On Jan. 19, a Missoula nonprofit organization leveled a series of accusations at the student representative to the Montana Board of Regents. Forward Montana, a nonpartisan political group, accused Student Regent Kala French of representing industry over students and issued a press release describing the Kalispell native and Montana State University sophomore as “arrogant, unethical and unpopular.”
If French is as “clearly unfit” to serve as Forward Montana alleges, student interests will suffer the remainder of French’s term—a two-and-a-half-year stretch that expires June 2007. French, after all, is the only representative students have out of the seven appointed regents. Outside the narrow confines of Forward Montana’s vision, though, is a different picture of French and a different perspective on the controversy surrounding Forward Montana’s attempt to undo her appointment.
“It’s being blown way out of proportion,” says Board of Regents Chairman John Mercer.
French’s Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 11. Because her term began in June 2004, before the Legislature was in session, her confirmation hearing will be held eight months after her appointment by former Gov. Judy Martz.
So far, Forward Montana’s charges against French range from the vague and ill-defined to the flat-out wrong. In fact, the accusations appear to be less a reflection on French than a reflection of political biases in Missoula and on the University of Montana campus. Those biases, at least in this case, lean left, left and further left.
Voices from the right, of course, are happy to weigh in.
“This is nothing but a bunch of political jargon that’s being thrown at the student regent,” says Tyler Matthews, state chairman of the Montana College Republican Federation. “The student regent will openly admit she’s a conservative woman. There are a lot of people that don’t like her because she’s a Judy Martz appointment.”
On a recent Friday, as on most days, the appointee is at the Capitol. The self-possessed French, who just turned 20, has a quick smile and perfectly manicured fingernails. She is obviously busy. She lugs around a black leather book bag, bulging and unzipped. A rolled-up newspaper sticks out of one corner. She sits in a cafeteria booth with a pile of mailings for student body presidents.
Was she expecting the controversy over her appointment? She offers a wry smile and shakes her head no.
French was given little notice that opposition was afoot. Forward Montana never called her before holding its press conference describing her as “unethical.” French says she is looking forward to her confirmation hearing, vocal opposition or no. She’d like to face her accusers.
“I’m looking forward to my critics being able to raise their concerns and me being able to answer in a public forum,” she says.
She attends hearings for 15 to 20 hours a week on behalf of students, she says. Additional regent work can eat up between five and 10 hours a week. When the regents meet, French spends anywhere between 50 and 60 hours a week on student regent work alone, she says.
Last year, French lived in a Bozeman house with 20 other girls who were jealous of the stacks of mail that piled up for her. “I took to showing them, ‘Here’s what it is. Do you really want to look at these budgets for three or four hours a night? It’s really not that exciting, I promise you.’”
French has her peculiarities. She likes to “scrapbook,” she says. “That’s my stress reliever and I’ve been doing a lot of it over the last several weeks.” She keeps one hour of the week sacred and protected from work: “I’m an avid fan of ‘The West Wing.’ My one selfish hour of the week is Wednesday night from 8 to 9,” she says.
Other than admitting to an unconventional method for blowing off steam and a minor addiction to a political sitcom, French seems like a hardworking, ambitious but otherwise ordinary student.
Forward Montana, though, presents French’s tenure as harmful to the interests of students. Forward Montana is a relatively young organization with a mission to politically energize Montana’s youth. The organization’s president is Gerik Kransky, a tall, lean man with big, brown eyes. Kransky is a graduate of UM’s School of Forestry and expresses an ambitious dream for the nonprofit: “We are striving to be the voice for youth in the state of Montana,” he says. “Basically, we just want to see 18 to 30 year olds getting involved in politics, getting interested in politics, and looking to Helena for solutions to everyday problems.”
Right now, he says, the organization’s focus remains on the student regent position.
“If we are going to be successful in our campaign, clearly we’re going to block Kala French’s appointment,” Kransky says. “We’ve made up our mind. We think the evidence speaks for itself. We’ve seen the way she votes, the way she acts and the way she fails to represent students, and that’s that.”
