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The tale of two freshmen in Helena


HELENA — Frustration strains her voice and her eyelids flutter like camera shutters trying to capture a car wreck as Rep. Ellie Hill speaks about a bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions.

"I do not appreciate the government of the state of Montana mandating me to undergo medically unnecessary procedures when I'm making decisions in my own family," she says. With no less fervor, the Missoula Democrat and former Boise prosecutor warns that the Montana Supreme Court will surely strike the measure down.

Rep. Bill Harris sits quietly to her right. Almost 30 years her senior, the Republican who ranches and guides hunters near Mosby leans forward, his arms crossed on the table as he listens. The physical contrast could not be more striking: he with his crown of short, dark hair that is fading to match his thick gray mustache, and she with her platinum-blond hair and blue eyes.

Harris speaks next and supports the bill with as much heartfelt concern as Hill had mustered to oppose it. In that moment, the two seem to embody the ideological divide that marks this session. They sit inches apart, but the chasm between them could swallow an oil tanker.

Their newbie status is one thing they share. Both are five weeks into their first session, but they were sent from opposite ends of the state and from different communities. They aim to accomplish different things.

Hill is in Helena to give a voice to the marginalized and make sure the out-of-sight stay fresh in mind. Harris is there to help his neighbors find work and put more political power in their hands.

Different backgrounds

They differ starkly in experience. Hill, a political activist since her college days, is executive director of Missoula's Poverello Center, one of Montana's largest homeless shelters.

During her work as a prosecutor in Idaho, she was struck by how poverty is passed from parent to child and by the system's fumbling treatment of those who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. The experience changed her life's course.

She made fast friends with Missoula Democrats when she got there and became a foot soldier in local campaigns. Her decision to run for the Legislature made news. She was named in Time Magazine's "40 under 40 Rising Political Stars," and she serves as vice president of the Young Democrats of America. Fellow Democrats at the session call her "The Wonder Kid from Missoula."

But the spotlight can be harsh, too. Since the session began, a stalker watches the hearing and floor session broadcasts and sends her lascivious messages that are now intercepted by security and police officers.

The ordeal has unsettled her, and she says she doesn't quite know how to handle it.

Harris' path to politics was less likely. He attended college for a while but says it only taught him what he didn't want to do. He volunteered for duty in Vietnam and spent a tour riding shotgun in a single-engine bush plane, resupplying units in areas where larger aircraft couldn't land.

"We saw a lot of activity, a lot of things going on," he recalls. "You're in and out of danger in just minutes."

He made it home but not untouched. He has dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder for almost 50 years. "But I've dealt with it pretty well, the Army is helping," he says. "I mean, I'm a pretty healthy old fellow. I don't drink, don't smoke. I don't even run around with the girls who do."

After Vietnam, he knew he wanted to be a rancher so he taught himself the livestock business from the hoof up, working as a brand inspector and at feedlots before buying a ranch of his own. Today, he runs 500 head of cattle and 60 to 70 horses on roughly 22,000 acres in some of Montana's loneliest country.

In the mid-1980s, when he and the mother of his four children fell on hard times, they turned to outfitting to help save the ranch. He was already the guy everyone wanted to hunt with, so it seemed a natural transition. Now, his clients include the TV show "Buckmasters."

A couple of years ago, when hard times hit again, he started thinking about service. He jokes that he is too old, too slow and too heavy to join the Army again, so he ran for the Legislature. "But I just thought that if each of us does something — some small thing — then this country will survive and it'll do fine," he says.

He won his race easily. It helped, he says, that he had lived in several parts of his vast district, so the voters knew him. It also helped that he was unopposed.

Life in Helena

The two legislators' time in Helena has been just as different as how they got there.

Hill shares a house with fellow young Missoula Democrat, Rep. Bryce Bennett, and spends her lunches with constituents and evenings at interest-group socials. She is flooded with e-mails and keeps her constituents current with a constant stream of messages from her iPad or Blackberry.

Harris rents a room at the Howard Johnson, and he says he has attended maybe four evening functions. But he would rather go back to his room, spend a few hours getting ready for the next day and maybe watch a little Fox News before turning in. So far, none of his constituents have paid a visit, and few lobbyists are beating on his door.

While Harris has a son minding the ranch, Hill has an interim director watching over the Poverello Center. But she still works about 12 hours a week to help administrate things from Helena.

Harris says the hardest part of the Legislature is being away from his wife, Vicki, and his ranch. Vicki moved into a small house in Lewistown during the session to shorten her husband's drive to see her on the weekends.

Hill says she thrives on all the work in Helena. Her husband, John, has to travel for his job so the two are used to seeing each other sporadically. But she misses Missoula and tries to get back every other weekend.

Common ground

For all their differences, the two are finding occasional patches of common ground as they watch the bills come and go in the House Judiciary Committee.

Before the committee addressed the ultrasound abortion bill last Friday, it considered another to help officials get help for mentally ill people who pose a threat to themselves or others.

Matt Kuntz, executive director of Montana's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, testified about youths who are released too soon from hospitals after attempting suicide. Hill asked Kuntz to share the story of his own brother, a veteran suffering from PTSD, who killed himself after slipping through the system's cracks.

Hill and Harris are at different ends of PTSD. He knows what it's like to have it. She knows what it's like to help those who do.

As Kuntz spoke, saying that he couldn't bear to think whether the bill might have saved his brother, Hill covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes opened wide. Harris raised his chin slightly and swallowed. His brown eyes softened.

When Kuntz stepped away from the microphone Harris and Hill looked at each for just a second. Then another Republican legislator asked what the bill would cost.

Harris put on his glasses, and Hill rolled her eyes.

(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at (208) 816-0809 or by e-mail at [email protected])


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