with their views.