Montana’s senators and representatives hail from diverse backgrounds, juggling careers and families as they participate in a citizens’ legislature for minimal compensation
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Mandy Mohler
In an age of plummeting Congressional approval ratings, with the national electorate trending toward cynicism, a term like “career politician” often rolls off the tongue as an epithet. Voters conjure mental images of men and women in Washington D.C. kicking back in expensive suits, enjoying the fruits of six-figure salaries and government benefits.
Whether such perceptions are accurate or fair is in the eye of the observer, but the truth is they don’t apply whatsoever to Montana’s legislators. In the Big Sky state, representatives and senators participate in a citizens’ legislature that convenes every two years to churn out policies and budgets with meager compensation. Between sessions, and sometimes on weekends during sessions, they go back to their day jobs.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Montana is one of six states nationwide with legislatures that qualify as “part-time, low pay, small staff.” On the opposite end of the spectrum are highly populated states such as California and New York categorized as “full-time, well paid, large staff.”
In 2015, Montana senators and representatives received a base salary of $82.64 a day, or $10.33 an hour, plus a daily per diem of $30 for expenses. The base pay will rise to $11.33 hourly for the 2017 session.
The makeup of a citizens’ legislature renders a system that, one could argue, more closely embodies the spirit of direct representation. Members of the state House and Senate truly come from the ranks of those they serve. Campaign taglines declaring candidates as “real Montanans” may grow tiresome, but typically they’re not lying.
Whereas attorneys have traditionally dominated the U.S. Senate and Congress, though incrementally less so as a “professionalized political class” gains increasing prominence, Montana’s legislature has more ranchers and farmers than lawyers. That’s not to say legal backgrounds aren’t valuable in policymaking, but rather there’s a certain usefulness in professional diversity bringing more voices to the conversation.
That said, it takes a degree of employment flexibility or financial mobility to take on the job. Unless candidates are retired or their bosses let them take off four months for the session plus additional time for other duties, or they do well enough through self-employment to go on sabbatical, running for elected office simply isn’t an option for many Montanans.
Building contractors stop bidding on projects during the session, farmers and ranchers rely on family and friends to pick up the slack while they’re away, and others similarly do whatever they can to make do. Legislators from districts closer to Helena can come home on weekends to attend to business, but, in such a huge state, most don’t have that convenience.
The state senators and representatives profiled here acknowledge that their professional circumstances allow them to pursue a cause they believe is noble and vital. The phrase “better keep your day job” is typically uttered as a tongue-in-cheek insult, but, applied here, it’s a mantra of survival for a group of men and women who juggle careers, families and long days in Helena for the sake of upholding democracy in Montana.
Dave Fern, Democrat
House District 5 Representative
Chimney Sweep, Whitefish
When Dave Fern answers his cell phone, don’t be surprised if he tells you he’s on a roof. But if he’s in a chimney, you’ll probably have to leave a message. It takes him awhile to crawl out, not to mention remove his full-body Tyvek suit and respirator mask.
Fern, one of only two Democrats to represent Northwest Montana in the Legislature, came upon his profession by chance. In the early 1980s, when he was living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he worked at a bicycle shop that also moonlighted as a chimney parts and service company. To fulfill his job duties, he needed to learn both sides of the business.
What could have simply been a stopgap skill to keep a young man afloat until he found his calling morphed into a career. Fern has been a chimney sweep ever since, self-employed for the last 17 years as the owner of Chimney Solutions.
“This was an unplanned career; that’s the way it works sometimes,” Fern said. “You’re fortunate in life if you can enjoy your work and have your independence. For a lot of people, that’s the quest.”
Fern is originally from Rhode Island but since 1988 has lived in the Flathead Valley, where his wife has family roots. He worked for Kalispell-based Anderson Masonry Hearth and Home for a decade, helping build up the company’s chimney services, before setting out on his own in 1999.
