Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) A group of Montanans came to the state Capitol in Helena on the first day of the 2023 legislative session to show and tell the Republican supermajority they feel their agenda does not represent Montana as a whole.

Some of them were self-identified Democrats and activists, many with the groups Occupy MT Legislature and Moms Demand Action, but others said they were simply citizens who believe some lawmakers are too focused on what they called “extremist” agendas rather than the needs of all Montanans.

“We don’t feel represented by the legislative body that is in place right now,” said Katelyn Spurlock, who drove from Great Falls with several others on Monday.

Many of the activists listed off a host of Republican legislative priorities they have concerns with, including attacks on the LGBTQ community, abortion, the Montana Constitution, public education, safe gun access, substance abuse improvements, clean energy, water and more.

An 11 a.m. news conference of right-leaning groups and parents, held under a banner of the Office of Public Instruction, was the group’s first protest target before lawmakers were sworn in.

Speakers included Moms for Liberty representatives and Kendra Espinoza, who was one of three plaintiffs in a case the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2019 — finding the Montana Supreme Court discriminated against religious schools when it did away with a school-choice tax credit program.

The right-leaning speakers said children were struggling in school and being “groomed;” and they said public schools were moving “farther to the left” and leaving children “so confused.”

The liberal group of activists and demonstrators booed the speakers from the back of the rotunda while about 30 people in the audience, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, applauded.

Melissa Smith, a Democratic organizer from Great Falls who lost to Republican Scot Kerns in November’s House District 23 race, criticized legislation dealing with drag shows.

“We want them to know that you might have gotten the supermajority, but there are a lot of Montanans who are going to be here and are going to push back,” Smith said.

Group members said since the 2023 session is fully in person, they plan to be at the Capitol often to make themselves seen and heard — both regarding what they oppose and what they support. After November’s election, Republicans hold a 68-32 majority in the House and a 34-16 majority in the Senate.

“I believe that they think they can get away with it when we don’t speak up,” said Lela Graham, also from Great Falls. “I think last session, there was not a lot of opposition because of COVID and everything — we weren’t able to show up in these halls. So we will be here. We’re going to be loud and we’re going to keep them accountable.”

As more people opposed to the Republican leadership and supermajority arrived, they gathered in the Old Supreme Court chambers to discuss the news conference and their next plans. The group had hoped to stay in the chambers and await senators for a public reception, but they were moved to the area outside of the Senate chambers to wait instead.

Many held signs tied to their beliefs on gun violence, dark money in politics, public education, LGBTQ rights and climate. Most whom the Daily Montanan spoke with said they were not there for a single issue but rather the breadth of them.

“Hate is all the same. So we’re standing up for each other, and that covers a broad spectrum of things,” said Jasmine Taylor, with the unofficial Occupy MT Legislature group.

Beckie Squires and Shani Henry, both from Helena and co-leads for the Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action, said they came to the Capitol Monday to support public education, gun violence prevention and more.

“We don’t feel like the right-wing minority, the extremists, represent the vast majority of Montanans and their values,” Henry said. “So, we’re here to stand up for that.”

She, like other Democrats, said it was important for Montanans who might not be active or involved in politics, but who share values like theirs, to join in: “We all have to open our eyes, open our ears, and speak up for what we value. Because it’s going to be too late if we don’t.”

Squires said she was concerned about the dozens of proposed constitutional amendments — there were around 50 as of Monday — and what they might do to what she believes is a model constitution.

“They’ve laid it down already, what they’re prepared to do. And they’re going after everything,” she said.

There was no grand confrontation outside of the Senate chambers between the group and lawmakers, but many of them did talk with one another as senators trickled in and out of the chambers.

After the senators were sworn in, the group of activists marched around the Capitol in what they said was simply another way to be seen and heard by lawmakers on Day 1 of 90.

“If they have a couple of people saying, ‘That’s bulls—,’ and booing, then they know that they’re going to have resistance,” Taylor said.  It doesn’t take a lot to make bullies fall down; just a couple of voices can usually do the job.”