Democrat Bryce Bennett and Republican Don Harbaugh, two candidates vying to represent House District 92 in the Montana Legislature, have, at least, two things in common. They attend the same church, and they both, if elected, would place education high on their legislative priority lists.
But the similarities appear to end there. Bennett is a 25-year-old political organizer who could be the youngest legislator and the first openly gay man to serve in Helena. He's passionate about progressive issues, as evidenced by his work with Forward Montana, MontPIRG and Montana Conservation Voters, and has mobilized a horde of volunteers to knock on doors and register voters leading up to the Election Day on Nov. 2.
Harbaugh is a 69-year-old retired schoolteacher and administrator who, when he spoke with the Independent last week, had just finished un-shoeing his horses at his Rattlesnake Valley home. He speaks of engaging voters with chili-feed fundraisers with country swing music, voting for spending cuts if elected, and generally offering voters an alternative to the Democrats that dominate Missoula's political landscape.
Bennett and Harbaugh are two of the three candidates looking to represent HD 92—a district encompassing 771 square miles of Missoula County stretching from the Rattlesnake into the Blackfoot Valley and north to Seeley Lake and Condon—when the Legislature convenes in January 2011.
It's a large district, by Missoula's standards, but Bennett believes the communities within it have plenty in common.
"I thought the issues [the residents care about] would be different," he says. "But they're really not. They care about their environment, they care about jobs—those are the big things that are driving the people in the Rattlesnake and the people up in Seeley Lake."
Bennett, a fifth-generation Montanan who grew up in the tiny town of Hysham, about halfway between Billings and Miles City, graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in communication studies and nonprofit administration. At UM he served on the school's student senate, and during his senior year was elected president of Montana College Democrats. After graduation he worked for the Democratic National Committee. Last year he worked for two state legislative committees—the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee and the Federal Relations, Energy and Telecomm-unications Committee.
"I learned the process and how you can be effective, and the mistakes a lot of [new legislators] make," Bennett says of his time in Helena. "It just sort of inspired me to take a chance at running when the seat came open."
Bennett counts creating jobs, education, the environment, and anti-discrimination as the issues he's most passionate about. But one, he says, isn't more important than any other.
"I see them all as really interconnected," he says. "Without one you generally have issues with the other. So I care about all of those issues—making sure we have a clean environment, making sure that our schools are giving kids the skills they need to actually compete in this economy, and making sure that everybody's equal under the law."
Harbaugh doesn't equivocate when asked about the most important issue heading into 2011: the economy and state budget dipping further into the red.
"It's one of those things that's a lot like your household budget," Harbaugh says. "You just have to sit down and say, 'Well, I guess we won't go out to the movies for a while,' or whatever it is."
Harbaugh declines to name specific spending cuts he'd support.
"My decision-making process is to learn as much as I can, listen to the people who are directly involved, and prioritize and sort it out, and make the decisions," he says. "Having said that, in the state government, as far as I'm concerned, the top priority, and the top spending item, is public education. So I'd do everything in my power to protect essential services there."
Harbaugh was raised in Jordan, Mont., and attended Whitworth University, where he majored in English and social studies. He earned a master's degree in secondary school administration from UM. He worked as a high school teacher, and then as assistant principal and principal at Hellgate and Sentinel high schools—a total of 25 years in public education. Harbaugh also was a partner in an insurance business. He and his wife Donna have three children and nine grandchildren.
His motivation to serve his neighbors in HD 92 comes from a strong sense of civic duty.
"I believe to make our system work you have to have choices, and people need to have alternatives," he says. "That's how our system works. I also decided to run because this community has been very good to me and our family through the years, and part of it's payback on my part—a chance to serve, if asked."
Bennett and Harbaugh are joined on the ballot by Henry Kayl Good IV, a Libertarian from Condon who works as a medical marijuana caregiver. The Independent was unable to reach Good before press time; a number provided by the Libertarian Party for Good was not in service, and the candidate did not respond to e-mails.
Should Bennett pull off a victory, he'd make history. But that, he says, isn't why he's running.
"I never really got into this campaign thinking, 'Oh, I can run and be the first openly gay male elected to the Montana Legislature,'" he says. "I got involved to say, 'Hey, I can help some kids afford college, or make sure we have a clean environment for future generations.' And certainly making sure that everyone is equal under the law is something that's very important to me, but it's just a piece of the overall campaign."