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Montana Voices: An open letter to GOP chairman Essmann

By Jim Elliott

Open Letter to Republican Party Chairman

Dear Chairman Essmann,

I am writing to you today, not as a former Chair of the Montana Democratic Party to the Chairman of the Montana Republican Party, but as a man you once called a mentor. In your farewell speech to the Montana Senate, you said you had had two mentors, “Jim Elliott, who taught me how to run a committee, and Bob Story, who taught me the power of the majority”. So, speaking as your mentor, I want to tell you how very disappointed I am to see you try to limit voting in our coming special election to fill Congressman Zinke’s seat.

Jim Elliott

In 2004, you were appointed to the Montana Senate to replace former Senator John Bohlinger who had been elected in a bi-partisan slate of Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat for Governor, and Bohlinger, a Republican as Lieutenant Governor. You could have been denied that opportunity if Bohlinger had switched parties and become a Democrat, as many Democrats had hoped he would do, but neither Governor Schweitzer nor Bohlinger would tolerate that idea because it would be unfair. You also, with my explicit consent, took Bohlinger’s place on Senate Taxation Committee which I chaired. It was the fair thing to do.

It was there, I suppose, that you learned how to run a committee, and in fact, you did run that committee when I retired from the Senate in 2009. One of your committee members told me that often you would lean over to ask her, “Am I being as fair as Jim?” That touched me very much, indeed. Because, as you know, the most important role of a chairman in running a legislative committee is to be fair—even when you don’t want to be. To treat every member of that committee as an equal, to give every member of that committee an equal voice in debate, whether or not you agree with them, and most importantly, make sure that every member of that committee is treated with the respect that they deserve. Those same imperatives, of course, must also be extended to the men and women of Montana who testify before that committee.

Now, in the special election that will be held to replace Congressman Ryan Zinke, you are trying to limit the testimony of the members of the most important committee in Montana—the Committee of Montana Voters.

You have written to the Republican members of the Legislature asking them to defeat a bill that would allow mail-in ballots in this special election because, you say, more people vote in mail-in elections, and when more people vote, it favors Democrats.

This was not a partisan issue until you made it one. It is a bill sponsored by a Republican Senator. It was supported by the Clerks and Recorders of Montana’s counties. It will save the county taxpayers—who foot the bill for elections—a great deal of money, and it will make it easier for Montanans to vote. And there is the rub.

By seeking to limit the vote, you are not treating Montanans fairly, you are not treating them as equals, and you are not treating them with respect.

It does not give me a lot of joy to write this open letter to you, but as your “mentor” I ask you to remember that fair treatment from a guy who disagreed with you meant an awful lot to you at one point. I hope it still does, and that you will publicly reconsider your position and err on the side of fairness.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.