Montana Republicans formidable

Ron Selden
4/25/01

HELENA, Mont. - Gerald Pease, the only American Indian in the Montana Senate, said he feels like the "Lone Mohican" when it comes to representing the needs of his people.

"It gets tough at sometimes. I've got to be on my toes. It gets rough sometimes, especially when Indian bills come over from the House," said the Democrat from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation community of Lodge Grass, adding he's expected to intimately know all the details.

From the House side, Rep. Norma Bixby says what frustrates her most about the Legislature is the unwillingness of members, especially majority Republicans, to try new ideas. "Change is really hard for this body to do," the Lame Deer Democrat explained.

They are two of six American Indian legislators serving in the 2001 session. While the five House members can lean on each other for help in floor debates, Pease often fights his battles alone, a minority within a minority in the Republican-controlled body.

Pease deftly carved out a position of respect in the Senate. Serving a House term in 1997-98 helped, but he says the two bodies are so different, it's a bit hard to compare. "The Senate side is a little lower-keyed ... There's more time to speak. They'll hear you out. I like it over here."

He didn't run for re-election to the House, but when things evened out on the family ranch, he took a last-minute run at incumbent Sen. Reiny Jabs, upsetting the Hardin Republican by about 220 votes last fall.

Pease landed choice committee assignments when the 2001 session convened in January - judiciary, highways and transportation and agriculture panels.

"When he speaks, he's knowledgeable on the issues," says Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty. "... He's a perfect fit because he is a thoughtful, considerate senator who is respectful of differences, but absolutely unafraid of standing his ground and making his opinions felt."

As a first-term lawmaker Bixby, 60, long a statewide leader in improving education, came to the session with a lot of optimism, high ideals and a feistiness to do what's right. She found that politics rules the roost and people's needs often get left behind. The deal making and the horse trading leaves her sour.

"I really thought people would vote according to the needs of families, but they vote party lines. I know some of the Republicans would vote for some of these things, but the party doesn't want them to. That's really sad. You can't make decisions based on your heart. You have to go out and play politics."

The vocal member of the House Education Committee also served on the agriculture, state administration and legislative administration panels. She sponsored six substantial bills. One mandated state funding for tribal college students not members of federally recognized tribes. Another would allow public assistance clients to spend more hours in school and training and less time working low-paying jobs.

While four bills were tabled, Bixby appears to have persuaded the state - in conjunction with the federal government - to conduct performance audits on its child protection services program, rife with complaints. She instigated a study on tests used to certify teachers, charging current testing discriminates against minority instructors, especially American Indians.

Though Pease didn't formally sponsor bills, his fingerprints are on a host of legislative proposals. He was most noticeable carrying a House resolution asking the federal government to formally recognize the landless Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. It ultimately passed and was signed by Republican Gov. Judy Martz.

Several senators, assuming the bill would create a new reservation, attacked the measure as wrongheaded. The 58-minute debate brought out blatant racism, typically submerged in the Legislature.

Pease, 46, says it's been a tough session in other ways because the state budget is tight.

While American Indian-backed proposals clearly have a better chance of success in flush times, this year proved a grinder for most substantial American Indian bills, especially ones with money attached.

Pease says part of the problem is that state officials think they have to keep strings on American Indians, rather than letting tribes manage things themselves.

"I feel like we're a captured people because they won't let us progress."

Bixby, Northern Cheyenne, said tribal issues didn't fare well primarily because of a negative mind-set from GOP leaders. "The general attitude, I think, has been pretty bad. They want to keep us down where we're at and not give us much encouragement. They're just not willing to put money in to improve the situation.

"I still think I'm in the right party, but we just have to become the majority party. I find that this session we're always trying to fix the Republicans' problems, like electric deregulation. I think the biggest frustration is seeing Democrats vote against good ideas and Democrats carrying Republican bills," especially ones that limit access to the political system.

She took on the powerful energy industry with a bill to repeal state water quality exemptions for coalbed methane production. It was buried by the pro-business House Natural Resources Committee. A proposal to study efficiency and racial tolerance of public assistance programs met a similar fate.

Like other tribal leaders, Pease says he thinks Montana tribes can benefit greatly from the energy crisis by building new power plants, mining coal and harnessing wind to generate electricity - if it can be done in an environmentally sound manner. But tribes aren't treated the same as wealthy energy corporations and the tools to get started are harder to come by, he said.

"We can't get any of our real important things through now. Democrats can just talk themselves blue, but their bills just get shut down. And the Indian Democrats just fall right beneath the Republican army."

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