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The Legislature makes the national news again and the mood at the Capitol turns sour

Republicans ban a trans lawmaker from the House floor, putting Montana in the national news spotlight. Meanwhile, much work remains on the budget as the end of the session approaches.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk: Well, Rob and Holly, the week, of course, began with a protest in the House gallery with protesters escorted out and some arrested. And it ended with Representative Zooey Zephyr being barred from the House floor for, "violating decorum and not following house rules." On Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Regier made this statement about Monday's protest.

Matt Regier: Yesterday was a dark day for the Montana House of Representatives. It was also a dark day for the state of Montana. It was also a disappointing day for Montana media. The entire story was not told. Headlines that have happened over the last week stating that the Montana House leadership or GOP has silenced anyone is false. The only person silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr.

Sally Mauk: And Rob, Regier is blaming Zephyr for not apologizing for her 'blood on the hands' remark and the press corps for not reporting the events the way he wants them reported.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, right, Sally. You know, some of this is not particularly unusual, although the apparent final resolution sure is. There are norms when it comes to behavior on the House floor, although the lines between acceptable and unacceptable isn't always clear. And when it comes to language like 'blood on your hands', well, that's common enough perhaps in the broader discourse. But it is at the very least pushing the boundaries of what's considered acceptable discourse on the floor of the House. And Democrats would object, I think, if that kind of language was used in a floor debate over abortion. It's also not unheard of for the chair to not recognize a legislator over these kinds of decorum issues. And there have been instances of legislators being compelled to apologize for this kind of thing. The Freedom Caucus Republicans, they definitely wanted that apology. But Zephyr made it clear that she wasn't going to do that. She saw it as a suppression of her right to speak. Now, if you ask Republicans, they'll tell you the disciplinary action that finally came was was all about the protest on Monday and Zephyr's encouragement of it, though obviously, the two are directly connected. And at the same time that there were demands for this apology, the Freedom Caucus was dumping fuel on the fire and they were calling for disciplinary action even before Monday.

Sally Mauk: Well, the drama, of course, continued Wednesday with the party line vote to bar Zephyr from the floor of the House for the rest of the session. And here's part of what Zephyr said before that vote.

Zooey Zephyr: What my constituents in my community did is came here and said, that is our voice in this body. Let her speak. Let her speak. And when the speaker gaveled down, the people demanding that democracy work, demanding that their representative be heard, when he gaveled down what he was doing is driving a nail in the coffin of democracy.

Sally Mauk: Nail in the coffin or not, Rob, this has made national and even international headlines all week and been compared to actions in other states like Tennessee, where Republicans have also acted to censure or expel Democratic lawmakers who they think have crossed some behavioral line and who Democrats think are being unfairly targeted. There's definitely a disconnect there.

Rob Saldin: Right, Sally, the national context here is part of what's made this such a big national story in particular. You know, it appears to be an extension of that episode in Tennessee a few weeks ago when two legislators were expelled after breaches of decorum. And I think the problem here is that, for a lot of people, these punishments just seem so disproportionate to the behavior in question. And of course some reject the entire notion that disciplinary action of any sort was justified, that these norms and standards of decorum perpetuate discriminatory power structures and so forth. But even for those who think that the legislators did take things too far in these instances, the reaction seems to be heavy handed and way over the top. And in terms of the incident we saw this week, on Monday, there has been these competing narratives about, you know, is this civil disobedience or was this a violent mob? And it seems to me the civil disobedience narrative is closer to the mark. Of course, it was a disruptive protest. The protesters did break the law, and their removal from the chamber and the arrests seem to be in keeping with the law. But the protesters went into this, recognizing that and getting arrested was obviously a possibility. They were willing to accept that. Now, there is a video circulating that shows one of the protesters throwing something onto the floor. So that's not good and is not in keeping with civil disobedience. But, that's the only thing I've seen of that sort and the language that some are using to describe this with words like insurrection and riot seems just silly. It strikes me as either a trolling operation or a rather desperate attempt to draw some kind of equivalency to January 6th.

Sally Mauk: Right. And we should point out, law enforcement did say that there was no property damage or any violent acts by the protesters.

Rob Saldin: Right, right.

Sally Mauk: Meanwhile, Holly, Representative Zephyr is very visibly trying to do her legislative work on a public bench near the House chambers. That is, when she's not being interviewed by every news outlet you can think of. And the Legislature has barely a week to finish a ton of work on the state budget, among other things. And, how is that going to play out, do you think, with all this drama and distraction and no doubt a lot of hard feelings?

Holly Michels: Yeah, I mean, I think, like you said, Sally, Representative Zephyr was out there on that bench and we saw pretty early on, sort of, how the mood is still, you know, pretty tense up in the Capitol. Speaker Regier actually came out and told Zephyr she needed to leave that bench and go work in the offices of House Democratic Leadership around the corner. There's actually a pretty good Associated Press video of this exchange where you can just feel how tense it is. You know, Zephyr was saying the bench is public space. And Regier insisted she leave and then walked off. And there's some more exchanges with Sergeant at Arms' staff, Zephyr was allowed to remain on the bench and vote from there. But, you know, that really was something that didn't go unnoticed by Democrats. So, that pretty clearly, to me, showed there's still a lot of emotional and tense situations coming from this.

