Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan

HELENA - Sparking a back-and-forth with redistricting commissioners, Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said Tuesday it wasn’t “fair” that Native Americans are “overrepresented” in the Montana Legislature, but he didn’t want to complain about it.

But during testimony in the morning portion of the redistricting public hearing, one commissioner pointed out the Native representation is generally aligned with Montana’s population.

Tuesday’s hearing focused on the Western District, which covers the northwestern region of the state. The Zoom meeting was one of a series Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission is holding across the state to hear how Montanans want to see the state divided into 100 legislative districts and receive feedback on the four proposed maps put forth from each of the commissioners, two Republican and two Democrat.

The legislative districts will be implemented during the 2024 election cycle. The commission completed its work on the congressional district map last fall.

During Tuesday’s hearing, commissioners heard feedback from residents over how to draw districts around Whitefish and Columbia Falls with concern over the rural-urban divide, as well as how to incorporate the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations, as well as challenges relating to districts that span the Continental Divide.

Members of the public also discussed the competitiveness of certain districts. The commission determined a competitive metric earlier this summer.

The maps proposed by the commission have eight and ten competitive districts between Republican and Democratic maps respectively.

Tschida said during Friday’s public hearing in Missoula that Native populations in the state were overrepresented in the legislature.

“I’ve yet to hear somebody from my side of the aisle complain about that,” Tschida said. “Is that fair? I would say no, but you’re not going to hear complaints from me.”

Currently, 12 Native representatives serve in the legislature, four in the Senate and eight in the House, making up 8 percent of legislators in the state.

In the meeting Tuesday, Tschida said that the Native population makes up 6 percent of Montana’s population, where Democrat Commissioner Kendra Miller points to Native people making up over 9 percent.

Miller explained that the difference in the two data points is that 9 percent accounts for both people who say they are exclusively Native, as well as the mixed race population in the state.

“You must be aware that many people in this state are multiracial,” Miller said. “Many people don’t fall into one single category.”

Millers said some of the proposed maps would reduce Native representation in the state and that Tschida’s comments could be influential in that direction.

“If we have an elected official, someone who actually appointed a member of the commission, making misstatements about Native Americans being over represented, whether this is intentional or not, people could get the idea that there needs to be an attempt to reduce Native American representation at the Montana Legislature. And that’s my trouble with the statement,” Miller said.

Native populations in Montana were also undercounted during the 2020 Census, a point that was made by Western Native Voice Board Chair Pat Smith during Friday’s meeting.

“The 2020 census was conducted on Montana’s Indian reservations in the teeth of the deadly pandemic, and census counting efforts abruptly and arbitrarily concluded a month early at the direction of then-President Trump,” Smith said Friday.

On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, said that maps two and three, the two maps proposed by Democrats, would put him out of running in the future. Read said he was the first Republican to win in House District 15, which included Browning, Heart Butte and parts of Arlee.

“When I ran my campaign, I never once went over to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation,” Read said.

Read said he exclusively campaigned in Lake County. He served in the 2011 legislature but lost when he ran again in 2012.

“Then the politics of the game was that it became more competitive because of the Blackfeet Tribe. Blackfeet tribal people got together and realized that there was a Republican running in that race,” he said.

Read said that HDP4, proposed by Republican Commissioner Dan Stusek, would be the only map that gives him “any kind of opportunity.”

He said where he lives now is “a property line away” from being in a competitive district. He said his house currently sits on the line between HD 15 and House District 93, the district he’s represented since 2019.

“There is no inexpensive way to campaign in that house district,” he said of HD15, noting that he would need to advertise across multiple media because radio didn’t reach his target audience.

Read said when he campaigned in Browning, he had to stay at a hotel, and because he was attending community events that weren’t related to the legislature or the campaign, he had to pay for them out of pocket. Read also said the district spans 350 miles across the continental divide, which can be expensive to drive and hazardous in the winter.

“It is difficult to be a good representative for that house district if you are from the west side of the divide,” he said.

Stusek said he’s heard the same concerns from candidates on both sides trying to campaign across the divide.

“Practical continuity is something that we should really look for for people campaigning in these districts,” Stusek said. He asked Read if the way the district is currently drawn was fair to the residents on either side of the district.

“It’s blatantly not fair to the people on this side of the divide,” Read said. “The majority of the population is over on the east side of the divide and the bigger tribal population is over on the east side of the divide.”

“I have run multiple times against tribal council and that in itself is a disadvantage for anybody who lives on this side of the reservation of that house district,” Read said.

He said he’s served on the The State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee for three terms and is familiar with the problems from both reservations, but culturally he said he is “more of a farmer, more of a mechanic.”

“I represent the community over on this side very well. When I was the representative over on the Blackfeet side of the reservation, it was awkward. It literally was awkward for me to represent that area,” he said.

Democrat Commissioner Joe Lamson in response to Read’s testimony said that most of his concerns were “of a personal nature” rather than of the commission’s adopted criteria for legislative maps.

Read said that he’s heard from individual tribal members that they are dissatisfied with the assumption that it was “always going to be a Blackfeet Tribal member, a tribal person or someone from the west side who would always win that election.”

He said towards the end of his comments that he was made aware that two of the maps would actually allow him to run in Lake County.

All four maps along with public hearing schedule are available on the commission’s website.

The next public hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Bozeman at Montana State University Asbjornson Building Inspiration Hall. There will not be remote participation via Zoom at this meeting, but it will be audio recorded, and the recording will be available online after the meeting, according to the commission website.