Earlier this week, Recovery Advocates organized by the Independence Rock Coalition : Center for Ethics, Recovery and Social Justice, who traveled from all over Montana, converged on the Montana Capitol to talk with legislators and network with other advocates across Montana. This was the first year that there has been a concerted effort to organize a Recovery Advocacy Day, and we have a lot of work to do to have an undeniable presence.
I helped organize Recovery Advocacy Day because I am a person in long-term recovery and live my recovery out loud. For too long those who struggled with addiction have kept quiet. I have chosen to not live in the dark, hanging out in basements and staying silent. Addiction does not discriminate and it affects everyone in some way. I have hope that more people will feel comfortable talking about their journey because we showed up.
I was pleased that we had people stop by our table and ask who we were and why we were there. I’m grateful only one person was snarky and said they did not know anyone who dealt with addiction. We passed out dozens of our “I am in Recovery and I Vote” stickers, and I was happy to see them when I walked through the Capitol.
We were acknowledged from the House Floor by Rep. George Nikolakakos (R-Great Falls) and received waves from various members of the House during the introduction.
Penny Ronning made the trip from Billings to lend support to the cause. During the campaign of 2022, I often heard her mention the need for treatment options and more resources for those seeking recovery.
Even though the turnout was small, it was powerful! We will continue to build the Recovery Advocacy Community in Montana and am excited to see how powerful our voice will become.
On January 2, 2023, the 68th legislative session made its debut swearing in the newest batch of Montana legislators. This also marked the first time that one party formed a supermajority since Montana’s constitution was adopted 50 years ago. Speaking of which, this Republican supermajority is champing at the bit to introduce a slew of amendments to the constitution. They’ve proposed 54 such amendments already. Some of the topics they want to legislate on are: the way elections are handled, the way judges are selected, redistricting rules (read: gerrymandering) amendments defining gender, banning abortions, and enshrining school choice and a parental bill of rights.Their plans are clear. They want Big Government to control Montanan’s personal lives and public institutions. Confusingly, Sen Steve Fitzpatrick has proposed a constitutional amendment on proposing constitutional amendments. If Republicans have their way, Montana’s constitution will be unrecognizable before the session is through.
Concerned about Republican’s extremist agenda, a group of activists from Great Falls organized an event – Occupy MT Leg. We were joined by concerned citizens from around the state. Why occupy space on the first day of the session? To let these legislators know that we will hold them accountable for everything they do during this session. Our sizeable group from Great Falls, Helena, Belgrade, Conrad, and more, first gathered in the rotunda to protest Superintendent of Public School’s Elsie Artnzen, who had brought in a slate of far-right speakers (an abuse of the office) to mount yet another unfounded attack on our public school teachers and administrators. Artnzen’s “event” was small, disorganized, and met with Boo’s from protestors in the crowd.
We then moved to the Old Supreme Court Chamber, where the public reception was to be held for the newly-sworn lawmakers. Cakes were there, ready to be served, doubtless alongside much back-slapping and self-congratulations. We had aimed to speak with our legislators and make sure they know what we expect of them, but it turns out that they didn’t want to face the public. Not to be deterred, we gathered around the balcony of the rotunda, displayed our signs, and filled the space. We are here, and we will not be ignored.
Finally, following the swearing-in, we marched around the capitol building. The group was comprised of people from different generations, different parts of Montana, with different advocacy issues. But we experienced a solidarity that we believe we share with a large portion of Montanans. Far-right extremism is not representative of most of us, and this “super majority” does not represent us. They are not some aristocracy, and we are not some peasantry. We can and will raise our voice when they eat their cake and throw us the crumbs. We’ll be keeping a close eye on their votes, and the bills they sponsor. With this supermajority, they feel emboldened to show their true colors. And we are committed to rejecting fascist ideology wherever we see it.
with Rev. Dawn Skerritt and First United Methodist Church:
As members of the clergy, we know that words have power. Power to heal or to harm, to build up or to tear down. We know that for those in positions of leadership, that power is magnified, and thus should not be taken lightly. Carelessness with words—particularly from those who have been vested with authority and charged with responsibility—is dangerous, even in the absence of any malice.
We do not know if Sheriff Jesse Slaughter has malice in his heart. That is known to him and to God alone. All we have are his words and actions.
These we condemn in the strongest possible terms.
