Click above to download a free copy of ON THE FLOOR.
Click above to download a free copy of ON THE FLOOR.
Reilly Neill published "On the Floor: Tales from the Montana State House" in 2014 to share experiences from service in the Montana State House with her constituents. An excerpt follows below. Click at left to download a free copy of the book.
Intro To Gov
Many say they hear a calling to be a politician. For me, it was timing.
I've always had an idealistic hope for small-town journalism regardless of the dim road ahead for print media. I chose newspaper publishing as my primary career path for decades. Work with newspapers provided me with a living in exchange for hard work and dedication to my community.
I still relish the opportunity to serve my fellow residents in the press industry as an editor and publisher of the Montana Press Monthly, but ten years ago, this endeavor was gradually becoming volunteer work with the Livingston Weekly-Current, a weekly newspaper I founded and published for nearly a decade in Park County.
In 2012, the job of State Representative for my district was available. The incumbent was unpopular, a Tea Party member who voted to bring back the gold standard in Montana and start the process of seceding from the Union. The Montana State Legislature offered only scant pay and per diem, but I considered the job would be a jumping-off point from community service to public service.
In January 2012, I put my name on the ballot to run for the Montana State House of Representatives and represent the community I had known and served with a free weekly newspaper and community business.
In Montana anyone can file to run for the office of State Representative as long as they are of legal age and are capable of managing a few campaign finance reports. House District races are small, usually involving about 10,000 people. Campaign donations are limited to no more than $170 a person, so election season is usually anything but extravagant.
Like many small-population states, Montana has a citizen legislature. Every two years people from all aspects of life leave their day jobs and meet in the capitol city of Helena to work for four months on the laws and budget of the state. 100 members of the State House of Representatives represent a total population of roughly one million people.
House members serve for two years but only one 90-day legislative session. The city limits of Livingston, Montana roughly comprise House District 60 (formerly District 62 before redistricting in 2013), a district held fairly evenly by either a Democrat or a Republican, depending on the election year. Livingston is an artsy burg of about 7,000 people who vote mostly down the middle as far as city, state or national politics. The Yellowstone River and the Absaroka Mountains form the backdrop for this iconic old-west railroad town.
Just 45 minutes north of Yellowstone National Park, Livingston and Park County were originally home to the Crow Indians. Not far from town is the site of the first Crow Indian Agency, Fort Parker. The fort burned over a century ago and the American Indians have long since been relocated to a reservation in the eastern part of the state.
The physical legacy of the American Indian in Park County is nearly extinct except for a few historic markers and the existence of the last genetically-pure American bison herd in Yellowstone Park. These days in Park County, wealthy liberals live alongside lifelong conservative ranchers, Yellowstone Park scientists, retired railroad union workers, and world-famous sportsmen.
As a novice politician and independent-leaning Democrat, campaigning among the residents of Livingston was anything but conventional for me. For nearly a year before election day 2012, I worked both on selling the struggling newspaper I had founded and winning an election. As a 38-year-old single mom of a pre-schooler, I knew building a new career in midlife, while balancing the demands of motherhood, would be tough but not impossible. I hoped for the best and plunged ahead.
I campaigned by spending mornings in the coffee houses speaking with moms about their concerns, and afternoons chatting with the happy hour crew at district watering holes, talking about working people's issues. I met now and then with city officials or local organizations for lunch and tried to make myself available to my potential constituency on Saturday mornings at the public library. I also continued to publish the newspaper until I sold the brand to the Park County Community Journal, which is still publishing community news.
My race against the Tea Party candidate and Republican incumbent Dan Skattum was targeted by dark money groups, fully-funded opposition campaign "helpers" who sent out hate mail against my campaign. Donations to these dark money groups is not required to be recorded in any campaign finance reports and many of these organizations have corporate backing.
One of these groups, the American Tradition Partnership, launched an attack on my campaign right as my race was winding down, using union logos on attack pieces against me. As I watched, the Teamsters contacted the local daily press to express outrage at their logos being used without permission. The story was all over the news but not in the newspaper I published. For the duration of the campaign I printed no campaign advertisements or editorial for myself in the newspaper I operated, and only referenced my run for office once, early in the race.
