As an Olympic rower, Monica Tranel knew it was often only a matter of minutes before she’d either know the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But on Tuesday night, it took hours before she’d know agony again in the race for Region 4 Public Service Commissioner.
Tranel leapt to an early lead of 63% percent of the vote over her opponent, state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, when Missoula County was one of the first counties to report election results. But as the other six counties in PSC Region 4 started to report, her lead started to shrink.
Ravalli County gave 66% of its votes to Fielder, and Granite County gave her 61% of its vote. At 10 p.m., Tranel was still 9,000 votes ahead, but Sanders, Lincoln, Mineral and Powell counties had yet to chime in.
When the last county reported in on Wednesday morning, it was clear that Fielder had won larger majorities in the conservative counties. With half of the region’s precincts fully reported and the rest at least partially reported, Fielder held a 4,000 vote lead.
On her Facebook page, Fielder credited God and her supporters for her “come-from-behind win,” and spoke out against candidates who spend a lot of money on campaigns.
“My race was a true hard fought, grass-roots effort. Financially we were outgunned by an estimated 5 to 1 margin. Plus, the opposition campaign featured outright lies. But happily, the good people of Montana don’t appreciate that kind of campaigning, didn’t fall for the deception, and the money spent on those things was a waste,” Fielder wrote.
Tranel credited the votes she did get in more conservative counties to the bike tour she took around the region this summer. It gave her a chance to talk to Montanans of all political leanings and helped her gain their support.
When asked her plans should she lose the race, Tranel said Tuesday night that she wasn’t going to contemplate that yet.
“Those are the things I’m not really prepared to speak to right now. I’m not comfortable even thinking about that,” Tranel said. “Whether I’m on the commission or not, I’m deeply committed to systemic change on the commission. Because our world is changing and we need people who recognize that and are able to step up and bring people together.”
By “systemic change,” Tranel wanted to return the rules of order and trust in science to the commission. The current commission has been characterized by numerous accusations of commissioners being less than professional, such as spying on each other and stealing papers. Other times they make unscientific claims such as saying wind turbines cause cancer.
Tranel said that kind of behavior erodes Montanans’ trust.
“I think we need to have people in office who are excellent what they do and know what they do and will make decisions based on facts and science and the law. I think it’s necessary at every level of government. And I think it will have a tremendous calming effect on our country,” Tranel said.
The Region 4 PSC race itself gained notoriety on Oct. 11 when the Missoulian endorsed Fielder, saying because she was a Republican, she would be able to unite a Republican PSC that has seen its share of controversy and backstabbing.
Newspaper readers strongly opposed the endorsement. Within a day, the Missoulian retracted its endorsement of Fielders and backed Tranel instead, saying it had not considered Fielder’s connection to militia groups or federal land transfer efforts.
“It’s a terrible day when the media or anyone is endorsing someone when they say they will be able to work with the others on the commission as a single party. That’s irresponsible,” Tranel said.
Not surprisingly, Fielder didn’t appreciate the Missoulian either, but she didn’t like their retraction.
“When the Missoulian endorsed me for PSC on Oct 11 2020, they correctly described me as “a fiercely independent thinker and a no-nonsense leader,” and said, “She is the breath of fresh air the commission so badly needs right now.” They noted my “commitment to acting in the best interests of Montana consumers and a willingness to stand up to powerful interests.” Then THEY got pressure from powerful interests and, with ZERO new information, they suddenly flipped,” Fielder wrote in an Oct. 28 Facebook post.
The two Region 4 PSC candidates both have different public service experience but the election outcome appeared to be more related to party loyalty.
Tranel, a Montana native from the east side of the state, came in as an attorney who has both worked for and presented arguments to the PSC for almost two decades. She knows the kind of issues the PSC regulates and what their mission should be: ensuring ratepayers – the majority of Montanans – have continued access to utility services that are affordable and reliable.
Fielder is terming out of eight years as a state senator where her job was to pass laws and appropriate money for state agencies. On her website, Fielder touted her experience in the Legislature and running the American Lands Council as reasons why she’d be a good commissioner. Some of that is good public service experience, but that’s where any similarity to being a public service commissioner ends.
Fielder said a commissioner’s job is to protect costumers from price-gouging because the utilities the PSC regulates have a monopoly on their respective markets. That’s true. However, Fielders notes that companies should be allowed to “operate responsibly without being regulated to death.” She does not define how much qualifies as “to death.”
Requests for comment from Fielder were not answered.
According to the PSC website, the Public Service Commission is part banker and part court.
It sets the rates utilities can charge customers per month and approves any special charges. But many factors must be considered when those charges are set and the process is complex.
It must allow companies to make some profit but only enough be incentive to serve the customer. That line will fall in different places for different people. Pro-business commissioners might allow more profit while those who side with customers might allow less. That’s why having a mix of commissioners is probably best, Tranel said.
But for the past eight years since Bob Lake defeated Missoula commissioner Gail Gutsche, the GOP have dominated the commission at a time when Northwestern Energy has seen many changes. That’s frustrated people trying to increase net-metering rates and generating limits for solar power projects or those trying to decrease Montana’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“It serves no one when we have single party rule and everyone else is silenced. We need different voices on the commission,” Tranel said.
However, it will remain single party rule on the five-member commission, because Republicans won the other two seats that were up for election this year.
In District 3, James Brown will replace Roger Koopman who termed out, and in District 2, Tony O’Donnell will hold onto his seat. Koopman and District 1 commissioner Randy Pinocci were involved in some of the name-calling and other incidents of questionable behavior.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.