With three candidates vying to fill the state Senate seat once held by Bryce Bennett, Missoula County commissioners could only pick one and on Tuesday, they nominated Tom Steenberg to hold the post until the next election, when voters will decide it’s permanent holder.
The Democratic Central Committee earlier this month put forward three names for commissioners to consider after Bennett resigned his seat in Senate District 50 to take a job in Washington, D.C.
Commissioners interviewed the nominees last week, including Steenberg, Rep. Andrea Olsen and David Severson. The county received around 10 emails split in favor of Olsen and Steenberg, officials said.
“This wasn’t an HR process where we were hiring someone,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “This was a political appointment, which allowed us the freedom to have some really broad-ranging conversations with three super-smart, interesting people who all had led exemplary lives of public service.”
While Olsen currently serves as a state representative for House District 100 in Missoula, Steenberg also served in the Legislature, where he helped pass Medicaid expansion, the CSKT water compact and dark money reform in 2015.
He also served as chief of the Missoula Fire Department before that.
“We’ve gone through this a few times and it’s always an awkward place to be, because the three of us (county commissioners) are serving as proxy voters for all the voters in Senate District 50,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We’re filling the position in this interim period, and there still will be an election for the next legislative session.”
Bennett earlier this month announced his support for Steenberg as his replacement, saying they were roommates for two Legislative sessions. Despite serving in the minority during that time, Bennett said Steenberg worked “across the aisle to get things done.”
While all three nominees were qualified and would serve well, Strohmaier said, Tuesday’s appointment was made easier by Bennett’s support for Steenberg.
“My standard practice in the past, in the spirit of acting as a proxy for the voters, is to weigh heavily the input of the person in the position previously,” Strohmaier said. “All three of the candidates would do a fine job. All three have articulated an interest in running for this position.”
Steenberg will simply hold Bennett’s seat until the next Legislature convenes, and an election will be held prior to that. He and the other two candidates could face off if they intend to occupy the seat during the 2023 session.
“It’s a bit of a place holder and the voters will ultimately make that decision,” Strohmaier said.