Fern cleans, installs and repairs chimneys, fireplaces and stoves, while also providing inspection and educational services. Fire and accident prevention is a significant, and vital, portion of his job description. He’d rather tell a homeowner how to avoid an incident than have to come in afterward to fix the aftermath. Insurance companies also send him to houses for inspections.
Unexpected duties have emerged as well.
“People say, ‘While you’re up on the roof, would you mind cleaning my gutters, too?’” he said.
Fern operates within roughly a 100-mile radius, from Eureka down to the Polson area, branching out east and west to the Swan and Marion regions. He puts 30,000 miles on his odometer each year. He’s mostly a one-man show, although he has an occasional employee, an arrangement that will become more consistently needed while he’s at the three-month legislative session in Helena.
In December, Fern will retire from the Whitefish district school board after 24 years. He also served on the Montana High School Association board and as president of the Montana School Boards Association. He already has a few education bill drafts queued up, including one to facilitate increased foreign language immersion in Montana schools.
At age 63, Fern doesn’t have immediate retirement plans, and he says constituents he speaks with appreciate that state legislators come from the working class.
“There seems to be a lot of agreement that the term ‘citizen legislature’ has great meaning,” he said. “We’re not ‘professional politicians.’ People see that we have to leave our work to do the people’s work. I think those are good Montana values that people appreciate.”
Dee Brown, Republican
Senate District 2 Senator
Retired Teacher and RV Park Owner, Hungry Horse
Dee Brown gets emotional talking about Miriam Davis, her second-grade teacher in Columbia Falls and the woman who inspired her to pursue a career in education. The quiver in Brown’s voice, all these years later, provides irrefutable evidence that a good teacher can change a person’s life.
It’s safe to say that Brown too changed a few lives in her 26 years of teaching, split between elementary schools in Columbia Falls and Bad Rock Canyon. Like other educators at rural schools, she was an “everything teacher,” branching out into music, special education, whatever was needed.
As enrollment declined, her Coram school closed and consolidated with Hungry Horse. Amid shifting demographics and financial uncertainty, teachers were forced to adapt on the fly, but Brown was unfazed. Her mission transcended minutia.
“I truly believe the best teachers are called to the profession,” she says.
Today, Brown is retired from both teaching and her second profession of owning and operating an RV park with her husband near Hungry Horse.
In 2014, after 24 years, the Browns sold the campground property to Xanterra Parks & Resorts to be used as an employee campus.
Brown continues plugging away at the Legislature, where she served as a representative in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2009, and then as a senator in 2013 and 2015. After running uncontested for reelection in November, she will return for the 2017 session.
The habits and values of teaching haven’t left Brown, and she enjoys taking young legislators and candidates under her wing. Likewise, as the only adult in the room for so many years and now as an experienced lawmaker, she espouses the wisdom of prudence and level-headedness in approaching legislative matters. She knows that the high-minded idealism of freshman legislators doesn’t always produce practical results.
“We’ve all been there before where we came in with stars in our eyes,” she said. “I thought we could come in and change things quickly, but that’s not how it always works.”
With only 90 days allotted every two years to sort through appropriations and policies, far-fetched bills with no chance of passage can hijack precious hours of discussion. A potential remedy, Brown believes, would be to split the Legislature into two separate sessions as a way to hone focus: 30 days concentrating solely on laws and policies and another 60 days dedicated exclusively to the budget.
“Those of us on the policy side don’t really know the appropriations side,” she says. “We know how to read a fiscal note, but we don’t delve deeper into the budget. It’s like talking about decorating your house but not talking about how much it costs.”
While she emphasizes the importance of efficiently channeling the legislative conversation, she has no concerns about the conversation itself, or the motivations of those participating in it.
“People are all down there for the same reasons,” she says. “Their hearts are in the right place. You should never let go of those stars in your eyes, but you should align them correctly, and then you can get something accomplished.”
