Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Montana’s Constitution has stood for 50 years, but Montanans, especially new transplants and youngsters, need to know its content and history if it’s to endure for 50 more.

That was the conclusion Mae Nan Ellingson reached this summer after helping to organize a symposium in Helena on the Montana Constitution. Ellingson, a Missoula resident, knows a thing or two about the constitution, having been the youngest delegate of the 1972 Constitutional Convention. She’s also a former teacher who laments the decline of civics education in Montana high schools.

“One of the things I learned is there’s a significant amount of interest in learning and knowing more about the constitution. So that’s why it seemed to me to be an appropriate thing to do,” Ellingson said.

The appropriate thing was to form the Friends of the Montana Constitution, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that will educate the public on the protections and benefits included in the constitution and recognize all that the constitution and its delegates have done for Montana.

Ellingson was one of 100 delegates from across the state who came together in 1972 to hammer out a replacement for Montana’s first constitution written in 1889.

It was a less divisive time in Montana, before an era of subdivision expansion, tourism marketing, dark money and social media when the population was only around 700,000. To enable cooperation, delegates chose to sit in alphabetical order by last name so Republicans and Democrats sat side-by-side.

“There was a lot of compromise. Even though people were elected as Democrats or Republicans, it was not conducted on a partisan basis. Neither party caucused on the issues, so no party had any position on any of the articles,” Ellingson said. “Everybody was just trying to do the best they could for what they thought Montana needed. It just seems like that kind of attitude is not prevalent in our society right now. From that standpoint, it’s very different from the Legislature.”

At the convention’s conclusion, all 100 delegates approved the constitution, and then formed a bipartisan Constitutional Convention Society to provide education and insight about the constitution and its formation. They also agreed the Society will dissolve with the death of the last delegate, thinking their job would have been done.

Now that most have passed on, the remaining delegates who got together five years ago for the 45th anniversary looked at their dwindling cadre and wondered whether a new organization was needed to take up the mantle. Only 10 delegates remain.

“The man who was the catalyst, the glue for the Society was Bob Campbell,” said Friends vice chair Evan Barrett. “The passage of Bob left the Society as a bit of a hollow shell. Not only that, but there was a recognition that we needed to have an organization that was open for others to be in. That was the purpose for this. It was formed many months back, but it took time to put the board together so it wasn’t announced until now.”

The Friends filed with the Montana Secretary of State on Aug. 29.
Membership in Friends organization is “open to anyone who supports the foundational document that has guided Montana over the last 50 years,” Ellingson said.

Friends of the Montana Constitution already has a notable list of members.
Honorary chairs include former U.S. Senator Max Baucus and the four former governors that are still living: Republican Marc Racicot and Democrats Ted Schwinden, Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock. The 10 living delegates are automatically members.

Ellingson will serve as chair with Butte resident Evan Barrett as vice chair. Another Missoulian and Montana League of Women Voters president Nancy Leifer is the secretary-treasurer. Five former state legislators sit on the eight-member board, including Bob Brown, Dorothy Bradley, Anders Blewett, Norma Bixby and Joel Krautter. Emily Cross, Susan Byorth Fox and Pete Helland are also on the board.

The formation of the Friends organization has prompted criticism from some Montana Republicans, who have already indicated that they will propose amendments to the constitution during the 2023 Legislature.

Kyle Schmauch, a spokesman for legislative Republicans, told the Helena Independent Record on Monday that the Friends is a just political group because “the leadership is almost exclusively people who have launched politically motivated lawsuits, contributed to liberal political campaigns and regularly write political columns attacking conservatives.” He added that “it’s obviously a group designed to push a left-of-center point of view about the Montana Constitution.”

Ellingson said she was surprised and discouraged at the reaction. The Society never advocated for any provisions of the Constitution, and the Friends won’t either, Ellingson said.

“I guess that would only be true if he thinks that the Constitution is a left-of-center document,” Ellingson said. “Everything seems pretty contentious in Montana right now. We’re going to try to do the best we can and try to educate about what’s good in the Constitution. If people think there are things that need to be amended, that’s fine.”
Barrett pointed out that three board members are Republican as is former Gov. Marc Racicot.

“The Constitution stands in high esteem with the people of Montana, but we want to make sure that we provide details to the coming generations about what’s in that Constitution. There’s a lot to love in that Constitution,” Barrett said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

More From Missoula Current