Big Sky’s backlash candidate?
In the age of Trump, Denise Albrecht joins a wave of other women running in 2018
If she hasn’t already, Denise Albrecht plans to knock on your front door. She started making the rounds back in February, ringing bells, shaking hands and introducing herself to Big Sky.
Albrecht, a Democrat, is running to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Kerry White in Montana House District 64. Stretching from Four Corners to West Yellowstone, HD 64 is a key link for Big Sky to the Montana Legislature.
On July 6, Albrecht was back in Big Sky, recalling her February door-knocking in the Cottonwood, Tamarack and Silver Bow developments. She and her supporters plan to move on to the homes around Buck’s T-4. By November, Albrecht hopes to have knocked more than 5,000 doors across the district because as a first-time candidate, she’s an unknown underdog.
“I’m a moderate Democrat. You have to be,” said Albrecht, sizing up the political laws of nature in HD 64. It leans Republican and Democrats in Gallatin County were not clamoring for a shot at running against White.
“Nobody wanted to take on this seat in District 64. It’s a tough seat,” said Albrecht. But the retired Montana State University tennis coach—whose campaign slogan is “Taking My Game to the House”—was motivated to run by all the other women nationwide who are entering politics for the first time in 2018.
“The only way to get a majority is if you run in these difficult seats,” said Albrecht. “How else are we going to flip anything and get anything done? So, here I am.”
Nationwide, 527 women have entered races for the U.S. House and Senate, according the Center for Responsive Politics, which notes, “In 1990, less than 10 percent of all federal congressional candidates were female. That number increased to 16 percent in 2016—the highest ever—but now so far in 2018, 23 percent of all federal candidates are women.”
In Montana, Albrecht joins the blue, female wave of political energy, which continues to generate headlines around the state.
Last month, Helena’s Independent Record found Montana Democratic women won all 15 primary races in which the party had a woman running. (These victories unfolded in the shadow of Kathleen Williams’ primary win, which now pits her against U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte.)
“Women also accounted for 64 of the 130 Democrats on the ballot in both contested and uncontested races,” during the June 5 primary, continued the Independent Record’s analysis. “On the Republican side, women prevailed in two of the 21 contested primaries and made up about 13 percent of the party’s total candidates.”
Albrecht ran uncontested in the HD 64 Democratic primary and in Big Sky’s 64B voting precinct, she received 264 votes. Rep. White received 213 Big Sky votes.
Of the 2,059 local registered voters, just 634 cast a ballot by June 5. Most were Democrats, but not by much.
Number of recent Big Sky voters supporting Democrats: 333.
Number of Big Sky Republican voters: 298. (Three local 64B voters went in for the Green Party.)
Now, Albrecht and White have a little more than three months to pitch themselves to Big Sky—including to younger residents who may not be registered to vote. Albrecht hoped to have a registration table at the weekly farmer’s market, but didn’t make her request in time to get a space. Albrecht said she and campaign volunteers plan to set up at the Big Sky Post Office, where new arrivals and other non-registered voters can sign up to participate in the Nov. 6 election.
“Trying to get those young hospitality workers who might not register to vote but we need them to vote,” explained Albrecht. “In order to flip this seat, we need to have a lot of Democrats to get out and vote. And some Republicans will switch.”
That’s why Albrecht continues to travel up and down House District 64. It stretches from the southern edge of Belgrade all the way down to the Yellowstone Park boundary at the bottom of Gallatin County.
Before stopping in Big Sky, Albrecht was in West Yellowstone for the Fourth of July, which was immediately followed by President Donald Trump’s visit to Montana and Albrecht’s home town of Great Falls on July 5.
Trump’s speech in Great Falls provoked this response from Albrecht on Facebook: “The person with the most powerful platform in the world denigrated and dehumanized local journalists, people who live in our communities and send their children to our schools, mocked rival politicians while praising authoritarians in other parts of the world… as Montanans we have the power to actively reject that and focus on not what is divisive and demeaning, but on our common purpose and the desire to always be better.”
