BOTTE – The Montana Democratic Party on Saturday updated its party platform with a broad and enthusiastic consensus, but the political power that Republicans wielded remained omnipresent on the convention.
Democrats are a deep minority in the state legislature, and hold no office at the state level, with the exception of US Senator John Tester at the federal level. The stakes for the party are clear: If they lose just two seats in the legislature, the Republican Party will have an overwhelming majority able to pass ballot measures to change the state constitution. Republicans showed some aversion to the document, from temporary changes to calling it a “socialist piece of cloth” that must be discarded.
Sheila Hogan, the state’s Democratic executive, said in an interview Monday that the changes to the platform were not a direct response to Republicans’ actions over the past 18 months since the 2021 legislative session, but rather issues brought by Montana residents. The platform will direct its members to transition to general elections in the coming months and into the 2023 cycle.
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“They were issues with Montana families, things that Montana families cared about: how to afford housing, childcare, health care,” Hogan said. “You can call these moderates or you can call these progressives but that’s what we hear from people.”
The General Assembly approved the language of word-laying “Housing” in the title of its program “Jobs and the Economy” in response to the housing crisis that hit most parts of the country. The party also added a clause describing child care and mental health services, both of which are scant in many parts of Montana, as “essential” to the economy.
However, delegates to the convention called out Republicans in calling for statute updates. While introducing a provision opposing attempts to weaken building standards, a Gallatin County Democrat said the addition was “largely in response to a recent announcement by our (Republican) governor” to form an Affordable Housing Task Force. Delegates argued that the task force was “stacked” with developer interests.
“We don’t know anything good will come out of this,” Gallatin County delegate Mark Smith said at the conference. “This will be a regulatory relief bill for developers.”
Delegates from Flathead introduced an amendment to oppose censorship in public libraries after conservatives sparked controversy while trying to remove books on gender identity and sexual orientation from the Kalispell Library.
The party also approved an amendment to reinstate the Judicial Nominations Committee, which was an appointed board that screened candidates for judicial appointments and sent a short list of names to the governor. Republicans abolished the committee in the 2021 legislature, claiming that the committee exercised Democratic influence over the judicial branch. Democrats at the time opposed desegregation between the governor and the judiciary.
And in a swift response to Congressional Republicans who voted against a federal bill providing services to veterans who suffered toxic burns late last week, state Democrats said Saturday Adding a language to the platform supports such an action. The delegates invoked U.S. Republican Senator Steve Daines to convey the changes to veterans and the Active Army wave.
Danes missed a vote in June on the bill, but earlier said he supported it but then raised concerns that spending on it was mandatory rather than amended.
This is the second time Democrats have cited Deans during Saturday’s debate. A new provision in the Natural Resources Board seeks to continue using wildlife study areas as “de facto federal wilderness until community-led proposals are adopted by Congress.”
Daines has been a major proponent of removing the designation of a study area of more than 300,000 acres to a multiple-use case, saying that studies that justified protection deemed the areas unsuitable for wildlife.
“Steve Danes is trying to remove that protection,” Smith said. “We need to stop that.”
The near-unanimous support for the platform updates was in stark contrast to the Republican convention two weeks ago, where the split between moderate and hardline Republicans emerged during debates over abortion and elections. During recent legislative sessions, minority Democrats have not broken party lines when voting on bills, and Saturday’s General Assembly was no different.
“We must unite to defeat the radical anti-democratic Montana Republican Party, and we are really working together to make it happen,” Hogan said. “I was happy being alone, but then again, we know what’s at stake. Our constitution is at stake. Our health care freedoms are at stake.”
State Senator Diane Sands, who is out of the legislature and whose seat is a seesaw in the general election, said Saturday that the constitution was off the table for political ambitions.
“You know this is on the Republican agenda,” Sands said. “It’s really important to say here that we are against that.”
The recent decision by the US Supreme Court to end federal protections for abortion access and allow states to regulate abortion themselves was not implemented in Montana because the state Supreme Court upheld the right to access prior abortion here in 1999. The platform saw new language supporting freedom and privacy regarding health care decisions for individuals, although access to reproductive health is already established in the platform.
Democrats made tax credits, affordable housing, child care and mental health services as priorities last month, putting those in focus on their plan to allocate $1 billion of the state’s projected $1.7 billion surplus.
These priorities were written into the platform on Saturday, with language approval to push for property tax policies that don’t force people to leave their homes and continue government services at the same time. These services will continue by requiring wealthy landlords to “pay their fair share,” according to language approved Saturday.
The platform also got a new line to lobby for “adequate funding” for state mental health institutions, referring to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ decision to cancel reimbursement funding for a Montana State Hospital after the institution repeatedly failed to meet health and safety standards. Another addition that strengthens party support for infrastructure funding that supports community mental health care providers is a proposal that has been made By Democrats and Republicans in recent months to ease pressure on the state hospital.
By the conclusion of the convention, there had been no major changes made to the party’s platform, and Hogan said Saturday that the document is the product of years of steady development. In order to take the wheel of such an agenda, they will need to turn the tide on the growing voter support for Republican candidates over the past several election cycles. Democrats were overwhelmed by the 2020 election, but Hogan said that had less to do with the party’s platform as much to be about the limitations of the pandemic’s campaign trail.
“(The election) 2020 was during a pandemic,” Hogan said. “We’re doing really well at doors, talking to voters, listening to their concerns, we’ve already knocked on thousands of doors and that’s what we hear.
“The epidemic was an anomaly,” she added. “It’s been hard to work. (This year) it’s going to be different. I want voters to know we care what they care about. People are priced out of housing, rents are priced, and child care is affordable. Those are important things to Montana families. It’s not electoral fraud without evidence. Or all of those things that don’t really affect Montana residents.”
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