In a radio interview on October 27th, Sheriff Jesse Slaughter used his words and social capital to make misleading, and even cruel, statements against the Rev. Dawn Skerritt, the First United Methodist Church, and the local unhoused population. A few days prior, an unhoused woman died on the property of First United Methodist Church. Her name was Dianna, and she had endured a lifetime of violence and neglect, and like so many people rich and poor, she suffered from the disease of alcoholism. Dianna died, according to the report released by Sheriff Slaughter in his role as coroner, from “natural causes” related to chronic alcoholism. Dianna had sought local resources and had tried to find a way to move forward in her life. However, the resources available and the care she needed were difficult for her to obtain. The two-fold struggles of alcoholism and homelessness can be insurmountable for many individuals. In Great Falls, the local Rocky Mountain Rehab program can cost in excess of $23,000. Psychiatric care is difficult to access, and providers are often scheduled out several months, even for critical cases and for folks who have good insurance.
In the interview, Slaughter blamed Rev. Dawn Skerritt and the First United Methodist Church for Dianna’s death, saying, “People are paying for it with their lives.” He was referring to the outreach at the church even though his own report made clear that Dianna’s death, while tragic, was the result of natural causes related to chronic alcoholism.
Sheriff Slaughter spoke in a demeaning way about Rev. Dawn Skerritt several times, but more than that, he belittled her title, authority, and education. Referring to Rev. Skerritt as “preacher or whatever,” Sheriff Slaughter with his words undermined seven years of post-secondary education, an arduous process to serve in the capacity of minister within the United Methodist Church, and the many years of service she has dedicated to the church.
This is an irresponsible, reprehensible use of the platform he has been given. Whether the words were spoken in outright malice, carelessness, or dangerous ignorance, Sheriff Slaughter’s comments are baseless and unbecoming of a public official.
If the community at FUMC did not exist and Dianna had never been there, would she not have still died from the disease of alcoholism? Maybe not. It’s possible that without a community of care, her life would have been claimed sooner by the violence she regularly experienced. Or else she might have frozen to death elsewhere due to lack of shelter.
In late March of this year, the remains of another unsheltered person—who remains unidentified—were found on the First Presbyterian Church property, having lain there through the winter. That church has not been blamed for the person’s death. If one church is culpable for the death of a person on their property, are all churches responsible in the same manner? How much more is a city or county culpable for the neglect and lack of care that allows such things to happen and be summarily forgotten? Sheriff Slaughter offers no such diatribe like the one he leveled at a person and a group of people attempting to solve the problem of unsheltered people in Great Falls that so many would prefer to ignore—or rather, to displace and forget.
No one is claiming that the work of First United Methodist Church, now led by Rev. Skerritt, is an ideal solution. But an ideal solution does not exist, and as long as there are people in need, the Church will continue to try to meet those needs in spite of petty bullying by elected officials.
In this interview, Sheriff Slaughter claims that the church is not inviting folks inside and caring for them, but FUMC is still providing warm clothing and food, and has even opened their building up as a warm space to spend the cold winter hours of evening when no other shelter is available. The exact solution that Sherriff Slaughter himself mentioned is what FUMC is doing, and trying to gain partners in trying to keep all of our community members safe and alive this winter.
Sheriff Slaughter has a choice to make: a choice between embracing a spirit of collaboration in fighting the ever-worsening crisis of homelessness in our community or living into a narrative of fear and bigotry. We pray that as a servant of the people he will choose the former, rescinding his hateful comments and pledging to work with those he has a duty to serve, whether they are housed or not.
But until that time, we stand in solidarity and love with Rev. Skerritt, First United Methodist Church, and all who are victimized by a culture of neglect and fear.
Signed, the clergy of the Great Falls Ministerial Association.
Rev. Tammy Bull, New Hope Lutheran Church
Rev. Jessica Crane-Munoz, Sunrise Presbyterian Church
Rev. Barbara Gwynn, retired ELCA clergy
Rev. Scott Hedegaard, Redeemer Lutheran Church
Rev. Marcia Lauzon, Episcopal Diocese of Montana
Rev. Jessica Obrecht, Bethel Lutheran Church
Debra Oldfield, S.A.M., St. John’s Lutheran Church
Rev. John Ritchie, PCUSA clergy at-large
Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith, First Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Stephen Underwood, Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
It’s called a “Super Majority.” And Republicans are just two legislative seats away from having it. It means that, in addition to the crappy bills they pass in the legislature, they will be able to change the foundation of our government that protects citizen rights. . . the Montana Constitution. And they just can’t wait to do it.
First, they will be able to propose constitutional amendments by referring them to the ballot, if they garner the support of two-thirds of legislators. That means that 100 politicians in Helena can put amendments to our constitution on the ballot. Currently, amendments can only be proposed by gathering enough citizen signatures. It’s hard to do, meaning that lots of amendments are proposed, but few actually make it to the ballot.
Second, a super majority can call for an unlimited constitutional convention by referring a convention call to the ballot. If approved, a convention can propose changes to virtually anything in the constitution by a vote of the delegates. At a time when large swaths of the Republican Party support the January 6th insurrection and believe the hocus pocus dished out by the likes of Donald Trump, it is scary to think about what they would do to our constitution.