Kranksy can be maddeningly vague in the particulars of his accusations, and at its Jan. 19 press conference, Forward Montana announced ominously that French had accepted a “lobbyist position.”
In fact, French’s designation as a lobbyist appears to be incidental to the part-time job with the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association (MPMCSA) that allows her to live in Helena while the Legislature is in session. French’s boss, MPMCSA Executive Director Ronna Alexander, says French’s main responsibility is organizing Alexander’s schedule. Her pay stub, French says, reads “legislative aide.” French registered as a lobbyist upon Alexander’s advice, according to both, because she would be interacting with legislators and wanted to remove any appearances of impropriety.
While Forward Montana would like to portray French as a heavy in the industry lobby, French has a different description of the average 10 to 15 hours per week she works: “I’m a research gopher.”
Alexander has worked with the association for almost 20 years. Not once, she says, have the association’s interests ever come up against the interests of the students.
“We have other things to worry about,” she says.
Forward Montana has also accused French of opposing the University of Montana’s environmental studies program. During the last legislative session, some industry groups lobbied against EVST. MPMCSA, though, did not comment, Alexander says.
“The students over there haven’t done their homework in figuring out who we are,” Alexander says.
Last November, a Board of Regents committee voted to delay approval of a program jointly proposed by the law school, the college of forestry and conservation and the college of arts and sciences. The proposed program, a Natural Resource Conflict Resolution Certificate, is only peripherally related to the environmental studies program, says EVST professor and Program Director Tom Roy. French’s vote to delay approval, however, was interpreted as a slight against EVST by Forward Montana’s Kransky, who maintains that French is supporting industry over the students for whom she works. But asked what the student regent’s priorities should be, Kransky is vague: “Just to stay in touch with the student body.”
French says she took the position with MPMCSA for purely financial reasons: When she expressed to her parents her interest in living in Helena during the legislative session, they agreed on the condition that she support herself. The Board of Regents pays regents only a $50 stipend per regents meeting. French’s position as legislative aide, on the other hand, pays enough. Alexander declines to be specific, but says French is paid less than $1,000 a month. Montana university students, Alexander says, should be thanking her for essentially making possible French’s work on their behalf.
“Kala is very capable,” Alexander says. “She’s very bright. I hardly ever have to explain anything to her more than once.”
“Work comes first for her,” she says.
Mercer seconds the support.
“She’s been an outstanding member of the Board of Regents and an excellent liaison between the Board of Regents and the students,” he says.
On Jan. 26, the Associated Students of the University of Montana, which shares some members with Forward Montana, jumped on the Forward Montana bandwagon and voted 12–7 to oppose French’s confirmation and “[demand] Kala French find alternate employment independent from interest groups that run contrary to the best interests of students in Montana.”
Elsewhere in the Montana University System, French has strong support. The Montana State University student senate voted 15–0 to support her appointment. Student Body President Blake Rasmussen admits that MSU’s support may in part reflect a territorial battle between campuses over the student regent. French is, after all, a Bobcat.
But Bobcat or not, Montana Associated Students, a coalition of student body presidents from MUS campuses, voted 5–2 Tuesday to support French’s appointment, with the Missoula and Great Falls campuses opposing the appointment. Student governments from Havre’s Montana State University-Northern and Butte’s Montana Tech had earlier voted unanimously to support French’s appointment.
While French and Forward Montana have clashed, their goals don’t seem incongruous. Forward Montana’s slogan is a question: “Is it possible to get excited about politics?” For French, it appears so. And Forward Montana has shown that it is certainly possible to get excited about politics. Perhaps too easily excited.
French remains firm in her conviction that she isn’t doing anything wrong.
“I frankly refuse to let this get in my way,” French says. “When my head hits the pillow at night, I’m going to sleep.”
And when she wakes up Saturday, she’ll know if Forward Montana has been successful in holding her back.