When Monica Tranel was fighting NorthWestern Energy as a staff attorney for the Montana Consumer Counsel, she said the monopoly utility “essentially did a data dump on me.”
“I was the only person against NorthWestern’s bevy of lawyers and support staff,” Tranel said. “And I read the documents. It took me forever, but I went through them one by one.”
Tranel, a lawyer, mom and former two-time Olympian, won the case, and she said she’ll bring that same commitment to the U.S. House of Representatives. On the campaign trail, she talks about being an Olympic rower, and in an introductory video on her website, she explains her role as being a middle rower, part of “the engine room.”
“The engine room isn’t for show ponies. No one sees your face. You keep your eyes on the boat and work as hard as you can. But the engine room is where the real horsepower has to come from, and that’s where races are won,” Tranel says in the video.
Tranel is campaigning for the Democratic nomination in Montana’s new western district against health care expert Cora Neumann and former state legislator Tom Winter. The winner of the primary is likely to face Republican Ryan Zinke, an opponent who had a series of ethics complaints lodged against him as former Secretary of the Interior but won a U.S. House race by 16 points in 2016, prior to working under the Trump Administration.
In an interview, Tranel likens the tenacity she brought to that case against NorthWestern with the grit required of an Olympian, “the ability to stick with things when they get uncomfortable and hard and tedious.”
In that case, she said NorthWestern wanted replacement power costs when Colstrip was down, and Tranel argued customers shouldn’t have to pay, saving them $10 million. An order from regulators denied the company from recovering the $8.2 million it tried to collect from customers and directed NorthWestern to pay back additional related costs plus interest.
“What I bring to this is 25 years of delivered experience and results for Montana,” said Tranel, who grew up on a ranch in central Montana and is the sixth of 10 children.
Earlier this month, a district court judge sided with Tranel’s clients, including climate action group 350 Montana, against NorthWestern in finding a Montana law that allowed the company to get pre-approval to build projects was unconstitutional because it gave one utility special privileges. NorthWestern told the Montana Free Press it will appeal.
The energy lawyer has a vision for the future that includes an economy that supports the middle class while addressing climate change. Tranel, for example, notes western Montana can address the housing crisis while decreasing carbon emissions.
“We can have more supply, and as part of that, we can have solar on every rooftop,” she said, noting the idea translates into both good labor and help with the energy transition.
In eastern Montana, she said workers in Colstrip can transition to jobs associated with cleanup, for instance, and she also said buying out power plant debt with municipal bonds would lower the interest rate, and the difference could be used to pay out pensions or retrain workers.
“We’re in a time of profound change and transition, and we can embrace that and find the opportunities,” Tranel said. “It’ll look different, and it will be different. But we will have both a strong labor workforce and sustainable future.”
In 2004 and in 2020, Tranel ran for the Public Service Commission, which regulates monopoly utilities in Montana. When she ran for the PSC in 2004, she did so as a Republican. She also worked in the early 2000s for former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.
Tranel said she was a PSC staff attorney when she ran for commissioner, and the job is nonpartisan: “I grew up in a pretty apolitical family, honestly. So I don’t know that I have anything to add.” In running as a Democrat, Tranel had pointed out that all the members of the PSC at the time were Republicans.
Tranel, who lives in Missoula, points to endorsements from the likes of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former state Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula as evidence of her values. However, she said her law clients are mostly “pretty conservative people,” including a ranch couple who are Trump supporters and, she said, have told her they would vote for her if they lived in her district, although they wish she wasn’t a Democrat.
“I stay with them, I eat their food, I share their home, and we talk, and we mostly share values,” Tranel said.
In fact, when she is knocking doors, Tranel said she often hears about people’s desire to advance common goals and their exhaustion with “othering and the demonization.” She said people also want community, for Montana to feel like Montana again.
“People don’t want to look at each other with stink eyes,” Tranel said. “They don’t. I think people really have a sense of, ‘You’re my neighbor, and you can also be my friend. We don’t have to agree on every issue, but I can still shovel your sidewalk.’”
Tranel supporters point to her extensive fundraising from Montanans as one indication she is the best candidate to represent Montana’s interests in Washington, D.C., and Tranel herself said she’s spent her career following the money (“Why do the baby formula makers reject doing the right thing when they know that the bacteria is really a problem?”).
“People serve the interests of the financial support that they receive,” she said. “That’s how we work. And so Ryan Zinke is being funded by out-of-state interests. Cora Neumann has less Montana money than any other candidate in this race. She’s being funded by out-of-state interests.” (Neumann has countered that 92 percent of her donations are $100 or less, and of all her contributions, the highest number are from Montanans. The Daily Montanan could not independently verify the contribution numbers by press time.)
A super PAC called Montanans for Better Congress recently spent $109,000 to run television ads attacking Neumann, but at a recent candidate event, Tranel said by its definition, the super PAC works independently of her campaign since the law prohibits coordination with her. The super PAC isn’t legally limited on the size of contributions it receives; it has not yet filed a report disclosing contributors.
For voters in the primary, personality and experience will play a more prominent role than policy in the western district, said political analyst Lee Banville. In that regard, he said Tranel is emphasizing her deep roots in Montana, but she can also point to being relatively moderate, a former Republican.
“She can make the case that she has the strongest resume to go up against Zinke or another Republican and also has a sort of unique appeal to potentially moderate or independent voters,” said Banville, a University of Montana School of Journalism professor.
He pointed to her upbringing and her experience as an Olympian as part of her story in the primary as well: “She’s also carving out that she’s a fighter.”