A handful of Democrats and Republicans filed Thursday to run for the Helena-area seats up for election in the Montana Legislature this year.
In total, 125 legislative seats are up for election, including every seat in the House and 25 in the Senate. Republicans control the House 59-41 and the Senate 32-18.
Candidates have until March 12 to file. The primary election is June 5, and the general election is Nov. 6.
Open seats in the Helena area are mostly in strong Democratic districts. At least two of them, Senate District 41 and House District 81, will have contested primaries.
Democratic Rep. Janet Ellis of Helena is switching from HD81 to run for SD41. She will be challenged by Democrat Mike Uda of Helena, a new candidate.
In addition to working on conservation issues, Ellis said she wants to make sure the next Legislature does a better job of building the state budget. She served on the appropriations committee for two terms, although both have been dominated by Republicans.
“It’s really, really critical to get it right,” she said.
Uda, a lawyer who works on renewable energy projects, said he’s running because Democrats have failed to address important economic issues. He said he’d work to raise the minimum wage as part of a solution to income inequality. He also said he was disappointed after Republicans said they wouldn’t pursue raising taxes on Montanans during the 2017 special session, which ultimately resulted in cuts to essential services for children, elderly and the disabled.
“Montana is a good place to do business if you’re wealthy and it’s not a good place for workers,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena, who has reached her term limit in the Senate, will run for HD81. Caferro said she wants to continue her work on protecting children, the elderly and the disabled. Caferro also plans to continue work on raising the tobacco tax, which passed the Senate but eventually failed.
“I’ve been so appreciate and honored to serve the people of Montana for this long, and I’d like to continue that work,” she said.
Caferro will be challenged by Democrat Rob Farris-Olsen, an attorney and Helena city commissioner. Farris-Olsen focuses on consumer protection and hopes to bring that expertise to the Legislature. For example, he pointed to the problems faced by those whose driver's licenses are suspended because they owe past-due fines to the state. Farris-Olsen said a lack of transportation can keep people from getting to work. In addition to still being unable to pay their fine, they could lose the job that allows them to buy groceries and pay rent.
“It just creates this cycle of poverty,” he said.
With a large population of state employees in Helena, Farris-Olsen said he wants to make sure the next session ends with a stable budget that won’t end in cuts and layoffs. He also said Helena needs the Legislature’s help to provide more funding for public transportation, for infrastructure projects and to protect public lands.
If Farris-Olsen wins, he said, he would step down as a city commissioner before swearing in to the Legislature.
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Democrat representing Helena and East Helena, filed on Thursday morning to run for a third term in House District 84. Dunwell said the state's budget crisis, which led to a special session in November and massive cuts to state agency budgets, has fired her up to run for a third term.
"It's focused me," she said. "It's the Legislature who is responsible for creating revenues and building the budget to run the state. It's what our job is, our responsibility."
Democratic Sen. Jill Cohenour of East Helena, who served four terms in the House before switching to the Senate in 2015, said she will run for her seat in SD42 again.
Other incumbents who filed Thursday include Democratic Minority Leader Jenny Eck of Helena in HD79, and Democrat Moffie Funk of Helena in HD82. A spokesperson for the Montana Democratic Party said Democratic Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena plans to run for re-election in HD83.
Newcomer Jon Jackson will run as a Republican in HD70, the seat occupied by term-limited Kelly Flynn of Townsend. Republican incumbents Rep. Becky Beard of Elliston and Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield also filed for their seats in HD80 and HD17, respectively. Gregg Trude of Clancy filed as a Republican to run for the seat currently held by Rep. Kirk Wagoner in HD75.