Former Montana Governor Stan Stephens dies at 91 in Kalispell

Stan Stephens during his campaign for governor in 1988. (KPAX image)

HELENA (KPAX)— Former Montana Governor Stan Stephens, a Republican whose 1988 electoral victory ended 20 years of Democratic governors in the state, has died. He was 91.

Stephens, who died Saturday in Kalispell, served a single term as governor, choosing not to run for re-election in 1992 for health reasons. Prior to running for governor, he had served as a state senator from Havre, from 1969-1986.

Stephens was born in Calgary, Alberta, and moved to Montana at 19. He began working for radio station KOJM in Havre in his 20s and eventually became co-owner, and is in the Montana Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He also worked for the U.S. Armed Forces Broadcast Network during the Korean War.

During his broadcast career, Stephens won many state and national awards for news writing and editorials, including the 1975 Edward R. Murrow award for editorials on a scandal at the state workers’ compensation program. He also served as chief executive for several cable TV systems in the state.

“A kind and thoughtful leader, Gov. Stephens was a central figure in our state’s politics for a quarter century, and his legacy and contributions to our state will endure,” Governor Greg Gianforte said in a statement Monday.

In his 1988 run for governor, Stephens started out in a three-way Republican primary against Secretary of State Jim Waltermire and state Rep. Cal Winslow of Billings. Waltermire, however, was killed in a plane crash in Helena two months before the primary election, while campaigning, and Stephens defeated Winslow.

He went on to defeat Democrat Tom Judge in the general election, ending Judge’s attempt to make a comeback after losing the governorship eight years earlier to then-Lt. Gov. Ted Schwinden, a fellow Democrat. Democrats had held the governor’s chair for 20 years before Stephens’ victory.

Three years into his term, Stephens suffered a transient ischemic attack — a minor stroke — and decided not to run for re-election in 1992. Republican Attorney General Marc Racicot then ran for governor, along with Stephens’ lieutenant governor, Denny Rehberg, and won.

Stephens faced a Democratic-led Legislature in 1991, when the state was going through a budget crisis. Democrats decided to balance the budget with a 7 percent increase on multiple taxes — a move opposed by Stephens and fellow Republicans. In the ensuing 1992 election, Republicans picked up 14 seats in the House to win a 53-47 majority. They have never been in the minority in the Montana House since then.

Stephens was preceded in death by his wife, Ann, in 2017, and is survived by two daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A private funeral service will be held.