20% of Legislature ‘retired,’ but working-class perspective alive
HELENA (UM Legislative News Service – A typical workday for Derek Harvey as a firefighter in Butte is filled with protecting Montanans in emergencies. Every two years, for 90 days, the workload changes to serving his community and Montanans in a different way.
Harvey has been with the Butte Fire Department since he was a 16-year-old. He started volunteering for the fire department as a teenager, and was eventually signed on to the full-time staff at the age of 20. As a firefighter, he got involved in state politics by volunteering to travel to the Capitol for the occasional union bill representing the Firefighter Association.
He would help the association get legislation passed that would benefit fire service members across the state. Those trips to Helena set the stage for firefighter Derek Harvey to become Rep. Derek Harvey in 2019.
“While doing that I heard some things on the House Floor about bills that I knew were wrong,” Harvey said. “So that seat came open in Butte and I decided to run so I could be on the floor and be able to rebut those statements that I thought were wrong.”
In the Montana Legislature, one of four true “citizen legislatures” in the country, members are not professional politicians, but rather, citizens who are elected by their communities, and convene for 90 days to represent the people of the state. They have their own occupations outside of Legislature, ranging from ranchers to entrepreneurs.
This session, 20% of lawmakers reported “retired” as their occupation, making it the occupation with the highest percentage of lawmakers. “Small business owner” comes in second with 13.3% of lawmakers claiming that as their occupation, followed by “agriculture, ranching and forestry” with 12.6% and then education with 6.6% and “business and finance” at 5%.
Harvey is the only firefighter lawmaker this session, and his occupation has been historically underrepresented at the Capitol, as has law enforcement and certain trades.
His work experience has shaped the way he works as a lawmaker, from the issues he finds common ground with other lawmakers to even the way he leads as the Democratic party’s House Minority Whip.
“I felt like kind of implementing some of what I know from the fire service into this process. I felt that I could help with those communication barriers that had happened,” Harvey said.
He completed his first two stints as the representative from House District 74, and returned in 2023 with more experience. This time the Democratic party was looking for strong leadership to make sure their voices were heard due to the Republican caucus holding an unprecedented supermajority.
He had run for leadership before in 2021 but lost. This year, he was elected as a Minority Whip for the party in the House of Representatives.
“Being able to keep our group together was really important to me,” Harvey said. “When I decided to run for the position, I had talked with lots of different legislators and candidates at the time, and kind of asked what they felt needed to be improved in the leadership role, and one of those things was communication and that was something that I felt I could add value to.”
Harvey started off this session with several bills about alcohol regulation that gained bi-partisant support. House Bill 160, which would revise the laws on alcohol advertising that companies can use passed both the House (88-10) and the Senate (48-1), and awaits the governor's signature. House Bill 164. which would allow beer and wine license holders to also get a catering license, passed the House 82-18 and awaits confirmation from the Senate. House Bill 166, which would put more restrictions on seasonal alcohol retailers, passed both the House (97-2) and the Senate (50-0) and awaits the governor’s signature.
But, Harvey is also still focused on looking out for workers like him in Montana. He is active and vocal when it comes to union legislation, and says he wants to make sure that the state Capitol doesn’t negatively impact any residents in that group.
Harvey is carrying House Bill 702 which is aiming to repeal the termination date of certain workers compensation programs, and was integral in opposing House Bill 448, sponsored by Rep. James Bergstrom, R-Buffalo, which would have created a “right-to-work” system in Montana, in which people couldn’t be required to join unions or pay union dues as a condition of employment.
“That’s the main reason I continue to run is I want to make sure that Number 1: Workers keep their collective bargaining rights in the state, and I want workplaces to continue to be safe, and I want workers to be able to retire with dignity,” Harvey said.
Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, is a boilermaker in his hometown and the only lawmaker with his occupation in the Legislature Although his job is very different from Harvey’s as a firefighter, and he sits on the different side of the aisle, in a different chamber, they both often find common ground when it comes to legislation that helps the working class people of Montana.
“That's all you can ask for, right? Not everyone’s got the same view of everything, but as long as you got people out there who are going to get along with and put in the work and reach an agreement that's everything,” Small said.
Small is carrying Senate Bill 310, which revises the laws on what diseases firefighters contract that qualify them for workers compensation.
Small said he agrees with Harvey on pretty much anything in that space, and the manner in which he conducts himself makes him a pleasure to work with every two years.
“When you have an understanding on why you have to do something, it makes it valuable, and an easy relationship to maintain,” Small said.
Even while Harvey builds a statewide political career, his roots still lie in Butte. He now has kids of his own who he wants to have that same experience he had in his younger days.
“Butte is really a Montana town. You know, people take care of each other. There’s a big sense of community there, and you know that's something that really attracted me back,” Harvey said. “I still feel it’s the best city in the state. Just the history, the culture, and community-wise, it’s a good place to be.”
Shane Worley, Battalion Chief at the Butte Fire Department, has also served the city of Butte for over 20 years in the fire services division. He had the chance to work with Harvey on crews for several years.
“You know what? The kid truly embodies Butte. I mean he is hard nosed, hard worker, he’s tough, he’s knowledgeable. If he doesn’t know the answer he’s not going to lie to you he’s going to find it,” Worley said.
Worley said that Harvey’s passion for his community and especially the fire department along with his kindness get overlooked, but that's what sets him apart when it comes to serving the people of Butte. Worley said Harvey not only embodies Butte, but every working-class Montanan in every industry.
And, the structure of the Montana Legislature means he doesn’t have to choose just one way to serve.
“I get to do my dream job now of firefighting, and serving the community that I was raised in and then serving in the capacity of the legislature, I just get to serve,” Harvey said.