At heart I was and still am a journalist and even more so, an editor and publisher. Behind the scenes I found out who was behind the smear campaign in the days before the election and confronted the president of the ATP organization for breaking the law and coordinating with my opponent and candidates in races across the state.
The individual denied having done anything illegal. I promised to find a news outlet after the election who would cover this story and expose him. He responded to me with an email indicating he knew who I was and where my child went to day care. He assured me that he was not scared of me. This was my first foray into the dark world of politics.
On election night November 6, I went to sleep thinking I'd lost the election. When I woke, the absentee ballots had been counted and I found I'd won the district 2,431 to 2,097 votes.
By January of 2013 my 4-year-old son and I were on our way to Helena, Montana, two hours northwest of Livingston.
Serving in the Capitol
Founded as a gold camp in 1864, many of the original streets of Helena, Montana follow the chaotic paths of the miners, meandering around claims along Last Chance Gulch at the center of the town.
My son and I found a furnished rental a few blocks from downtown and the spectacular St. Helena Cathedral. The Capitol building was a quick walk from my house, less than a mile away. I went to work in the chambers every day—usually Monday through Saturday—and my son attended a day care across the street from Capitol Hill.
Topped with an impressive and imposing copper rotunda, the Montana State Capitol stands on a hill overlooking the rest of Helena. In the central interior chamber of the building, four circular paintings surround the base of the rotunda dome and flank a massive three-floor marble staircase below. Each painting above the central staircase represents an archetype in Montana history: American Indian, explorer and fur trapper, gold miner, and cowboy.
The western arch of the barrel vault over the staircase features the semi-elliptical painting "Driving The Golden Spike" of the Transcontinental Railroad by Amédée Joullin. The eastern arch frames a view to the vast high plains south of the city and Canyon Ferry Lake some 20 miles away.
Statues of Montana political icons Jeannette Rankin (in 1916 the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress), and Mike Mansfield (a U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senator, the longest-serving Senate Majority Leader, and later, the U.S. ambassador to Japan), rest in a backdrop of polished wood banisters and stained glass on descending landings. On the lower levels are press and caucus rooms, a post office and a cafeteria, the "Politically Correct Café."
The primary purpose of the capitol building is to house the Governor's office and the Montana State House and Senate members when the legislature is in session. The House and Senate chambers adjoin one another on the third floor, separated by a carpeted and elaborate lobby and a labyrinth of anterooms.
Marble columns brace the gallery of the House chamber, a spacious room filled with 100 wooden desks and chairs arranged in a semicircle on the floor. Most of the seating is draped with sheepskin robes purchased from Montana shepherds. A square-domed and glass-tiled ceiling provides natural light and good acoustics.
The iconic Charles M. Russell painting, "Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross' Hole" hangs above the elevated Speaker's chair in the front of the chamber. The painting is 25 feet long and 12 feet high and depicts the explorers meeting Montana's Salish Indians. The light on the painted scene is both sunrise and sunset.
When in the chamber, members observe a reverence for the deliberate atmosphere of lawmaking. Regardless of the passions behind any argument, decorum in the 2013 session remained civilized and respectful. And most representatives, Democrats and Republicans, know how they will be voting on any issue well before they walk in the door for the daily discussion and voting session.
Although citizens are constantly bombarding representatives with emails, phone calls and written messages, the bulk of the votes on the floor seem to be guided by either individual perspectives or by lobbying efforts from a variety of special-interest organizations and corporations.
I only witnessed a collective shift in a House floor vote a few times during the session that seemed to occur solely because of what was said on the floor on any particular day. Still, House members did whatever it took to grandstand and show off for votes and attention. Some members of the House told absolute mistruths to encourage colleagues to vote for their perspective and change the code of law in the state. As shocking as this was to me, I came to understand such insincere pontification to be par for the course in Montana politics.
