(UM Legislative News Service) On a Friday during the 66th Montana Legislature, Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, joked on Twitter that she might need to clone herself. It actually might have come in handy.
That morning, Dudik had five bills scheduled for hearings in three different committees between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., covering issues from state child protection services to property tax relief. That’s typical for the the fourth-term representative who has consistently carried a high number bills each session.
This year, Dudik is carrying 26 bills, more than any other lawmaker in the House and the second highest of all lawmakers.
When Dudik is not working at the state Capitol, she’s a private practice attorney, serves on a variety of nonprofit boards and spends time with her four children. Her youngest child was born in the middle of the 2017 legislative session.
He was born on a Thursday; Dudik was back at work on Monday with her baby in tow.
“With the medicine and technology that we have, I think I can handle going to work,” Dudik said about returning to the Capitol three days postpartum.
Plus, she said, she had bills to attend to.
“I come from hardy stock, I think,” Dudik said.
Her grandmother had 15 children, and her grandfather was a coal miner who turned to moonshining when he was injured on the job. Dudik said her mother was an entrepreneur and once ran (unsuccessfully) for Frenchtown’s school board, instilling in her daughter the mindset that she could do anything she wanted.
Before Dudik went to law school, she was a nurse for two years, specializing in neonatal care. She traveled to Kenya on a mission trip, and said it was an eye-opening experience to see what it was like to live without a social welfare system. She said she wanted to do more to effect change, so she went to law school at the University of Montana and then got a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.
Dudik says it’s that desire to do more that’s pushing her to run for Montana’s open attorney general seat in 2020.
Fellow Missoula Democrat Sen. Diane Sands has partnered with Dudik on a number of bills in the Montana Legislature, and both are passionate about criminal justice reform. Sands said Dudik has worked hard to develop relationships across the aisle.
“I’d like a glass of her energy,” Sands said.
Sands said she has “enormous respect” for Dudik and said she has legislative “street smarts.” Dudik has a clear vision of how the criminal justice system should change, Sands said.
Before working as a private practice attorney in Missoula, Dudik was a criminal and child abuse prosecutor in Gallatin County. Then she worked as an assistant attorney general under Gov. Steve Bullock when he held that office. She worked in the child protection unit.
That experience is often reflected in the bills Dudik carries, like House Bill 549, which would revise child sex trafficking laws, or House Bill 188, which would increase the statute of limitations for civil actions taken by victims of child abuse.
One bill Sands said she and Dudik have worked on is Senate Bill 289, which would protect a pregnant woman seeking treatment for substance abuse from prosecution.
In 2017, the Missoulian and a group of University of Montana School of Journalism students reported that Montana did little to help pregnant women suffering from addiction, and that failure only added to the state’s overburdened foster care system and corrections facilities. The investigation also found both of these remedies are much costlier than preventive care, like substance abuse treatment.
Sands said Dudik was able to draw from her past medical expertise to help draft the legislation. SB 289 cleared the Senate and will move forward in the House.
Sands is carrying a few bills originally brought by Dudik because, she said, political candidates often see their bills killed simply because the legislator is campaigning.
Dudik officially announced her run for attorney general in December before the first day of the Legislature. She said she saw no reason to wait.
“It was one of the worst kept secrets in the world that I wanted to do this,” Dudik said.
If elected, Dudik would be the first woman to hold the attorney general’s office in Montana. Ella Knowles Haskell was the first woman to run for attorney general in 1892. She was an expert in mining litigation and the highest paid female attorney of her time. She ran and lost the race before women had the right to vote.
In an email, Dudik said her campaign is on the backburner for the session, and that she’s focused on putting good policy first.
She has six bills that have passed the House and three that have reached the governor’s desk.
Out of the remaining bills carried by Dudik, 12 have been tabled in committee, one failed second reading the House and five are either waiting to be voted on or for committee hearings.
And while Dudik is a Democrat, some of the policy she introduces has bipartisan support. The House recently passed a resolution carried by Dudik that’s co-sponsored by a number of Republicans, including Sen. Duane Ankney, of Colstrip, and Rep. Wendy McKamey, of Great Falls. House Joint Resolution 8 recognizes and honors military veterans in the state.
In 2015, Dudik carried a bill that was backed by current Attorney General Tim Fox to crack down on human trafficking in Montana. That bill was signed into law.
Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, serves on the House Appropriations Committee with Dudik and is also interested in criminal justice legislation. He said he has a great working relationship with Dudik and that she’s focused on truth when talking policy.
“If you go to her, you better have your facts straight,” Holmlund said.
With four young children, Dudik said she’s able to pursue her career goals because she has a great support system, including her husband and extended family living in the Missoula area.
“If I didn’t have a partner who was supportive, it would be miserable,” Dudik said.
Dudik said people have asked why she didn’t wait to run for public office until her kids had left home. She said she has felt disparaged by peers for working while having young children, and that men in similar situations aren’t criticized.
Dudik said having voices of mothers and women in the Legislature is important. She said she asks other women to run for office all the time.
“If we aren’t the ones making laws and rules, then we’re letting someone else do it,” Dudik said.
Dudik is political director for the University of Montana’s NEW Leadership program, which encourages women to get involved in public policy. The weeklong program includes team building activities and networking events.
Brenna Love, 21, a business management and political science student at UM, participated in the program in 2017. Love is now working at the Capitol as a lobbyist for the Associated Students of Montana. She said she looks up to Dudik and feels like she can turn to the lawmaker with questions and concerns.
“She exemplifies that you don’t have to fit into one mold of what a woman should be,” Love said.
Dudik said that it became apparent when she worked as a prosecutor that Montana’s laws were not doing enough to protect children from abuse. That’s when she decided to run for state government in 2012.
Dudik said her voting record speaks for itself.
“Having served in the Legislature, you don’t have to wonder what I’m about,” Dudik said.
Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.