Running under the radar
The countywide races important to Big Sky you know nothing about
The political spotlight appears fixed on Gallatin County in 2018. Vice President Mike Pence was here recently stumping for U.S. Senate Candidate Matt Rosendale, and the Midtown Tavern in Bozeman made national political news when it refused to host a political gathering with Donald Trump Jr.
Political pundits believe Gallatin County will likely be a key, must-win area for statewide candidates running for the U.S. Senate and House. Which way will Big Sky lean? Will it reflect a countywide trend or be its own thing?
“Gallatin was the only county in Montana that flipped to support a Democratic presidential candidate after voting for a Republican in the 2012 presidential election,” reported Montana Public Radio in a recent profile of Gallatin County voters. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the county. Four years later, Hilary Clinton came out on top, beating Donald Trump by 444 votes.
Of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., Gallatin was one of only a couple dozen that saw this kind of flip, according to analysis from the Washington Post.
Does Clinton’s victory signal a blue wave rising in Gallatin County? Or will local voters swing back toward GOP candidates in 2018? While the partisan prognosticating continues, there are several countywide races important to Big Sky voters unfolding under the radar of most political watchers.
Here are the three county offices up for grabs: Clerk and recorder, treasurer and auditor.
GOP candidate Jason Humberger sums up the low-key race for county auditor like this: “I’ve been meeting with people across the county and by a wide margin and I don’t think people even knew the auditor was one of the offices on the ballot.”
Here’s one theory why there’s more political energy swirling around countywide races—It all started with Charlotte Mills announcing her decision to step down as clerk and recorder.
“You have an outgoing clerk and recorder. So that left it open. People are more apt to run when they perceive an empty seat as opposed to taking on an incumbent,” explained Jennifer Blossom, the current county auditor.
Blossom suggested when Mills, a Republican, decided to step down, that triggered enthusiasm from Democrat Eric Semerad and Republican Greg Metzger to run for clerk and recorder. On top of this shake up, Blossom decided to run for treasurer, thus opening her long-held auditor’s seat.
Now running for auditor are Blossom’s Deputy Auditor Erin Cox, a Democrat, and Humberger, a Republican who runs a local bookkeeping service.
In the treasurer’s race, Blossom faces incumbent Kim Buchanan, someone Blossom has worked with for more than a dozen years.
These contested races bring an elevated energy level to a sector of county politics that generally doesn’t garner much attention. For Big Sky voters, the candidates say, there’s a lot at stake when it comes to how local elections are run, real estate records are kept, taxes are collected and accounts are audited.
The Lookout interviewed all the candidates running in these low-profile races, asking each one what’s at stake on Election Day and why voters in the Gallatin County portion of Big Sky should care.
Clerk and recorder
Longtime staffer vs. former planner and entrepreneur
For Eric Semerad’s 19th birthday, his friend Jim Marlen took him skiing at Big Sky. Marlen was a ski patroller and showed Semerad where to find good spring turns on April 22, 1984. Semerad remembers the day well because, “I got the worst sunburn I’ve ever had in my life.”
Semerad finished up his degree at Montana State University, took at job in the Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder’s office and went to work drawing plat maps. Along the way, he watched Big Sky grow lot by lot, subdivision by subdivision.
“This is before any of that Town Center stuff. There was no Spanish Peaks. It was just Meadow Village, Sweetgrass Hills. Those were the ones that were in existence when I started working in 1990. Just seen tremendous growth since then,” recalled Semerad, nostalgic for the days when school kids could ski for free at Moonlight Basin (his offspring took advantage of the freebies).
Semerad now heads the county recording department. That means all the engineers, project managers, surveyors, realtors, attorneys and others caught up in Big Sky’s rapid growth rely on Semerad. The office he now supervises provides reliable access to all kinds of important records.
“I’ve worked very hard to make those easily available to everybody in the county, including Big Sky,” said Semerad, explaining how records are accessible remotely through the Eagle Web database and what’s known as the “document mapper.”
Working with the county’s GIS specialists, Semerad has helped develop an online system where Big Sky residents can remotely log on to the document mapper and find specific properties. Then, with a mouse click, it’s possible to pull up documents associated with selected lots and parcels.
The records available online save residents all over the county a trip to the courthouse on Main Street in Bozeman. While campaigning, Semerad tells voters about plans to make the system even better.
“I am working with them to improve that because there are some properties it doesn’t work well with. One thing is condominiums and there’s a lot of condominiums in Big Sky,” explained Semerad. “Not all the condominiums have been linked via the map.”
This kind of nitty-gritty detail doesn’t translate well into fiery stump speeches. Good thing candidates running for clerk and recorder aren’t expected to fire up big crowds with rousing rhetoric. Getting mobs of supporters to chant “Record that parcel!” the way Trump supporters reliably break into “Build that wall!” seems unlikely.