And we also saw further action to keep Zephyr from participating. The speaker can assign bills to whichever committee he chooses. And we saw a handful of bills that would have gone to committees that Zephyr sat on, actually assigned to other committees that essentially shuts down those committees for the rest of the session. Meaning Zephyr doesn't have that participation anymore either. So, you know, there's obviously that tension going as well. We have seen reporting that Zephyr said some Republicans told her they didn't like the motion to ban her, but felt that they needed to support it. But something that really struck me on the floor Wednesday when Republicans got up to speak in support of the motion to bar her from accessing the floor is they put up some of their most moderate members in the House. And they, you know, really focused heavily on rules and decorum when advocating for that motion. I think that was pretty meaningful that we saw those moderate Republicans up there.

So, you know, I think in terms of how we're going to see the rest of the session play out, we asked the speaker and minority leader after the vote on Wednesday, and they were both saying there's a lot of work left to do. They're both focused on getting back to that. We still have House Bill 2, which is the state budget, to get across the line and we don't even know when that's scheduled to be heard in the House. There's also some pretty tense bills. We have the bill that, you know, in its initial form would have banned minors from attending drag shows. Now it's focused a little more on drag's story hour. That's going to have to come back before the House for discussion again.

You know, Democrats are concerned that some things they thought they had the votes for to kill, they might not any more after this. We also saw a pretty interesting vote happen where the speaker and minority leader actually co-sponsored a bill. The speaker had it in a hearing the day after this vote. He made a comment that, you know, this might not turn out the same as it would have before all this and that bill was actually tabled. So, I think it's fair to say there's a lot of tensions up here. It's also near the end of the session. It's getting pretty late. People, honestly are pretty grumpy, I think. We're going to be here through May, it looks like. So, people are losing their leases on their rentals in Helena and that's not helping tension. So, I think everybody's ready to go home. But there's a lot of hard work left to do.

Sally Mauk: Rob, also this week, Mara Silvers, a reporter with the Montana Free Press, had a moving story about Governor Greg Gianforte's gay son David, who opposes his father's support of anti-trans legislation, an opposition, he says, he expressed to his father. And this put a very personal context to the politics of the week.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, it did. It was a remarkable piece by Mara, a tough read in many ways. The governor did briefly address the piece, just saying that his love for his son is unconditional and left it at that. I doubt we're going to hear much more from him on this matter, but obviously, this has to be uncomfortable for the governor. One thing that stood out to me in the piece concerned the governor's motivations. And David said that political pressure or partisan pressure might be part of what's going on here. And it's always difficult to figure out what people's motivations really are. But it does seem to me that that's probably part of it. But the other thing going on here is, you know, we know that the governor's faith looms large, and David referenced that as well. But it seems like on this stuff, all the pressures and incentives do seem to be pushing in the same direction, with perhaps the one exception being David Gianforte.

Sally Mauk: Both David Gianforte and Zooey Zephyr are in their thirties and both have now become heroes to a lot of people their age and younger. I wonder, Rob, what the political impact of that will be, if any, in the next election?

Rob Saldin: Well, these issues definitely draw a lot of attention as we've seen across the political spectrum. So, I think it's absolutely going to be a factor in the next election. And, as you suggest, there is clearly a generational dimension to this. Young people are more comfortable with trans issues than older people. That's very clear in the public opinion data. But there's also an education divide between the college educated and not college educated. There is an urban rural divide on this stuff and obviously there is a partisan divide, so it's complicated and it doesn't all push in the same direction. Now, it may well be the case that when it comes to young voters, the salience of this issue will give a boost to Democrats, but I'm not sure that's going to be the case in Montana at large. You know, we discussed this a bit last week, but it appears clear to me that the Freedom Caucus Republicans want to put a spotlight on Zephyr. They want this to be top of mind for voters. And when voters think of Montana Democrats, they want them to think of Zephyr. And, at least for the moment, that's clearly what's transpired. Zephyr is the second most well-known Democrat in the state right now and the Freedom Caucus Republicans think that's good news for them.

Sally Mauk: Lastly, Holly and Rob, I'm not sure Montana has been this much in the national news on a sustained basis in a very long time. And I wonder what you think about the impact all this attention will have on the state as a whole. Holly, what do you think?

Holly Michels: Yeah, I mean, I think it's hard to say. Like you said, this obviously put Montana squarely in national and even international news. And I think we're seeing a lot of backlash to what's happened here. I am seeing a fair amount of people on the right working hard to make this something into it wasn't. You and Rob touched on this earlier, you know, calling it violent riot or insurrection like you said earlier, Sally. You know, law enforcement said they didn't observe any violence or damage. Something I'm thinking about is, you know, all the implications. And Rob, you mentioned this earlier with what happened in Tennessee. And we saw there, you know, we've got an election in 2024, Zephyr said she's running again. It's going to be, I think, probably one of the best funded House races possibly that we've seen in Montana in a long time. So I think that's something where we might see some national dollars flowing to that. So, that's something we're watching. You know, this feels like you said, really, really major. You know, obviously it will fade over time, but I think it's going to be a pretty big thing we're going to hear a lot about when those state House races come up next year.

Sally Mauk: And, Rob, what do you think?

Rob Saldin: Well, the thing that strikes me is just how this is playing out nationally. You know, obviously there are some who will cheer over all this. But on balance, it's not good for Montana's image. What people are seeing nationally is that the first trans legislator in Montana history was severely disciplined by Republicans for speaking out against anti-trans legislation. That is the narrative that is out there. Now, Republicans will say there's more to it, but that's the way it's playing out nationally. And, you know, on balance, for the most part, that is not good for Montana's image.

Sally Mauk: Well, there's one more week to go in the session, and that should be a doozy. Rob and Holly, thank you and I'll talk to you next week.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

The Montana Constitution says "The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." How did that get included, and what does it mean for Montana? Learn more now on The Big Why

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'.
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