I’ve had the honor of serving the past four terms in the legislature. It’s now possible that everything that I worked to pass in the legislature over four terms is now about to be undone: Medicaid expansion, human rights, water rights, reproductive rights, fair elections. This threat is real, but I have hope that the adults in the room may keep the ship of state off the rocks. 

Here’s why. 

During past sessions I’ve had many candid conversations with friends on both sides of the aisle. What I’ve learned is that having a Democrat governor gave Republicans cover to bring forward the really bat-crap crazy legislation we saw. They knew that the governor would veto it. They had cover. Under Governor elect Gianforte that cover may no longer exist. So…will we see crazy bills pass? It will depend on a few things.

We tend to think that state politics are dominated by two parties: Democrats and Republicans, but as I see it, our state is governed by four factions. There are the progressive Democrats, the centrist or “blue dog” Democrats, the moderate Republicans (aka RINO’s), and the former Tea Party Republicans that can now be described as “Trumplicants.”

For 16 years now, moderate Republicans have sometimes joined with the Democrats to pass legislation such as Medicaid expansion, prohibition of dark money, the water compact, and infrastructure bonding. RINO’s voted with Democrats on these issues because they saw the benefits to their constituents. These bills kept rural schools and hospitals open and prevented most water rights from ending up in court. It was the right thing to do but it came at a cost to those “moderate” Republicans.

Over the last four terms, moderate Republicans saw primary challenges from and were routinely shut out of leadership positions by the conservative faction. Basically, if you were to the left of Genghis Khan you were not going to be a speaker or a whip. You were not going to chair a committee. This seems to be changing with the 2021 Republican caucus, so what is going on?

The Democrats have been whittled down to only about a third of the legislature, but they are a far more cohesive voting block than the Republican caucus. 

That’s important because although both Republican and Democrat caucuses elect their own leadership, the Speaker of the House is chosen by the entire House of Representatives and can be removed by a majority vote on ANY day of the session. 

That’s leverage. 

As I see it, this is why the newly elected Speaker of the House Rep. Wylie Galt has risked angering the Trumplicants and placed some moderates in positions of leadership. He states (quite reasonably) that positions were assigned on seniority and experience instead of ideological purity. It’s a smart move, and one that could unite the Republican factions, but now he’s got a tiger by the tail. The Democrats can join with either faction of the Republican party to remove him.

The elephant in the room here is that I don’t know how the governor-elect will handle his new job. As often as he has said he has a plan for Montana’s future, I haven’t seen much in the way of specifics. It’s going to be interesting, but that reminds me of a Chinese curse my Dad taught me that translates as “May you live in interesting times.”

Rep. Tom Woods (D) 

Termed out Jan 4, 2021

Bozeman 

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