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Montana’s youngest legislators: Under 25, diverse, Republican with ‘a libertarian streak’

Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, listens to debate on the floor of the Montana House of Representatives on Jan. 14, 2021. (Austin Amestoy/UM Legislative News Service)

When the secretary of the Montana House Judiciary Committee read down the list of members’ names, recording their votes, every Republican on the committee said “yes” to House Bill 112, a measure seeking to block transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports at school.

That is, every Republican except Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings. In an interview, Stromswold —the youngest member of the 67th Montana Legislature — said she’s got a bit of a libertarian streak.

“As long as you’re not hurting your neighbors, I don’t care what you do,” she said.

Stromswold is one of three lawmakers in the 2021 Montana Legislature under the age of 25. All three —Stromswold, Rep. Braxton Mitchell of Columbia Falls and Rep. Katie Zolnikov of Billings — are Republican. But while they share a party platform, they are also representative of a diverse generation — Gen Z — and that is reflected in their varied approaches to lawmaking.

The three join seven other legislators under the age of 35, a decrease from 2019’s session, which featured 19 legislators younger than 35. But this is only the second time since 1989 that there have been more than two lawmakers under the age of 25. And Montana is only one of two states, joining Alaska, to have any lawmakers in the statehouse who belong to Generation Z, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Colombia Falls, prepares to be sworn in to the House of Representatives Monday. (Austin Amestoy/UM Legislative News Service)

Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, 20

Braxton Mitchell, a 20-year-old, first-time legislator from Columbia Falls, said he sees his election to the Montana Legislature as a vote of confidence in the rising politicians of Gen. Z. 

“The younger generation of Republicans, I will say,” Mitchell added with a grin. “Obviously not Democrats.”

Mitchell, a born-and-raised conservative who helped organize a pro-gun rally as a high-schooler, took office on Jan. 4, 2021, having defeated the Democratic incumbent in his home House District 3 by a margin of 20 points. He has a slew of bills in the drafting process, and one that’s already passed the House — a bill to allow civilians to fire a gun to kill injured game animals. 

His involvement in politics began during the 2017 special election for Montana’s congressional district, which pitted Republican Greg Gianforte against Democrat Rob Quist. Mitchell saw many of his own beliefs reflected in Gianforte, and tried to help with the campaign while going to high school in Columbia Falls. 

Former President Donald Trump also became a critical part of Mitchell’s political identity — one that remains important to him now. On Jan. 20, the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Mitchell posted a photo on Facebook showing him standing in front of the Montana Capitol, holding a “Trump 2020” flag. In the post, he wrote that he feels “dark days are ahead,” and thanked Trump for inspiring him and “keeping your promises.”

“No politician has ever done that,” Mitchell said in the post.

As for his own promises as a legislator, Mitchell’s sticking close to the tradition of other Flathead-area conservatives, many of whom coached him during the campaign and continue to do so in the Capitol. He said his biggest goals are promoting Second Amendment rights, implementing Gov. Greg Gianforte’s “Montana Comeback Plan,” and stopping the expansion of “socialism,” which Mitchell sees as the spread of government control. Public school, he said, is a socialist institution, but he still supports it.

In his first few weeks inside the Capitol, Mitchell hasn’t shied away from the action. His first piece of legislation, House Bill 124 — the “suffering wildlife protection act” — blazed through its committee hearing and a vote before the full House and is on its way to the Senate.

To Mitchell, being a young Republican carries a responsibility to have his voice heard, something he said conservatives are sometimes hesitant to do.

“I just think people in our generation need to speak up,” he said. “If we have the platform and ability to do it, why not do it?”

Early in the session Mitchell was one of the most vocal proponents for the anti-transgender athletes bill that Stromswold later voted against. 

But he says he holds nothing against people who are different from him.

“If someone wants to be transgender, they can be transgender. If someone wants to be gay, they can be gay. If somebody wants — whatever,” Mitchell said. “I’m not against any of that, and I guarantee you no one in our caucus is and no one in this Capitol.”

Many of Mitchell’s policy proposals reflect the Republican Party that former President Trump is leaving in his wake. Mitchell said the “Montana sovereignty protection act” would block out-of-state college students living and attending school in Montana from voting in the state’s elections, while another bill would ban electronic vote counting machines in Montana, requiring all ballots to be hand-counted.

Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, takes notes as witnesses testify on House Bill 121 during a meeting of the Montana House Local Government Committee on Jan. 14, 2021. (Austin Amestoy/UM Legislative News Service)

Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, 23

When Katie Zolnikov began her campaign for Montana’s 45th House District — an upper slice of the Billings Heights — the opening line from her first fundraising letter made a clear statement.

“I’m my own person. I’m not my husband. I’m Katie, not Daniel,” Zolnikov paraphrased.

It’s a distinction she felt was important to make, given she’d be campaigning to follow in the footsteps of her husband, former Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, who held HD 45 for eight years before terming out in January 2020.

The 23-year-old hadn’t been interested in running for office until she came to the Capitol during the 2019 session a few times to see Daniel at work. During debates in the House, she said she found herself asking how she would vote on particular issues.

But the factor that determined her run, she said, was a realization she had right before a House floor session.

“Everyone was just talking and laughing and just being regular people,” Zolnikov recalled, “And I realized that in Montana our legislators are regular people. They have families and jobs — they’re no different from me.”

Far from Braxton Mitchell’s policy of speaking up and speaking often, Zolnikov, so far, has opted for a different approach: staying measured, careful, and precise, both in meetings and interviews.

“I’m more of a listener than a talker,” she said. “I like to sit back and listen; I write things down, ponder it, think on it. I kind of take that approach.”

To her, being a Republican means standing up for traditionally conservative values: Second Amendment rights, anti-abortion policy, and support for businesses. Zolnikov said she wanted to sponsor House Bill 102, which would expand concealed carry in Montana, but it was ultimately taken by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet.

Zolnikov knows the Montana Republican Party isn’t in lockstep on everything — and that’s a good thing, in her eyes.

“I’m pretty conservative, but I don’t condemn people who don’t agree with me on everything,” she said. 

The freshman legislator has a number of bill ideas in the works, including one that she said would make curbside alcohol pickup permanently legal, after the Montana Department of Revenue temporarily did so at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thinking about the best advice she’s received as a legislator, Zolnikov pondered in silence for a moment. 

“Don’t co-sign a bill without reading it,” she said with a smile. “And treat everybody with respect. I don’t think there’s any sense in being mean.”

Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings (center), listens to testimony during a meeting of the Montana House Judiciary Committee Monday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Austin Amestoy/UM Legislative News Service)

Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, 19

Mallerie Stromswold, the youngest member of the 67th Montana Legislature, answers questions with blistering speed, glancing occasionally at her phone lying on the table. She had a phone call scheduled for 2:45 p.m., and didn’t want to miss it.

The 19-year-old said each day since swearing in, when she arrives at her desk, she sorts her paperwork into two piles: messages from her constituents and everything else. Sometimes, she even tallies up messages in support of a bill and those against. She said she believes in being a true delegate for her constituents.

“Sometimes I’m underestimated,” she remarked, then corrected herself. “Often underestimated. But I come back and I have the same amount of vote as them.” 

Stromswold represents House District 50, a chunk of Billings’ West End and downtown. Growing up, she said she was a “typical Montana kid” who loved fishing, camping, and playing in the dirt. 

She also grew up Republican, but always had a focus on fiscal issues. In fifth grade, she said she wrote a paper on the correlation between rising gas prices and the Obama administration.

In the Republican tradition, Stromswold is anti-abortion, but is willing to split from the pack on other social issues, as her vote to block anti-transgender bills demonstrated.

That type of split vote seems to be uncommon in this session’s Republican Party, but to Stromswold, it’s just the way she sees the issues.

“Everything is so situational,” she said. “I don’t think most things are black and white. I think there’s a lot of gray area in most issues.”

For a freshman legislator — not to mention the youngest — Stromswold got a big assignment on the House Judiciary Committee, one of the Legislature’s busiest groups that sees some of the most controversial bills. But she said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I like busy, I like fast, I like big. Sometimes, it runs a little slow, and I’m like, ‘let’s get moving!’ ” she said, snapping her fingers.

Stromswold’s first bill, set to be introduced in the near future, would indefinitely extend a mandate that massage parlors display their license in the window — a bill successfully carried by Daniel Zolnikov in a previous session.

When asked about her assessment of the state of her party, Stromswold gave an answer more nuanced than either of her fellow young legislators.

“I don’t think any political party is ever in a healthy place,” she said. “The Republcian Party has become so multifaceted, I think it will compound into people like me: more young people with newer ideas.”

Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at austin.amestoy@umontana.edu.