Albert Olszewski, Republican
Senate District 6 Senator
Surgeon and Partner at Flathead Orthopedics, Kalispell
Albert Olszewski, then a surgeon with the U.S. Air Force, was performing an operation at a hospital in San Antonio, Texas when he got the call: a federal building had been bombed in Oklahoma City. No other details were given, but Olszewski’s orders were to quit what he was doing and immediately hop on a plane.
Three hours later, he was in Oklahoma City setting up a makeshift medical center to assist local hospitals with caring for the wounded in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack. But he didn’t stay long, because the tragedy hadn’t left much for a surgeon to do.
“People either had scratches or they didn’t make it,” he said. “That was a tough day.”
Olszewski has had plenty of other memorable moments in his medical career. As a flight surgeon with the Air Force, he traveled to overseas destinations such as South America. Later, during a fellowship focused on sports medicine, he was a physician for the San Antonio Spurs and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament, among other major athletic events.
“I’ve had some unbelievable experiences, from jumping out of airplanes to being next to Coach Osborne at one of his last games,” Olszewski recalled recently, referring to legendary University of Nebraska head football coach Tom Osborne. “You always want to let life be an adventure.”
The most recent leg of his lifelong adventure has been the Legislature. In November, he was elected as a state senator after serving in the House last session. He doesn’t have to leap out of airplanes in Helena, nor is anybody’s life at stake on an operating table, but there are still a lot of people counting on him. He says a medical career characterized by demanding, high-pressure situations that require clear thinking and steady focus has prepared him well for the role.
Olszewski grew up in Great Falls and attended C.M Russell High School. Following his decade in the Air Force and Texas-based sports medicine work, he returned to his home state, setting up shop 19 years ago as the first fellowship-trained sports medicine doctor in the Flathead Valley. He provided services for local athletic teams, giving schools an impressive medical resource at a time before the area’s health care boom had brought the stable of highly trained specialists now found here.
As a partner in Flathead Orthopedics, today Olszewski specializes in “very complex knee surgery,” the type of operation that might require a trip to the Mayo Clinic without his availability. The nature of the work, which can be scheduled out in advance, as well as the support of his partners, allows him to pursue his legislative ambitions. Olszewski was also the lieutenant governor candidate on Republican Jim Lynch’s unsuccessful 2012 gubernatorial run.
Olszewski believes his background is useful in health care policy discussions, and he’s grateful that he has the opportunity to make a difference.
“There’s kind of an awe to the history of those hallways,” he said of the state capitol. “You put into perspective that you’re a part of a process that really is awesome.”
Mark Blasdel, Republican
Senate District 4 Senator
Restaurant and Catering Service
Mark Blasdel has held multiple titles at the Montana Legislature: representative, senator, House speaker, Senate Taxation Committee chairman, and now Senate majority whip.
But he’s worn as many different hats at his everyday job as owner and operator of Vista Linda, a Somers restaurant and one of the largest catering services in the Flathead Valley.
“Sometimes I’m bartending, sometimes I’m cooking, sometimes I’m washing dishes,” Blasdel said. “It’s the life of a small business owner.”
Even during the legislative session, when Helena demands much of his time, he returns on weekends to tend to the family business. Blasdel says his stints back home benefit not only the company, but also his legislative duties. Stay too long and the state capitol can become an echo chamber.
“It helps to come back because it brings you back to hearing what people are thinking, hearing their concerns,” Blasdel said. “We can do that in Northwest Montana. If you’re from Broadus, you don’t get to go home.”
Blasdel’s mother, Alice, bought Vista Linda in 1981, when Blasdel was 6 years old.
“I grew up in the restaurant business from then on,” he said.
In 1991, the Blasdels sold the restaurant, located where the Rack Shack now resides, but continued catering. The family ran the lunch program and cafeteria at Flathead Valley Community College for 10 years.
