A new local political story, every day this week!
Volunteers with Willing Workers Ladies Aid arrived ahead of the crowd. Like in the build up to a big church social, they gathered in the side kitchen off the main room in the Gallatin Gateway Community Center and set out enough sweets to hold a bake sale.
Folks soon started showing up. By around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10, the room was nearly full. But for those who regularly come to this community center to vote or give blood or drop their kids off at 4-H, something was missing from the room.
For years, a stuffed mountain lion positioned high on the main center wall loomed over the space like Montana’s version of a taxidermied gargoyle. It was a classy mount, but the lion’s ferocious presence created an odd visual juxtaposition when there was a wedding or children’s Christmas pageant on the main stage. So it was auctioned off this past summer, fetching $2,500.
Every little bit helps the Willing Workers Ladies Aid, which runs the community center and typically hosts a candidate forum before every major election. On hand Oct. 10 were a couple of longtime residents of the area—Kerry and Steve White, whose family arrived 150 years ago and still run a ranch nearby.
Kerry is running to serve his fourth term in the Montana Legislature. He represents House District 64, which includes the Gallatin County portion of Big Sky and runs from Four Corners clear down to West Yellowstone.
Kerry’s younger brother Steve is also an incumbent this year and the chair of the Gallatin County Commission.
He told the voters gathered for the recent forum, “I love serving Gallatin County and that’s why I’m running for my third term.”
The other candidate at the forum defending his seat this year is Jedediah Hinkle, who represents Big Sky in the Legislature, serving Senate District 32. Hinkle is best remembered by many in Big Sky as the lawmaker who cast a deciding vote against the “1 percent for housing” bill.
“I’m not a fan of tax increases at all. One of my campaign points was lower taxes,” Hinkle told the Lookout back in January, saying his “no” vote on the housing issue “was one of the most difficult I’ve made.”
At the Oct. 10 forum, Hinkle said he knows access to affordable housing is a problem in Big Sky.
“But a solution that is going to make both sides happy? From my experience in the Legislature, it’s going to be difficult,” said Sen. Hinkle. “I have actually asked both sides to start talking and try and come up with a solution. One side says they are using the funds inappropriately. And originally, the resort tax was intended for water, sewer and infrastructure. So I think it’s going to come down to where those funds are going to be used specifically. And possibly, if there is some kind of agreement there, I think that maybe a resort tax increase could be possible. But right now, the way things are, I would not change my vote. It’s a very contentious issue. I don’t believe in raising taxes to solve issues like that. I believe in fiscal accountability and responsibility. However, if both sides could come to an agreement, I may change. But it would take some effort.”
With democracy, it’s all about effort. Or at least that’s what Sen. Hinkle’s Democratic challenger Pat Flowers seemed to suggest when he thanked the crowed for showing up.
“This is the heart of democracy,” said Flowers, who offered a different take on the affordable housing issue in Big Sky. “I think it is a problem. I don’t know if there are clear solutions from the (Montana) Senate. Creating the opportunity for example for Big Sky to increase their resort tax. To me, I think local communities should have the opportunity to decide for themselves.”
SD 32 Libertarian candidate Francis Wendt, who lives in Four Corners, was also at the Gallatin Gateway forum. On the issue of affordable housing, he said, “Yes, affordable housing is a problem in Gallatin County. It comes down to a couple things—where’s the water? Where’s the water coming from? Because that’s really the limiting factor. Big Sky is a great example. Until we look at bringing in more housing options, we’re going to see the million dollar condos going up.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Wendt describes himself as a markets guy who puts faith in forces outside the government when it comes to solving problems like those facing Big Sky. He uses his garden as a metaphor for making the most out of a challenging situation.
“My pitch to the Big Sky voter is I’m a market driver,” said Wendt, who manages a Bozeman hotel. “We can use our land to diverse effect. In my garden I took 300 square feet and I put 30 something species into that 300 square feet. I am all about innovation—ways we can maintain the landscape, maintain affordable housing and do it all together for the people of Montana.”
The roomful of Montana voters in Gallatin Gateway only included a few from Big Sky, including Michael Quisenberry, a local preschool teacher.
“I was expecting more partisan disagreement,” said Quisenberry, sizing up the night’s discussion. “And I didn’t really see that here. I really feel like each candidate had the things they cared about and they wanted to spread their message. I didn’t feel as manipulated as I’ve felt in other places during the process.”
What will he takeaway and share with his neighbors in Big Sky?
Quisenberry said, “Just protecting our public lands. Being a member of Big Sky. We need that tourism coming in. People to care about it. I think it’s uplifting how much it’s an issue for everyone and cares and we want to protect our public lands so we can keep our economy going and just keep nature beautiful.”
Caitlin Lundin—programming and events manager for the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce—also attended the forum. She said, “I definitely think Big Sky was not represented, both in the audience and up on stage and that’s our fault. We didn’t come down here in droves. We didn’t represent ourselves as much as we need to.”
However, Ludin said Sen. Hinkle has knocked on her door in Big Sky, and she knows both Pat Flowers and Denise Albrecht—who is the Democrat running against Kerry White—are stumping around Big Sky.
During the forum, “They briefly touched on Big Sky,” continued Ludin. “They briefly touched on West Yellowstone. But only in name. All the growth they talked about was in the ‘Triangle’ and none of it down there (in Big Sky).”
“The Triangle” refers to a zone where future members of the Big Sky workforce may live because it’s conveniently located between Belgrade, Bozeman and Four Corners.
“That’s where the growth needs to be directed. That’s where the infrastructure is,” Commissioner White told the audience.