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Why did Pence meet with the governor? Where exactly does Zinke live? Will local control mean fewer school counselors?

Former vice president Mike Pence makes an unannounced visit to the Capitol. New, more restrictive voting laws are back in effect. While Republican Ryan Zinke touts his political experience, his residency is questioned — again. Democrat Cora Neumann goes after "rich outsiders" in her new ad. And state school superintendent Elsie Arntzen wants to cut the number of required school counselors, despite a rise in mental health issues among students.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department. Saldin is unable to join us this week. 

Sally Mauk Holly, former Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to the State Capitol this week, where he met with Gov. Gianforte, the governor's cabinet and staff and got a tour of the Capitol. But we only learned of this after the fact because no press was notified or present. And apparently neither Pence nor the governor wanted the public to know about a former vice president visiting the Capitol. And my question is, why the secrecy?

Holly Michels It's a good question. I think Pence's visit caused quite a stir and like you said, pretty noteworthy and pretty newsworthy visit. You know, he's the most recent former vice president. He's also traveling the country right now, doing things, you know, weighing in on primaries, sometimes to the opposite effect of the endorsement of the president he served under. So he's a pretty high-profile figure anyway, but also right now, even more so. And I think the first that I saw of this visit and I think others in the media, too, is when Pence and Gianforte tweeted about it after the fact. And the visit wasn't included on the schedule the governor's office sends out every day. So we had one of our reporters, Sam Wilson, reach out to the governor's office to ask about why people weren't told about this. And their response was that it wasn't an open press event. That's why they said they didn't notify people. But there are times on that schedule where it does have things that aren't open to the press. That includes meetings the governor has with his cabinet regularly, and those are normally on those schedules. So kind of curious about that.

The governor's office did say that these meetings between Pence and cabinet members didn't involve any official state business. But, you know it is the governor and his cabinet. And normally when they're meeting, they're talking state business. But given that, you know, they're saying it's not state business, they're talking about, I think that's fueled some speculation. If they weren't talking about state business, what did they discuss? And Pence has been rumored to be weighing a run for president himself in 2024. He recently visited Iowa, kind of furthering those rumors. And he'd need a running mate, of course, if he were to run. So I think that sort of elevated that speculation there a little bit. A spokesperson for Pence, we reached out to him, too, and he said he was in Montana to speak to a church group in Billings and then just tacked on some extra time to his trip, but really didn't elaborate further.

Sally Mauk Well, I think they have a pretty narrow definition of what state business is. And of course, the governor and Pence could have met privately and with the press. One doesn't exclude the other.

The state Supreme Court this week called off an injunction against two election laws that ended voter registration on Election Day and expanded voter ID requirements. And that means those laws are now in effect for the June 7 primary.

Since the last time Montanans went to the polls, new voting laws have been passed, challenged in court, blocked and unblocked. MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar and Freddy Monares make sense of it all and answer questions about where and how to cast a ballot in the June 7 primary.

Holly Michels Yeah, this order came down just three weeks before the primary, so I think it's causing a little bit of confusion for people. And like you said, it reversed this preliminary injunction a judge in Billings issued just back in April. So we've had some whiplash here. The status now, when people go to vote on primary day, which is June 7, you will need a specific set of voter ID and you can find that list online. But the most major thing is students can't just vote with their student ID card. That was the way it was. You know, you could vote with that ID card before these laws were passed in 2021. You could when the injunction was issued, but now you can't. The other thing is, now we don't have same-day voter registration in Montana. That cutoff is noon the Monday before Election Day. So before this law was passed in Montana, you could register to vote up on Election Day up until the deadline and then turn around to vote after registering. This law banned it; the injunction halted that. But now we're back to no more same-day voter registration. So important things for people to know as they go to vote in the June 7 primary.

Listen to extended interviews with the western district congressional candidates.

Sally Mauk Holly, Republican Ryan Zinke, who's running for the new Western Congressional seat, made national news again recently when Politico did a story again questioning his Montana residency. And the story pointed out Zinke's wife is claiming California residency. She has a home there, but her husband says he lives in Whitefish. And this raises a few questions.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think this story has already provided some ammunition for Zinke's opponents. And we're just going to hear more and more about it, both through the primary and then, of course, in the general election, too. And Zinke, we've talked about before on this show, he's already facing attacks for the amount of time he spends in Montana versus California and other states, and this really doesn't help at all.

What happened here is Zinke's wife Lola, she's got long family history at this property in California and operates a business there. And she applied for and got a homeowner's tax exemption, which gives you a $7,000 property tax deduction on what you end up declaring as your principal primary residence. So it obviously raises some questions about: do you have to say you spend most of your time at that residence where the Zinkes are. You know, all these questions that we've heard throughout this race and in previous Zinke runs as well.

Zinke's campaign points out that their financial disclosures show Lola Zinke owns this property alone, not with Ryan. And Ryan said in an interview this week that his wife pays taxes in California and is following the law there. But he did tell our reporter, Tom Kuglin, that he wasn't actually sure if his wife was legally a California resident or not. You know, he's obviously saying he's not; he's saying he wants to be supportive of his wife, maintaining ties to this property, pursuing career goals and keeps insisting, saying their main property where they reside is this Whitefish house that was his grandmother's. But you've already heard opponents seize on this, and I'm sure we will again and again until November.

Sally Mauk Zinke also has a new TV ad. And here's that ad.

"Tough times required tough, proven leaders. Ryan Zinke, a Navy SEAL commander at SEAL Team Six. He was Montana's congressman and President Trump's Secretary of the Interior. Zinke helped Trump build the border wall on federal lands. Despite opposition, he kept fentanyl and meth out of Montana communities. He led from the front. Leadership, not politics. Zinke."