We encourage everyone to look at our constitution. It is an amazing document. https://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca_toc/index.htm We thought it would be good to list a few of the rights we stand to lose if the Republicans achieve their super majority in this election.
Section 4. Individual dignity. The dignity of the human being is inviolable. No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws. Neither the state nor any person, firm, corporation, or institution shall discriminate against any person in the exercise of his civil or political rights on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas.
Section 8. Right of participation. The public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision as may be provided by law.
Section 9. Right to know. No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.
Section 10. Right of privacy. The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.
Article IX (1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.
Article X, (2) The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.
Of course these are just words on paper (or pixels on a screen). The constitution comes alive over time and primarily through actions in the court system. Here in Montana and nationally conservative Republicans believe they have lost many of their goals in the courts. One result is that they have made it a priority to replace judges who don’t share their views. This is probably the reason so many evangelicals supported Trump. . .and he delivered for them by appointing three Conservative Supreme Court justices. Here in Montana, Supreme Court candidate Jim Brown is the epitome of a judge with a Republican agenda.
Changing our constitution would be the Holy Grail for the far right in Montana. And they are very close to being able to do it in the Montana Legislature. The stakes in this election are very high. If you care about protecting our constitution, vote for Democrats.
Two texts I’ve received from Barbara on countless occasions.
When initially deciding on how I wanted to go about writing this, I couldn’t move past the first question “How can I help?” which is essentially Barbara’s signature phrase at this point. Not just for me though, but to essentially anyone who reaches out to her.
For background, not only am I Barbara’s treasurer, I’m also her cousin. Though we’re tied by blood, we really didn’t know each other until 2015 when I moved to Great Falls. One of the first things we talked about was her desire to run for office and be able to help her community on a larger scale than just her position working Substance Abuse Prevention in Cascade County. 2016 was too soon to fully prepare, but she set her eyes on the 2018 cycle and dove in.
I’ve had the privilege of walking with her while she’s knocked doors on multiple occasions and, not only does she speak (and continues to speak) truthfully with constituents, but she listens actively and wholeheartedly. Barbara remembers specifics about those living in her district. She takes causes they’re passionate about and concerns they have to heart and, from the second she walks away from the door, starts brainstorming solutions on how she can help.
I’ve watched Barbara face many obstacles as a candidate, Representative, and person. I could list a slew of traits that I see in her that she keeps close in her toolkit to be the very best representation for House District 24, but at the end of the day only one thing matters.
Barbara wants to help.
I’ve heard, personally, on the doors in HD 24 that some voters feel Barbara’s opponent will “say anything” to get the vote. In contrast to that, Barbara isn’t the candidate that will smile at your door for five minutes and disappear until the next election.
She’s the candidate with true integrity and tenacity.
The candidate that is reachable year round – not just during the election, and not just during legislative sessions.
Truly, Barbara Bessette is the best candidate to represent -all constituents- across House District 24. Period.
Fearless. Whenever anyone asks me about Lela, this is how I start. Lela Graham is fearless. Her campaign literature will tell you she’s a veteran, but beyond that mere mention is a history of badassery. The jumping out of planes 47 times, fighting oversea, Military Intelligence Corps kind of badassery. She served from 1996 – 2002. But with those adrenaline-inducing missions comes a fair amount of pain, heartache and loss, the kind that can alter who we are at our very core.
Resilient. That’s the second word I use to describe Lela. After a long and successful military career, Lela faced a struggle that we in Great Falls know far too well- substance abuse. Around 1 in 10 veterans struggle with substance abuse. Ever one to beat the odds, Lela celebrates six years of recovery this month. Perhaps scarier than facing enemy forces and even our own demons, Graham has made substance use and recovery the platform of her campaign. She’s knocked thousands of doors in her district and has told every voter about her plans to provide substance use treatment to people in Great Falls and across Montana. Graham is also the only Jewish candidate in Great Falls. Soon after Lela kicked off her door-knocking campaign, her district was inundated with anti-Semitic fliers. Tough as ever, Lela remained undaunted by the hate speech and has since knocked every door in her district.
Originally from Great Falls, Lela’s career took her all over the world. When she returned home to Great Falls, Graham immediately jumped into community volunteer work. Since then, Lela has become a Master Trainer for Narcan (a medication that saves lives by reversing the effects of opioid overdose.) She’s starting a nonprofit to help others struggling with substance use, and she’s somehow found time to run against one of Great Falls’ most “untouchable” candidates, Ed Buttrey. However, Buttrey’s harsh anti-choice views may prove too radical for even his own base this time around. In contrast, Lela has vocally supported bodily autonomy, helping organize multiple pro-choice events throughout the summer.
Lela Graham is a profile in patriotism, resilience, and bravery. We can think of no one better to serve Great Falls.