When out campaigning door to door, Semerad distinguishes himself from his opponent, Greg Metzger, by mentioning all the dues he’s paid.
“It’s just the experience. I’ve got 28 years and I’ve worked every single election we’ve had since 1990,” said Semerad, detailing how the clerk and recorder is responsible for maintaining the county’s property records and administering elections.
Semerad assures Big Sky voters he would never support further centralizing polling places, as they’ve done in Bozeman and Billings.
“A lot of county polling places have been pulled to these central locations.The Events Center in Belgrade, and Hope Lutheran in Bozeman,” said Semerad. “We’re kind of limited in what our options are for Big Sky. We’re not going to pull you into Bozeman. As long as we got polling place elections, there’s going to be a polling place in Big Sky.”
As for him running as a Democrat, Semerad said his party affiliation is not part of his campaign trail pitch to voters.
“I think it shouldn’t be partisan,” said Semerad. “Especially conducting elections. You need to be nonpartisan as you can because you are serving everybody. It needs to be done equally for everyone who walks in the door.”
That’s something Semerad and Metzger agree upon.
Metzger, the former president of the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce and CEO of Bozeman Fiber, has volunteered on the planning board, a local fire board and as elections judge on Election Day.
If he were to win, Metzger would like Semerad to stick around and continue to run the recording department.
“I would love to work with Eric,” Metzger said of his opponent. “He’s a wealth of information. It would be a shame if he left.”
Metzger continued, projecting how he’d spend his first 12 months in office: “The first year, everything would stay the same. As a good manager, you need to get your arms around it before you change everything. The things that I would like to do is to get the system to work a little bit better, a little bit faster.”
That includes getting more Gallatin County residents registered to vote and doing more voter education.
“A good share of our population doesn’t vote. You really should participate,” said Metzger. “So I do think the office (of clerk and recorder) can take a little more responsibility.”
As the county’s elections administrator, “There’s nothing I can do for either party,” said Metzger, saying the clerk and recorder has to be “middle of the road… Switzerland.”
Metzger speculates the current voting public in Gallatin County is split in favor of Democrats, 52 percent blue, 48 percent red (Big Sky is consistently a purple dot of mixed persuasions).
The Republican candidate said younger voters in Gallatin County are not tied to party politics. He teaches a marketing class at Gallatin College, where of his 24 students, all described themselves as independent and only half said they regularly vote.
Looking to attract support from a wide swath of voters, Metzger posted his campaign signs—red, white and blue with a commanding image of an eagle—in all corners of Gallatin County. On election night, said Metzger, he will be out, “Taking down my signs. I truly, truly hate signs. They are a blight to the landscape. But they are really necessary for name recognition.”
Metzger’s wife will text him as election results roll in, he said. If Metzger wins, he won’t have any more quiet time alone on election night. He or his opponent Semerad will be in the thick of it, keeping the count going through the night if necessary until the final results are in.
Small business bookkeeper vs. deputy county auditor
“It’s gone uncontested for a long time,” said Jason Humberger, Republican candidate for Gallatin County Auditor.
The auditor is the public’s embedded insider within county government, charged with scrutinizing how tax dollars are spent. Democrat Jennifer Blossom has held the position for 15 years and now she is running for county treasurer, making room for her deputy Erin Cox to run against Humberger in the race to fill a job that might be described as expense-examiner-in-chief.
Humberger said he would draw on deep local roots—Bozeman High and MSU—and his experience as a bookkeeper serving local small businesses.
“I like numbers. I like solving puzzles,” said Humberger, 52. “I’ve just come to a point in my life where I want to give back to my community.”
Humberger isn’t alone in thinking it’s odd to see party affiliation attached to certain county offices.
“It’s interesting the auditor’s race is partisan,” he said. “Because the auditor has to be independent.”
Humberger acknowledges Big Sky sends a disproportionate amount of property tax revenue to Bozeman, so it makes sense for those taxpayers to care about who audits the journey of each dollar.
“Big Sky is a kind of entity in itself. It’s really small. But a lot of dollars move through Big Sky. So I think it’s important it doesn’t get overlooked,” said Humberger, whose seen friends do well in the Big Sky real estate market. “You can really get a leg up on those property values. I would like to do right by the people of Big Sky.”
One goal of the auditor, said Humberger, is to stay out of the news.
“When it’s quiet, nothing controversial is happening,” said Humberger, who believes his experience in the Navy and private business give him an edge over Cox.
