State Democrats gear up for November election at Missoula field office

Lewis Yellow Robe, right, a regional field organizer for the Montana Democratic Party, talks politics during the recent opening of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee office in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Montana Democrats are looking to November with optimism this year, pushing public access and education as primary themes in an effort to regain their majority in the state Senate.

The Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee opened it’s new field office in Missoula last week. There, local candidates and their field organizers mingled over drinks to discuss strategy and issues, and gear up for the final push heading into this year’s General Election.

“Access to our rivers and streams – public access – it’s hugely important,” said Marilyn Ryan, the Democratic candidate for House District 99 in Missoula. “Education is really important as well. I’m concerned about public education, and some on the other side don’t feel that way.”

Ryan, a retired school teacher, easily won her primary election this June. She’ll square off against Susan Cundiff, the Republican candidate for HD 99.

Cundiff couldn’t be reached Monday for comment.

“I’ve never run for public office before,” Ryan said. “I’ve always been involved on the sidelines and helping other people. I just believe in public service, and we all need to step forward when it’s time, and now is my time.”

Jeff Essmann

Jeff Essmann, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, believes the state GOP has the advantage heading into election season. He said his party’s list of candidates is the strongest it has been in more than 30 years.

All but Gregg Gianforte, who’s vying to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, has run a campaign before, Essmann said. The GOP’s statewide delegates are also strong, he believes.

“Montanans understand that we need a proven job creator to pick things up in Helena to get us out of this rut we’re in,” Essmann said recently. “What we’ve been doing has not worked in Washington or Montana. We need a change.”

But Lewis Yellow Robe, a regional field organizer helping several western Montana Democrats in their campaign for the Legislature, said it’s Democrats who hold the advantage heading into November.

The party is looking to regain control of the state Senate, retain the governor’s office, and unseat Rep. Ryan Zinke for the state’s loan seat in the U.S. Congress.

“My primary task for each of my legislative candidates is knocking on doors to help introduce them to voters, but also the priorities they’d like to accomplish in the Montana Legislature,” Yellow Robe said. “I believe not only in the candidates we have running, but I really believe they and a Democratic majority can do the best for the state of Montana.”

While issues vary between urban and rural voters, those who are knocking on doors and speaking with constituents on behalf of state Democrats say public access remains foremost among voters’ concern.

That’s followed closely by education and health care, they said.

“Making sure we keep federal property in federal hands is a big issue,” said John Fleming, the Democratic candidate for HD 93. “Up where I am in Lake County, we have the National Bison Range issue and the Water Compact issue – and access. I’m a 40-year educator, so education is an important thing as well.”

During the last legislative session, Bullock introduced an early childhood education initiative. Republican lawmakers excluded the $37 million initiative from the budget.

Many Democrats hope to revive the effort next year, including Fleming if he’s elected to represent his district.

“I support that in concept,” said Fleming. “We need to spend resources on our preschool kids. The U.S. spends less on preschool kids than any other organized Western nation.”

While all elections count, Yellow Robe believes the November outcome could decide several big issues facing the state, including the future of public access and education.

“Every election is important, and this one is just as critical,” he said. “We want to make sure we get a Democratic majority, so we can put together a legislative package that’s a benefit to all Montanans.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at