Focused, articulate, dedicated to public service—not the most common attributes of 21-year-old males. But consider freshman Rep. Kevin Furey.
The Iraq War veteran, a Missoula Democrat, spent the first two weeks of the 59th Legislature finding his way to far-flung Capitol committee hutches, deciphering the rules of combat and becoming a devotee of mounting piles of minutia. He’s also carrying four of his own bills and has a stack of others curing in the hopper.
“It’s been pretty exciting,” he says. “I’ve been trying to get organized. I’m learning to be more detail-oriented.”
Despite his youthfulness, Furey says, he hasn’t yet been mistaken for a page or an intern. The lobbyists, who outnumber lawmakers in Helena, are on him like a fresh piece of meat, figuring out his angle and what he can do for them. Some have even helped with his bills already. Furey says he sees the lobbyists as important information sources, but over time, he suspects, “you learn which lobbyists are not to be trusted.”
Item one his first week, besides getting sworn in, was “Law School for Legislators,” a primer on finesse, massage and pushing (or pulling) one’s favorite cause through the hazardous bog holes and traps of the chambers.
Skills not covered in the course were “Recognizing Underlying Currents,” “Paying for Past Grievances” and “Working the Vulnerable Press.” For better or worse, all lawmakers must learn those things on their lonesome. And they don’t call it the Puzzle Palace for nothing.
The House powers placed Furey, an Illinois native who grew up in Bonner, on three committees: agriculture, natural resources and business and labor, the latter one of the most influential panels in the House.
Furey was cruising until his first bill, dealing with the state’s Wage Collection Fund, unanimously passed out of committee and hit the House floor for a second reading. Then a horrible thing happened: 97 legislators voted against it.
It was just a prank on the freshman, engineered by Furey’s colleagues and Acting Speaker Tom Facey, D-Missoula. When Facey asked whether all the votes were in and if anyone wanted to change their vote, everyone switched to their green button, indicating approval. Furey’s bill now awaits action in the Senate.
Last week Furey also had the unenviable task of presenting his other three bills to two different committees at the same time on the same day. Known informally as “slamming,” the practice is a primary reason many legislators get dark bags under their eyes by the end of Week Three.
Furey’s House Bill 110, requested by the Department of Justice, would create an “identity theft passport” for citizens who unfortunately find their social security number or other financial information being used by someone else.
The certificate could be used as proof of identity if someone falsely using your name is arrested or creditors try to assess blame when your credit card is used by another party.
Furey, a junior majoring in political science and environmental studies at the University of Montana, is also the sponsor of two bills affecting student appointees to the Board of Regents, which oversees higher education matters across the state.
One proposal would create fixed terms for student regents. Current law says the governor can appoint a student member “for not less than one year and not more than four years.” Former Gov. Judy Martz’ 2003 reappointment of Christian Hur, long active in Republican politics, prompted the Montana Associated Students group to sue over the selection process.
Furey has six other bill drafts pending, including one that would exempt persons under 21 who request a rape exam from being charged as a minor in possession of alcohol. He says it’s aimed at incidents occurring at under-age parties, where the prospect of being charged with a crime keeps some rapes from being reported to police.
“It makes it safer to report,” he explains.
Other draft proposals would establish a state bid preference for Montana-produced foods, require destruction of criminal-case DNA materials if a suspect is exonerated, allow a West Yellowstone café serving a state-owned airport to sell alcohol year-round, and mandate that all state and private employees get holiday pay.
“It’s really unfair for a lot of people,” he says of the wage issue.
A commitment to fairness runs deep in Furey. He says it comes from his family. His parents are long-time Missoula community servants. Mother Sue is a special education teacher; father Tim works with citizens with disabilities at Opportunity Resources, Inc.
“Working hard, devoting my life to service, that’s all I’ve known,” the newly minted lawmaker says. “My values are how I’ve grown up, serving the community.”
After graduating from Hellgate High School, Furey joined the U.S. Army Reserves. He started college courses in fall 2001 and soon was deployed to Iraq. He spent much of 2003 there but wasn’t involved in combat.
Upon his return to a redrawn legislative district—which generally covers East Missoula, Bonner, Clinton and scattered constituents between Florence and Lolo—Furey clearly clicked with voters, beating a primary challenger and besting Republican Jane Van Fossen in November.
He’s now a cadet-officer-in-training through the Reserves, and the possibility of law school looms in the future.
In the meantime, he says his energy is aimed at creating equality and fairness in the law.
“I just hope I don’t get burned out,” he says with a face full of optimism.