It’s always been in Bert Pezzarossi’s mind to run for some sort of elected office.
“My adoptive mother always said, ‘I have visions of you seeking higher office,’ and I was always kind of laughing,” said the Miles City Democrat running for House District 38 in southeastern Montana in this year’s election.
Yet for years, the former Boys State alum who took a trip to D.C. when he was in high school that left a strong impression hasn’t aspired beyond the local school board.
“It’s always been kind of a dream, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do more,” Pezzarossi said last week. “And I’m not trying to run a national campaign, but with everything that’s going on in the country today and recently the problems in Custer County, it became the time.”
Pezzarossi is one of 18 Native Americans running for the state Legislature this year. Though the Montana Legislature has never had a racial makeup that matches the state's demographics, the chances of that happening in 2019 could be better than ever before with what looks like a record-high number of Native candidates. The state is about 7.4 percent Native and last session Native lawmakers made up 6 percent of the Legislature, or nine of the 150 lawmakers.
In 2014 there were 14 Native candidates and there were 13 in 2016, according to numbers kept by the Montana Democratic Party on candidates from both parties.
In this year’s election, out of the 18 candidates, three have no opponent in either the primary or general, so those seats will to go to a Native lawmaker. Another seat is also guaranteed, as both candidates are Native.
The hope of a more representative Legislature is in the background of the campaigns of some of the Native lawmakers knocking doors around the state. But they say the issues that affect all Montanans and the ones in their local districts sparked them to get their name on the ballot.
Pezzarossi, who works at the hospital in Miles City, has seven adopted and foster children, ranging in age from 8 to 20. That makes running for the Legislature, both the time commitment to campaign and the four months in Helena away from work if he wins, a daunting prospect. He's decided it's worth it.
“I’m not wealthy independent or anything,” he said. “But I felt it was time for me to step up and do something. I have a lot of background about what’s important to this community. As always, with local issues anywhere in Montana, here it’s about education, it’s health care, it’s the economy and what we can do to bolster the economy and make sure we have enough money for our schools.”
In Miles City, he’s seen first-hand what would be at risk if local hospitals in smaller towns farther from urban hubs were to shut down. Miles City's hospital serves many of the smaller and more rural communities whose residents would otherwise have to travel to Montana’s largest city, Billings.
Though Miles City is only 1.4 percent Native, some from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, about 100 miles away, use the town as their hub for shopping, medical and social needs.
“The closer you are to health care, the more healthy you’re going to be,” Pezzarossi said. “It’s not just health insurance but access to providers. Take Miles City. If you live 60 miles out of town, and you have a stroke and would have to end up going to Billings, that makes a difference if you have to go 120 more miles for care.”
Marvin Weatherwax Jr.
Marvin Weatherwax Jr., is running for House District 15, which encompasses two reservations. The district includes the communities of Browning and the more rural Heart Butte on the Blackfeet Reservation, runs west to Glacier National Park and south to the Flathead Reservation and the towns of Pablo, Ronan and Arlee.
Running for the Legislature is something that’s “been on my mind,” he said, adding he’s been talking about the idea for about three years.
“It’s just been something I thought about but I didn’t feel like it was something I was qualified for,” he said. “But after doing some reading and, actually, Denise Juneau, who is an old classmate of mine here in Browning, I saw her and thought, ‘Boy, I could do that.’”
Juneau is the former state superintendent of public instruction and candidate two years ago for Montana’s seat in the U.S. House.
Weatherwax works doing support for veterans as administrator for the Blackfeet Veterans Alliance. In that position, he’s seen what a lack of resources can mean for people who live in the more remote parts of the state, whether they’re Native or not.
“In our area, we’re kind of stuck in a corner. We have the Canadian border at our north and we have the mountains to our west and it means we don’t get the services like everyone else does,” Weatherwax said. “Let’s try to change that. We’re part of Montana, let’s try to join them. I just want to do my best and try to help my community.”