After Blasdel obtained his degree in hospitality administration from UNLV, he returned home and reopened the restaurant in its current location on Boon Road. It remains a truly family-run operation; Alice still works, and Mark’s wife, Renae, is active in both the regular business and running the lunch program at Stillwater Christian School.
Assisting the Blasdels is a staff that fluctuates with the seasons, peaking in the summer at 16 or 17, with others on call for big gatherings or particularly hectic times. Vista Linda might do 120 catering jobs in a summer month, and perhaps as many as eight or nine in a single day.
On top of the scattered events that are always cropping up, Vista Linda caters for a few mainstay occasions, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s annual banquet, which draws up to 600 people.
Meanwhile, the restaurant is open for dinner seven days a week, plus breakfast on Sundays, specializing in Mexican food, whereas the catering side offers a range of fare. It’s not uncommon for Blasdel to work 15 hours a day.
“Summers are intense,” Blasdel said. “It’s three months straight of seven days a week. That’s when you make it.”
Blasdel served in four legislative sessions from 2007-2013 as a representative, and he will be attending his second as a senator in 2017. It can be a grind, but it never loses its intrigue for him, thanks to both the give-and-take of the process itself and the diversity of those guiding it.
“It’s kind of the melting pot of Montana,” Blasdel said of the Legislature. “You have all kinds of career paths, you have tribal entities, you have this whole spectrum of different people with different expertises and backgrounds.”
Steve Lavin, Republican
House District 8 Representative
Highway Patrol Major, Kalispell
Steve Lavin, a major and regional commander with the Montana Highway Patrol, says he has the “greatest job in the world.” But when he discusses his service as an elected state representative, he’s no less exuberant.
“I guess you could say that’s the other greatest job in the world,” he said.
Lavin’s eagerness is believable, not only because of his sincere personality but also because it’s hard to see how someone could manage the competing roles without enthusiasm. If you don’t really want to serve, then you don’t.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Legislature,” he said. “I love the Legislature. It’s very rewarding.”
He adds, jovially: “But it’s a pay cut.”
Lavin, a fifth-generation Montanan, was born in Helena but has deep roots in the Flathead. He earned a sociology degree from Montana State University in Bozeman and landed a job with the U.S. Marshals in Missoula right out of college. He did that for a year before joining the highway patrol.
“I liked the idea of staying local in Montana,” he said. “With the U.S. Marshals, they can move you all around the country. The highway patrol can move you around, but you stay in Montana.”
Lavin worked out of Missoula, Cut Bank, Bigfork and Libby before landing the Kalispell-based gig. Over the 23 years he’s been here, he’s moved up the highway patrol ranks, serving as a sergeant and captain before accepting the major position over a year ago.
As regional commander, Lavin oversees four of the agency’s eight districts. It just so happens that his half of the state is Eastern Montana, meaning he puts a lot of rubber to the asphalt. The district offices under his command are located in Havre, Billings, Bozeman and Glendive.
“I travel about 1,000 miles a week,” he said.
Lavin is grateful that his superiors allow him the freedom to join the Legislature, and says an added bonus is that he gets to train other officers to temporarily fill his position. On Nov. 8, he was elected to his fourth and final term in the state House of Representatives, handily beating Democrat Paige Rappleye in the House District 8 race.
Through three terms, he’s ushered 21 bills into law. Among his proudest achievements are measures diverting lottery money to scholarships for graduating high school seniors, allowing the collection of roadkill for consumption with a permit, and a bipartisan 24/7 sobriety program for repeat drunken-driving offenders in partnership with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, a bill that came on the heels of two separate car accidents in which Lavin’s highway patrol partners — Evan Schneider and Michael Haynes — were killed by drunken drivers.
Lavin wishes everybody could participate in the Legislature, although he knows it’s not feasible for many Montanans. Nevertheless, a great number of residents do get a crack at it, and the range of their expertise and personalities represents “the beauty of the Legislature.”
“I think every person should do the job at least once,” he said. “To have a say in your state’s budget and policy matters is a blessing.”