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Mary Sheehy Moe: After the thrill is gone

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For Mallerie Stromswold, on Jan. 4, 2021, a dream came true. Politics had been her passion since she was 11. At 17, she served as a legislative page. At 18, she ran to represent HD 50 in Billings. She won. On Jan. 4, 2021, she had the thrill of being sworn into office at the state Capitol.

By February, the thrill was gone. Rep. Stromswold had had the temerity to vote her conscience, reflecting her understanding of her party’s ideals and her constituents’ expectations, even though her vote conflicted with those of every other Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee.

To her, being a Republican means ensuring government leaves personal druthers personal. To the majority of her colleagues, being a Republican means imposing their version of Christian values on anyone and everyone. “If you want to live here,” as one leader of the Montana Federation of Republican Women told the New York Times last summer, “be a Christian.” As a state senator told the same reporter, “There is no middle ground.”

Stromwold’s votes to keep government out of transgender people’s lives last session were deemed mortal sins. The backlash was intense, angry, and over time, debilitating. After the session ended, she questioned whether following her ideals was worth the pain and decided to withdraw from the 2022 race. Her resignation wasn’t submitted in time. She was reelected with a mere 100-vote margin. She took the oath again, hoping for the best.

The backlash was not as overt this time; she was more shunned than shrieked at. But it was clearly there. Beyond the personal rejection, she saw she couldn’t be an effective legislator. Any bill she sponsored would be DOA. And beyond that was the dysfunction of her party. “We're talking about drag shows when people … can’t even find housing,” she mused. “We have this power … but it's just so divisive and nothing gets done.”

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As women too often do, she viewed her understandable response to what in any other setting would be rightly called a hostile work environment as her problem. Most colleagues were kind, but there was and would be no concerted effort to change that environment. The only way to get away from it was to resign. Last Saturday Stromswold did.

I’ve served as a legislator. It’s hard. After months of campaigning, you get elected and, like Mallerie Stromswold, you come to Helena full of idealistic dreams. But the culture of the Legislature, even before its “Christian” takeover, is the culture of a 1950s fraternity club. Regardless of your party, age or experience, you’re a “freshman” who should be seen and not heard. You’re hazed for the amusement of your elders. And if you step out of line, there’s “the woodshed.”

It's a centuries-old male culture that even before today’s “Christian” conversion was just plain wrong. Hand this culture over to the crusaders now in power and brace yourself for the new Inquisition. Anyone who doesn’t see things with the holier-than-thou’s righteous clarity is a heretic. And as Sir Thomas More learned during that earlier era, the righteous are most vicious when crossed by one of their own.

Montana may have lost a great leader when Mallerie Stromswold resigned. She isn’t the first and won’t be the last. It will take the leadership of women not inured to the Legislature’s “man up” ethos and true Christian ideals to convert this too often cocksure and cruel institution into the deliberative, idealistic, tolerant body Montana deserves.

When Stromswold took her oaths of office, she stood before Russell’s magnificent "Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole." No painting could be more perfect for Montana’s House chamber. Nearly 12 feet high and 25 feet wide, its scale captures our high, wide and handsome state. More tellingly, it depicts an exchange that could turn into bloodshed at any moment, with Lewis and Clark engaged in urgent, delicate discussions, almost unseen in the background, while wolves howl and Salish warriors, lances a-tilt, swirl on horseback at center stage.

The challenge for every body — and everybody — meeting in that chamber is to bring the productive discussion to the foreground, the warriors to the table, and the wolves to heel.

Mary Sheehy Moe is a retired educator and former state senator, school board trustee and city commissioner from Great Falls. She now lives in Missoula.

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