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A political 'Odd Couple'

Two lawmakers from Anaconda working across the aisle on long-term solutions for the state

James S. Rosien

Anaconda Leader Editor

This story originally ran in The Anaconda Leader March 10.

The Montana Legislature is on its midsession break this week as lawmakers return to their constituencies following a marathon voting session in which 180 bills passed the Montana House of Representatives in roughly 48 hours before the March 3 adjournment.

But before that marathon kicked off, the Anaconda Leader caught up with a pair of freshman representatives at the 2023 Legislature, both originally from Anaconda - one a Republican, the other a Democrat - and both assigned to a small but important subcommittee that's tasked with long-range planning for the state of Montana, to hear how the two of them have been working across the aisle on solutions for some common problems seen across the state. And maybe, just maybe, how such a cross-party collaboration might serve as a model for future legislators.

So, who is this political "Odd Couple?" 

One is John Fitzpatrick, the Republican from Anaconda who was elected in November to House District 77 over a Democratic incumbent in what has long been a Democratic district. The other is Paul Tuss, a Democrat from Havre who grew up in Opportunity - and had actually been taught Spanish in high school by Fitzpatrick's mom - and was elected to House District 28 last fall over a Republican incumbent in what had historically been a swing district. Yet it was also only one of two legislative districts in the entire United States (the other being in Maine) that flipped from "red" to "blue" in 2022 where former President Donald Trump had also won by 10% or more in 2020.

So, while they had many things in common, and had even worked together on at least one economic development project long before getting elected, it wasn't their shared past or hometown or Spanish lessons or even their shared bucking of their respective districts' trends that brought the two of them together. Rather it was that the two self-identified moderates of their respective political parties both have a shared desire to work on issues identified by their constituents as important and in need of fixing. 

"I think John and I have gravitated toward each other because we are moderates within our caucuses ... and the same issues I'm concerned with are the ones he's concerned with," said Tuss, pointing to infrastructure, education, police and other "building blocks of our communities," as well as the long-term stability of public institutions such as Montana State Hospital and Montana State Prison, as key issues of concern.

"It's nice having someone on the other side of the aisle that we can work with and, frankly, that's what we should all be focusing on," Tuss said. 

"I didn't run on a Republican platform - my approach was to fix things that need doing in the area," said Fitzpatrick.

To that end, they both got on the Long-Range Building Program Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee - a "very small committee" of seven members that's "the least-partisan committee in the Legislature" that focuses on things like water and sewer projects and renovations to state facilities, Tuss said. 

"There's nothing partisan about these things, or at least there shouldn't be," he said.  

Fitzpatrick said that while there are representatives on that committee from both "the far right and the far left" the approach it's taken has been from a bipartisan or nonpartisan manner. 

That isn't to say that either half of this "Odd Couple" never take partisan stands on other issues themselves, of course, but they don't let that bother them.

"We disagree agreeably," Tuss said.

"Both of us have taken votes that are party line, but that's incidental to the work we're doing," Fitzpatrick said, adding that his rule is to "never bother anybody about their vote. They're voting their conscience and they're voting their constituencies."

"What we're focusing on - economic development, community development, education - those are core areas and there's a lot of similarity in where we're coming from," Tuss said. "If there's more I wish we had [at the Legislature] it's bipartisan solutions."

In one attempt at achieving that, Tuss mentioned "a little bill" of his that he put forward in late February that would've required the legislature to be seated alphabetically rather than by party affiliation, much as the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention had done. 

"Don't get me wrong, there are bigger issues than seating charts," he said. "But this is a way to build bipartisanship, and John signed on as a co-sponsor."

For Fitzpatrick, bipartisanship has to start with communication.

"One thing I try to do with every bill is talk with the Democrats about it before we get to committee," Fitzpatrick said, adding that "by taking the time to talk about it" that results in a better response to the bill once it reaches the committee stage. 

"Not a lot of people in the Republican caucus will go out and talk with the Democrats because they don't think they need to," he said, referring to the super-majority the party holds. "Anytime you have over 55 members [out of the 100 in the State House], you have a caucus management problem."

"From a Democratic perspective, we have to work across the aisle - if we don't, we will have zero wins," Tuss said, adding that "if we had their numbers we'd have the same problem, but on the left."

One of the issues Fitzpatrick sees at the Legislature that holds the body back from reaching those bipartisan solutions because of the hardening of opinion amongst lawmakers is caused at least in part by term limits, saying that spending more time in office tends to "file off some of the rough edges."

Another factor he identified is that so many lawmakers serve in "safe" seats, which tilts the field toward the extreme wings of the respective parties who are more able to turn out their voting base. But while that might be good for winning elections, it doesn't keep the state running.

"At the end of the day, state government has to function," Tuss said. "I think the collaboration between John and I represents the philosophy that government has to function. Montana has to have a functioning government and a functioning budget, and we're working together to make that happen."

And that's what both lawmakers said they heard from voters while they were out campaigning.

"On the campaign trail, people said they want us to fix things and work together," Fitzpatrick said.

"What he just said about the campaign trail, I heard in spades: Stop the partisan bickering and work together," Tuss said. "They're tired of politicians yelling at each other."

So rather than yelling, they've taken to sitting down and talking things out, much as they did at this interview over breakfast at the Old Works Golf Course, which served as a reminder of the community where they were raised and the values it instilled. 

"This sounds Pollyanna-ish, but, growing up in Anaconda, we learned the value of hard work," Tuss said. "This community has given me the foundation to be a good legislator.

"I don't use your mom's Spanish lessons as much as I should though," he told Fitzpatrick with a smile.

 

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