Although Montana voters favored the House in 2013 with a Republican majority and Democratic minority in a 61/39 split, a cabal of roughly 18 Republicans actually ended up running the entire show. If a Republican legislator decided to stand against the group on a targeted issue, or even in the middle, they would subtly be threatened with losing their next election.
Making friends on both sides of the aisle was unavoidable for me with 99 colleagues. Most representatives heard the stories. If someone was not going along with the Republican cabal's party line, the threatened legislator would be encouraged to change his or her perspective or suffer the consequences. During session the targeted lawmaker's legislation would die. Even worse was the threat of what could happen after session. Some dark money organization like the American Tradition Partnership would be sure to target the legislator's next primary race and a Tea Party candidate could easily be selected and funded to run against the incumbent.
A few Republicans were brave and stood up to the Tea Party cabal in the House but even those few soon got back in line. Craziness prevailed, lies upon lies were told and the powerful influence of certain industries and philosophies made themselves known over the months that passed.
On The Floor
After serving in the State House of Representatives during the 2013 session, many in my district told me they were curious about our state government. Many more asked me for a personal perspective on my recent experience. Writing this reflection was eye-opening.
I present in ON THE FLOOR an insight into this process of lawmaking in Montana. The majority of the information shared is verbatim from the House floor and I encourage readers to draw their own conclusions.
There is the monotony of sitting through the testimony from countless committee hearings along with nearly 90 straight days of discussion on the House floor regarding subjects as riveting as "requiring agencies to present proposed rules to interim committees" or "coordinating state time limits with federal law on consumer reports." However, within all this tedium, wholeheartedly compelling issues arose and provided opportunity for rigorous debate.
Compromise in the legislative process was rare, thanks to the overwhelming control of the Republican majority in both the House and Senate. Still, stories emerged on the House floor: stories of the state, its people, and the challenges that society faces in trying to live peacefully together.
As an editor and publisher, I wish I could assign the task of recounting the session to a hungry journalist and then polish and print the account. Instead, I am solely charged with this assignment. As time before the next election cycle was short, just a year where I had the demands of interim legislative work along with further professional work and attention to my family, this summation of the session is certainly anything but a complete account. I wish that time allowed for the transcription of at least another dozen issues debated on the floor and that my schedule allowed for the months of continued research on the issues.
Each discussion has been painstakingly transcribed and omissions or summarizations have been enacted only to preserve clarity. All dialogue presented is verbatim or can be attributed to a reliable source. Conclusions are drawn only on presented material and direct observation. Integrity and reliability are the backbone of my journalistic ethics and in this retelling of the highlights of the session, the search for the truth has been my driving force.
Provided for reference at the close of the book is a brief "Index of Lawmakers" dealing with those who play significant or recurring roles in the drama of the 2013 session. Each individual who served with me initially commanded my respect and the respect of the chamber. Although true political personalities were eventually revealed through attitudes and legislative discussion, my respect for my fellow lawmakers remains intact and sincere. It's not an easy job and I truly believe everyone does their personal best.
Every transcription of House floor business is interspersed with facts obtained by post-session research. By interviewing and relying upon various sources, I attempted to ferret out and insert sourced facts when a deviation arose in discussion on the floor or further explanation was required. Although legislators are allowed to access the Internet during daily sessions, there is rarely enough time to seek documented facts and present them immediately to colleagues. Having the benefit of research and hindsight more clearly displays the facts regardless of the testimony.
Included at the end of the book are actual bill drafts written to change the code in Montana law. These bills are also presented as both text and in document format online at leg.mt.gov. Code language is actually not as complicated or overwhelming as one might think, and consulting the entire bill text available should help clarify points for readers.
ON THE FLOOR is only a brief sample of legislative work during my time on the floor of the Montana State House of Representatives. I was honored to serve my community and will be forever thankful for the good timing that allowed and encouraged me to do so.
Is democracy alive and well in America? I certainly have tried to have faith in the system and will continue to have faith in the intelligence of the American voter. •