Last year, Weatherwax was able to help non-Native veterans from Choteau and Glendive get services, and the need he’s seen both on and off the reservation has only cemented what he already felt — that though Natives might have a higher level of need for some services, far more links Montanans than divides them.
There are about 5,000 Native veterans in Montana and somewhere between 700-1,000 veterans in Glacier County, where Browning is, Weatherwax said.
“My focus is Native issues, that’s a big part of it, but I would also like to bridge a gap because we’re all Montanans. Being here you can see all of the separations and I’d like to erase all those separations,” he said.
A lack of access to services became painfully acute during severe winter snows this year that cut off the reservation communities of Heart Butte and Browning, leaving residents without enough food or medications while roads were closed.
“They’re underserved, and that made it more obvious,” Weatherwax said.
If elected, he’d like to bring more awareness to situations like that on the Blackfeet Reservation, as well as a lack of access to high-speed internet and cellphone service.
“In our community it’s pretty hard to get any kind of signal. We watch TV and see all these neat commercials about getting internet anywhere, but out here it doesn’t happen,” Weatherwax said.
Along with Juneau, Weatherwax also cites other Native lawmakers like former state legislators Lea Whitford and George Kipp, as well as Susan Webber, also of Browning, who is running in Senate District 8, and Jonathan Windy Boy, who is seeking re-election in House District 32 in Box Elder, as giving him the extra push to run.
“Those are people I look toward for inspiration to do this,” Weatherwax said. “I needed to do something more. I could run for tribal council, but I’m not sure if I would be as effective as far as issues. These are a little bit bigger than that, some of the issues that are going on. I’m going into this pretty green, but I’m 100 percent willing to do what I need to do.”
Juneau was also a role model for Barbara Bessette, who is running in House District 24 in Great Falls.
“I looked up to Denise Juneau, who ran a statewide campaign and showed that native woman can also have a voice,” Bessette said. “I’m hoping I can be that voice for other people as well.”
This year is also Bessette’s first step into politics on a larger scale.
“I felt like I wanted to make a change in the world and not just talk about it, but actually do something about it. It felt like this was the right time to jump in and do it,” Bessette said.
The district Bessette is running in is the smallest land-wise in the state. It includes the Great Falls Housing Authority, which means a big concentration of people in a small area.
The district is also 7 percent Native American.
“I live where most of the other Native Americans who live in the district do, which is really exciting for me,” Bessette said. “We’re very under-represented in government and I wanted to make sure those voices are heard. When Denise Juneau was running, that was amazing because when you see yourself represented, you feel like you can do something. There are a lot of Natives and a lot of us are urban Natives and they deserve a voice as well.”
Native-specific issues seem more obvious in districts that include reservation lands and they can be overlooked in Montana’s bigger cities.
Bessette, a substance abuse prevention specialist, said part of her platform comes from something she’s observed in her job — the disparity in health outcomes between Natives and non-Natives.
“That’s something I feel that needs to be addressed,” Bessette said.
Though it’s an issue that addresses Natives at a higher rate, Bessette said it affects all Montanans.
Because she works at a center that does treatment in addition to prevention, Bessette has seen the rolling effects of state budget cuts enacted during the last Legislature and in a special session last November.
“My constituents would be impacted by all of those cuts; they’re the most vulnerable of our population,” Bessette said.
Bessette has seen first-hand what it’s like when Native families need to access care such as dentists or opthamologist, services that aren’t provided at the Indian Family Health Clinic in Great Falls.
“It’s hard to get to either Browning or Rocky Boy to get those services if you don’t have reliable transportation,” Bessette said. “That would be something I would love to see more of in the urban areas, that people can get those services they would otherwise not be able to get.”
Substance abuse disorders have a higher rate of prevalence among Montana’s Native population, Bessette said, but it’s still a problem that affects Montanans statewide.
“I am Native, but I want to be representative for everybody,” Bessette said.