Next came Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court and the current storm of media coverage about what this will mean for a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Albrecht believes the Montana Legislature can help protect access to women’s healthcare if future actions by a conservative-majority Supreme Court kick the abortion issue back to the states.
“I think the states will have to decide if they will uphold Roe v. Wade as a state,” said Albrecht. “I think the state is going to be responsible to make their own decisions. So having reasonable, mindful people (in the Legislature), I think is important.”
Here’s a rundown of where Republican Kerry White and Democrat Denise Albrecht stand on key issues, including some that will likely to come up during the 2019 legislative session.
Wilderness and public lands: Albrecht sees protected public public land as an economic driver. White does too, but through an increase in resource extraction.
“The Wilderness Study Areas are a revenue source,” said Albrecht, who favors continued protections for WSAs near Big Sky like the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. “The Gallatin is the ninth most visited forest in the United States. They come for the wilderness and the public lands.”
White keeps a close eye on how state and federal public land is managed in Montana because when he’s not serving in the Legislature, he’s executive director of Citizens for Balanced Use. This advocacy group seeks greater access to public lands for timber and mining companies, as well as for motorized recreation.
For Big Sky specifically, he’d like to see the Forest Service develop more campgrounds in Gallatin Canyon.
“I’ve talked to the Forest Service. They haven’t expanded a campground in forever. It’s like pulling teeth to get federal land managers to work with local governments, local communities on their needs,” said White, who would like to see expanded logging on national forests across Montana, including around Big Sky. By thinning trees near structures, homes and roads in Big Sky, White believes it’s possible to support timber jobs and protect the community from wildfires.
White’s work with CBU puts him on the ground in communities like Superior and Libby, where a decline in the resource extraction economy has erased some local jobs.
“I’m trying to look out for the economics of the small communities. You’ve got a double digit unemployment rate around Libby,” said White, noting how Big Sky has “a different long-range economic plan” built around real estate and tourism.
State gas tax: The Montana Legislature passed a gas tax to fund better roads and bridges. Albrecht supports this.
“But my nice opponent, who voted against the gas tax, now wants the gas tax money,” said Albrecht. “He wants that to go to more snowmobile trails and to maintain them.”
White responded, saying, “Well, you know I was opposed to the tax because it affects the most vulnerable and the lowest income who can barely afford to put gas in their tank.”
Now with gas tax revenue coming in, White said he’s disappointed to see the money going to support pedestrian and bicycle paths. That might work in California or Texas, said White, but not in cold Montana.
“I don’t see a lot of bicycles on the highway in January,” said White.
Suicide: Montana’s suicide rate per capita leads the nation. “It’s real and it’s out there,” said Albrecht, who has lost two loved ones to suicide. Also, before becoming head coach of the MSU Bobcat tennis team, she worked as a therapist for teens in crisis. Albrecht believes the state can do more to prevent suicide, specifically through early intervention at school.
White voted against providing suicide prevention for public schools.
He explained, “When I consider a bill, I look at it to make sure it’s constitutional and make sure the bill doesn’t have any adverse affects. I think we see a lot of waste in government. But if you ask me, ‘Are you against mental illness treatment?’ No, I’m not. But I want to make sure it’s effective. You can’t always throw money at something and hope it works.”
Medicaid expansion: Here White speaks for a number of other legislators who tried to kill Medicaid expansion back in 2015. He acknowledges the expansion brought in lots of federal dollars, “But over time, the responsibility of paying for that falls back on the state.
As for those receiving Medicaid assistance, White said, “I believe that many of them ought to be able to do at least a certain amount of work for those able bodied people who have the ability.”
Instead of characterizing Medicaid as a safety net for working Montanans who require expensive healthcare, White described some Medicaid recipients as just collecting from the state and feeling “worthless.”