Sally Mauk And in this ad, Holly, Zinke wears not one but two cowboy hats. One of them is white and one of them is black.

Holly Michels Yeah, it's a good Montana ad when there's a fair amount of cowboy hattage going on. To me, this ad feels like it's reminding people of, kind of, probably two of the biggest lines on Zinke's resumé that his campaign is hoping are going to appeal to voters in this Republican primary. That's that he's had this job before when Montana just had one congressional seat. He held it before, and then that he was Secretary of the Interior under Trump. It touches on the border wall, which state Sen. Al Olszewski is one of Zinke's opponents in the primary, former state senator. And he's tried to make the border wall kind of an issue in this campaign, saying that Zinke didn't do enough to build the wall when he was Secretary of the Interior. And so, you know, this ad's pretty directly pushing back on that, pointing Zinke's role in putting up portions of it while he was secretary.

I think this ad is kind of interesting, too. It has a pretty calm tone and feels like Zinke, when he announced his campaign, he said he wanted to be someone who didn't engage in politics that were dividing people and all of these culture wars. But then he sort of dipped into that during the campaign. And this ad feels like this is him kind of trying to walk that line of, you know, a calm tone, not really going after anybody. But then again, he's bringing up the border wall, which is something that has been incredibly, you know, divided a lot of people. So I think overall, it's what you'd expect. It's reminding people Zinke's got this background, he's the expected frontrunner and just getting out in front of people's ballots or, you know, out in people's houses already. And they're starting to vote.

Sally Mauk On the Democratic side of that congressional race, Holly, Cora Neumann also has a new TV ad. And here's that ad.

"Chances are you don't have a DC lobbyist or a team of fancy lawyers, but the rich outsiders flooding into Montana? They do. That's how they get away with driving up costs on the rest of us. I'm Cora Neumann, and I've taken on wealthy special interests and developers just like them. And in Congress I'll fight like hell to bring housing costs down, go after price gougers, and I'm not taking any corporate PAC money. I'll work for you. I approve this message because it's time to take Montana back."

Sally Mauk And Holly, she is once again going after rich outsiders, and that probably has some resonance with voters, or she wouldn't do it.

Holly Michels Yeah, you know, I think this is a theme we've seen in most, if not all of the Neumann ads that she's put up in this primary. And I think it really does hit on these pressure points we're seeing in the state right now. You know, high housing costs, a lot of people can't afford to live in the communities they've been in for a long time. So you can see why her campaign would want to kind of embrace this message. I do think it's interesting because it does also feel like — and this is something else we've seen in her ads — is her just trying to take and control this narrative that is, you know, a lot of the things we hear from her opponents about her, that she moved back to Montana in 2019 after being gone from the state for several years. You know, she's talking about working against rich outsiders, which we've all but heard her opponents call her that. So I think that was kind of an interesting point there.

I'm wondering if you can interpret that line about a team of lawyers, maybe as a dig at Monica Tranel, who's one of her opponents in this primary, who is a lawyer from Missoula. But overall, I think it's a pretty, you know, pretty standard ad. I do think, too, maybe an interesting point is when she's talking about not taking any corporate PAC money. That's something candidates say when they want to tell voters they're not going to be tied to corporate interests. But Neumann's also made a big point in her campaign of saying, you know, she's raised the most money in this Democratic primary and saying she's the candidate who can compete against Zinke financially if she were to emerge from the primary. So not taking corporate PAC money, I think it'd be interesting to see if she does win, what that looks like when she's running up against Zinke.

Sally Mauk Well, lastly, Holly, state school superintendent Elsie Arntzen is making headlines once again, and she's angered school officials across the state for her proposals to reduce the number of school counselors and librarians, among others. And this is at a time when everyone agrees many students are suffering from some form of mental health issue. And we have a high suicide rate among students. This isn't going down well, these new proposals, with many people who work in the schools.

Holly Michels Yeah, we did see a lot of public comment both in person [and] over Zoom meetings. And then we also saw, you know, I've heard that maybe up to 3,000 comments submitted to the office about these proposals. And what they would do is they would increase the ratio for student counselors to students in schools across Montana. They would also allow schools to contract for these services. So not to have a counselor maybe who's employed by the district in the building all the time. And it does similar with librarians. It would mean you could have fewer librarians per students. It strikes some requirements that you need a centralized library location. It makes a lot of changes that are pretty concerning to people. She said that this is a local control issue, that these school districts understand what their students need, what their families are asking for. This is something we've heard from her before and from a lot of other Republican elected officials, this idea of local control.

But we're hearing from educators that this just doesn't make sense. It doesn't work with what they're seeing in classrooms. You know, they're saying kids already had really high mental health needs before the pandemic, and the pandemic just made it all the worse. You were also hearing from members of this task force that helped craft recommendations that they sent to Elsie Arntzen. And these are recommendations they made that are actually the opposite of what she ended up suggesting: They wanted to lower ratios for school counselors to students. They're saying that, you know, they understand local control. They're not opposed to that at all. But if you don't have this minimum standard, this baseline that you need districts to all adhere to, then you really don't have any guarantees in place that there will be counselors, because schools are always looking to cut budgets, save money, and if they're being told they can have fewer counselors, that might be where they look to cut first. So I think this this process has got a lot of people fired up. We're hearing a lot of feedback and it's continuing. We should see final rules through this negotiated rulemaking committee probably in June. So still time for people to weigh in if they want to on this.

Sally Mauk I'm sure they will. And Holly, we've covered a lot of ground today, but we're out of time. Thank you.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department. Saldin is unable to join us this week.

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Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.