In his endorsement of Cox, Belgrade Mayor Russ Nelson tells the world in a campaign video: “Gallatin County deserves a tough auditor with experience who is dedicated to our taxpayers and public service. We can trust that Erin Cox will do us right.”
Cox, who’s served two years as deputy auditor, said the office, “Is basically the watchdog for the county taxpayers. So we review all the invoices, payments that come through. We’re there for Gallatin County citizens. We work for them. It’s their money. They’re voting for a representative in county government.”
Before coming to local government, Cox worked at First Security Bank—which brought her to Big Sky occasionally—and attended Colorado State University, where she received a degree in accounting.
Cox recalled watching Blossom argue an auditing case in front of the Gallatin County Commission. It inspired her to run for the office.
“I knew she (Blossom) wasn’t going to run and I had no intention of running,” recalled Cox. But then she watched as Blossom went head-to-head with the commissioners. “Just seeing Jennifer fight for the legitimacy of this claim, I couldn’t imagine the office going to someone who doesn’t know how our office works.”
The contested expense? It was for Yaktrax slip-ons, which give footwear better traction on ice.
Soon afterward, Cox walked into the office and said, “I want to run.”
“It’s not an easy job and you have to make some unfavorable decisions,” continued Cox, who has heard voters express fears about increased property taxes when it’s already difficult to make ends meet in Gallatin County. “I mean housing in Bozeman is already really high and in Big Sky.”
Two county government veterans square off
Kim Buchanan was appointed to the treasurer’s office in 2005 and has held the position since then. She’s not particularly fond of the campaigning process.
“I do the best that I can. It’s kind of hard to get out and door knock when you’re doing this job full-time,” she said.
On her campaign website, Buchanan touts a long record of public service, with time spent on the Gallatin County Planning and Zoning Commission, school parent organizations, the Exchange Club, CAP mentorship program and Montana Girls Hockey.
“Working in these positions has given me adaptability and creativity to provide the treasurer's office with maximum efficiency given the sometimes scarce resources and the demands due to the influx of population in one of the fastest growing communities in the country,” states Buchanan on her campaign website. “The position has been challenging and demanding, but I have been blessed with excellent administrative support and a staff that has helped me with an ever-increasing workload.”
One big challenge facing the treasurer’s office is providing Montana Department of Motor Vehicles registration and license plate services (there are now around 300 plates to choose from). Buchanan expanded DMV service to Belgrade, but said there are hurdles to clear before Big Sky residents can pick their plates and pay their registration locally and avoid trips through the canyon.
“Maybe down the road, you could do a combined motor vehicle with driver’s license,” said Buchanan about the potential for providing these services in Big Sky.
It would require a secure, dedicated printer and computer, added Buchanan.
The major connection between the county treasurer’s office and Big Sky is forged through the various local taxing districts. For instance, the Big Sky School District relies on the treasurer’s office to collect and distribute property taxes supporting local public education.
Buchanan said she monitors the correlation between the amount of local tax revenue collected and how much the local districts plan to spend, according to operating budgets.
Once in a while there are mix ups. On her campaign website, current County Auditor Jennifer Blossom includes links to a collection of news stories involving the Gallatin County Treasurer’s Office. They include quotes and details criticizing the Buchanan-led operation, which Blossom has audited during her 16 years in office.
Now Blossom wants to draw on her detailed understanding of the treasurer’s office and take over by ousting Buchanan on Nov. 6.
Blossom touts herself as “the only Democrat” in countywide office since 2004-2005, who’s now using a software program called Vote Builder to create strategic door-knocking maps for her canvasing strolls (Cox and Semerad often accompany her).
“We’ve been out to Three Forks the last couple of days. We’ve done a lot of Belgrade, at least half of Belgrade, a bunch of Bozeman. We’re going up to West next weekend,” said Buchanan, noting how Gallatin County has 40,000 voting households.
With mail-in ballots going out on Oct. 12, the pressure is on for 2018 candidates to knock as many doors as possible.
The distribution of mail-in ballots, “Basically moves up Election Day by about three weeks. So it’s intense right now,” said Blossom, who pitches herself as the solution to frustrations experienced by Big Sky’s local taxing districts when dealing with the county treasurer’s office.
“Part of their frustrations is they don’t get their financial information in a timely manner,” said Blossom, who describes herself as “a conservative, middle-of-the-road Democrat.”
Blossom said there are ways to make the relationship between Big Sky’s districts and the treasurer’s office more transparent, possibly by setting “view-only access” to specific, dedicated accounts. She also believes there should be DMV services in Big Sky at least a couple days a week.
“We know it’s possible because it’s been done before,” said Blossom, floating the idea of a twice-monthly appointment system for getting new plates and paying vehicle registrations. “Maybe mornings in Big Sky and afternoons in West Yellowstone?”