Albrecht offered a different take: “Medicaid expansion will be probably something the Legislature will be voting on in January. One out of 10 people are on Medicaid expansion. Most of the money is federal dollars. Next year, they will pay 90 percent, and we’ll pay the extra 10 percent.”
“If you know somebody who’s elderly, sick or mentally ill, you want me to be your advocate. You want me to be your representative,” said Albrecht.
Bison: After meeting with folks at the Black Butte Ranch and others with property adjacent and close to Yellowstone Park, Albrecht said she supports the feeling among many local landowners that the wild migration of bison north of the park is fine, but she and others believe the animals should not be transported into new range outside Big Sky.
“I agree with the landowners up here that if the bison naturally migrate and they’re out of Black Butte, fine. But putting them in a semi, and loading them up and dumping them off, I think number one they’ll end up going back,” said Albrecht, who is tuned into the issue, but perhaps not as closely as White.
He’s been attending the interagency bison meetings and a week ago he spoke with Ryan Zinke’s Dept. of the Interior about Yellowstone bison.
When the topic comes up locally, White is quick to warn others of bison migrating, “All the way to Ophir School.”
“It’s not like hitting a deer or a small animal,” said White, raising worries about bison roaming Highway 191 north of the park boundary. “I have a concern about the bison coming to Ophir School and being around the kids there.”
White believes that like Big Sky locals on a Costco run, the bison will migrate through Gallatin Canyon into the Gallatin Valley in search of food.
By maintaining the bison herd around 3,500 head, said White, you get a sustainable population inside the park and that’s something he supports.
Water: Albrecht attended some of the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum meetings and sees similar concerns about conservation and capacity in other parts of the district like Four Corners and Gallatin Gateway.
She thinks it’s possible that the current, rampant growth could lead to a water crisis. Albrecht said, “There’s going to come a time when somebody’s got to say, ‘No, we just have to pause until we can expand the sewer district, the water district.’”
White, who lives on Blackwood Road and has watched the Four Corners area grow over the last 60 years, said, “With growth comes impacts.”
One impact amounts to a no-new-hookups moratorium in the Gateway-Four Corners area.
“Until they get that new treatment facility, as far as I can tell, it does not have any more capacity. So in effect, you have a moratorium,” explained White, detailing how water and sewer needs are met by the treatment plant originally built to serve the Elk Grove development. Now sewage is pumped all the way from Jackrabbit Lane and Black Bull as the community awaits a new treatment facility in Four Corners.
Guns: Albrecht said she’s met with every school superintendent in the district and they are all concerned about rising fears on campus.
“They worry about safety of their student body and their teachers and their families,” said Albrecht, adding. “For 35-40 years, people have been trying to say, ‘Oh, the Democrats are trying to take our guns away.’ Well, in 35-40 years, we have not taken anyone’s guns away.”
She went on, “Kerry White voted to authorize students—HB384 in 2013—to bring firearms to school. The bill failed. Thank god. But you know, it (a mass shooting) is going to happen at some point in Montana.”
White also worries about mass shootings and believes his HB384 was an idea ahead of its time. After the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting this year, the national debate turned to making schools “hardened targets” by arming teachers.
That’s essentially what White was trying to do in 2013. He said, “If you were a permit holder, and the district wanted to allow that, that they could. It was not a blanket, open invitation for anybody and everybody.”
White continued, “You can go into the federal building in downtown (Bozeman). If you want to go upstairs to see the Forest Service, you’ve got to go through a metal detector. You’ve got armed personnel there to protect the federal government. We don’t do anything like that for our schools and our kids.”
Workforce housing: Albrecht and White agree—more resort tax dollars should go to funding housing options for those working and living—or aspiring to live—in Big Sky. This can be achieved by getting the Legislature to pass a bill allowing an increase in the amount of resort tax dollars collected.
White has sponsored this kind of legislation in the past, but was not at the center of the “Penny For Housing” push in 2017, when the effort died in the Montana Senate.