Leading by example: How Missoula Rep. Kim Dudik did Montanans proud in Helena 

By the time you read this, Montana's 65th Legislature will likely have completed its 2017 session. Lawmaking season is always a lively time for this column, thanks to a reliable stream of stunt bills and weird ideas. This year did not disappoint.

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, proposed a bill to forbid Montana courts from applying Sharia law. Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, wanted to create a uniformed state militia. Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, sponsored a bill to lift restrictions on keeping domestic foxes as pets. None of these bills became law, which is bad news for my Islamophobic fox army, but probably good for the state as a whole.

Our forefathers would likely agree. They seem to have set up the Montana Legislature in such a way as to discourage lawmaking. Our House and Senate meet for just 90 days every two years, suggesting that the architects of our government hoped they would do as little as possible. But the short legislative calendar also reflects an ideal that modern politics have made quaint: the citizen-legislator. No one can make a career out of Montana's legislative branch. There's just not enough to do.

I mention this because one of Missoula's delegates to the state house embodied the role of the citizen-legislator this year. While her colleagues were submitting fantastic proposals to thwart ISIS and have a fetus declared president, Rep. Kim Dudik quietly went 13 for 19 sponsoring necessary, practical bills. That's a higher success rate than anyone else in the Legislature. And she did it not by seeking out polarizing positions that would get her name in the newspaper, but by applying her expertise to bipartisan reform.

Dudik is an attorney, and many of the bills she sponsored this year had to do with reforming the code of Montana. Her proposals patched holes in the state's anti-bullying laws, revised definitions of sexual assault and restructured the office of the public defender. Much of her work had to do with children, addressing issues from foster care to abuse court to human trafficking. Were it not for her efforts, children might have been an underserved constituency this year.

The 2017 session saw legislators stick up for oil producers when Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, proposed a tax on electric vehicles. It saw Rep. Barry Usher, R-Roundup, stand up for drivers by trying to ban bicycles from country roads. These bills made headlines and burnished their sponsors' reputations for being the kind of down-home, no-nonsense folks you hope never to meet in real life, but the injustices they sought to correct were dubious at best.

  • photo courtesy leg.mt.gov

Meanwhile, Dudik worked for a bloc of Montanans who don't even get to vote. I am not a religious man, but her record in this year's session brings to mind Matthew 25:40, in which that famous apostle describes Christ's attitude at the hour of judgment: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." While certain of her colleagues pursued the interests of landlords and auto dealers, Dudik was looking out for the least of these.

I was going to say that Dudik's fellow legislators should learn from her example, but they probably shouldn't. In a just world, Dudik would be celebrated in newspapers across the state by better journalists than me. In this world, she has not garnered many headlines. Jayme Fraser did a fine job describing her successes in a story for the Missoulian last week, but for the most part, informed tinkering to produce bipartisan reforms is not how you get famous in Helena.

Better to float a bunch of crazy ideas. Propose a new time zone exclusively for Montana, as Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, did with SB 206. Stand up for voters' right to bring a gun to the post office, as Rep. Randy Brodehl of Kalispell did with HB 246, or drink a beer while driving, as Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, proposed with HB 206. None of these bills stood much chance of becoming law, and even if they did, they wouldn't have materially improved anybody's life. But they got their sponsors in the newspaper, impressing some ideologues along the way.

It's not ideologues who make government work, though. It's people like Dudik, who are more interested in solving problems than in pursuing some absolute vision of their political beliefs. She belongs to a tradition of practical lawmaking that has waned in our era of politics as entertainment, but remains as vital to good governance as it ever was.

Dudik doesn't need to be famous across the state. I suspect she would do her work just as well if no one ever heard about it. But Missoula should know what she's been up to, because she does it better than just about anyone in Helena. We should send her back there every chance we get.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the dream of fetal gun ownership at combatblog.net.

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