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Competitive Race Shapes Up in Senate District 2
Whitefish Democrat David Fern faces longtime Republican lawmaker Dee Brown
Candidates For Senate District 2: LEFT: David Fern | RIGHT: Dee Brown
Stretching from Whitefish through Columbia Falls into Bad Rock Canyon and the North Fork, Senate District 2 has changed hands between Democrats and Republicans in recent elections and is once again shaping up to be a competitive race.

In the Republican-dominated Flathead Valley, political observers say the district offers the Democratic Party one of its best shots at claiming an important Senate seat and chipping away at the GOP’s majority. Democrats currently hold no elected offices in Flathead County.

Democrat Dan Weinberg edged out Republican Donna Maddux by fewer than 100 votes in the 2004 Senate District 2 race to replace term-limited Republican Bob DePratu. Then in 2008, Republican Ryan Zinke won the seat with 52 percent of the vote (5,454) to Democrat Brittany MacLean’s 44 percent (4,544).

Zinke vacated the position to run as lieutenant governor for Neil Livingstone’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. Democrats are hoping this year they have a candidate who can give Senate District 2 back to their party: Whitefish’s David Fern, a longtime school board member with strong name recognition in his community.

Fern, 59, is squaring off against a formidable opponent in Coram Republican Dee Brown, 63, a veteran lawmaker with her own established name recognition in the Columbia Falls and canyon region. Brown is term limited in the state House after serving four terms as a representative.

Brown, a former teacher who owns Canyon RV Campground & Cabins in Hungry Horse, says the race may come down to independent voters.

“I feel there are a lot of independents out there,” Brown said. “I like that; I like independent thinkers. If you have a good enough message, you’re going to get elected.”

Fern, who owns a chimney service company called Chimney Solutions, believes he can appeal to those independents as a “pragmatist” who seeks to “blur the lines between red and blue” and has been traveling door to door to better understand voters’ concerns.

Counting volunteers, Fern said his campaign has personally visited roughly 6,000 homes, or 80 percent of the district.

“There are two ways to do a campaign,” Fern said. “You can start with an agenda and then try to convince people you’re right or you can listen and develop a platform based on reasonable feedback and majority concern.”

Brown believes in a similar door-to-door approach and plans to dive into campaigning now that the tourism season is winding down at her RV park.

“I go to as many meetings as I possibly can to stay informed,” Brown said. “If you’re going to participate, you have to know what’s going on in the district.”

For district-specific issues, Fern cited water quality in Whitefish Lake as a high priority, as well as the future of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company. Fern also believes safety concerns along U.S. Highway 2 through Bad Rock Canyon and U.S. Highway 93 West out of Whitefish must be addressed.

Based on conversations with former aluminum plant workers, Fern says the CFAC property has environmental issues that need to be explored.

“It needs to either be opened or cleaned up or a combination of both,” he said.

Brown says the CFAC property “would be a wonderful site for several manufacturers,” but first it must be cleaned up, a responsibility that she says lies with CFAC parent company Glencore. She wants to see the site declared a Superfund site.

“I think Glencore needs to start cleaning it up as a Superfund site,” she said. “The sooner we get cleaned up, the better off the workers in the Flathead will be.”

Brown also wants to open a trade office in Calgary to promote Montana businesses, lower workers’ comp rates and streamline permitting for natural resource development.

As a fourth-generation Montanan, Brown hopes to connect with local voters as both a peer and governmental representative, which is a philosophy shared by her opponent.

“Talking to people, they want better relationships and less politics,” Fern said. “They’re worn out by the national gridlock. The message seems to be: ‘Come to a solution. Compromise. Work both sides of an issue.’”

“In local politics,” he added, “individual citizens still have a role in policy development.”

Senate District 2 candidates were asked the following five questions:

1. What can the Legislature do to spur economic recovery and job growth?
2. How should the Legislature address the state government worker pension shortfall, which is projected to exceed $3 billion over the next 30 years?
3. The U.S. Supreme Court gave states the choice of whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. What should Montana do and why?
4. Given that the state is projected to have a surplus, what should be the Legislature’s budgetary priorities during the next session?
5. What are the other most pressing issues facing the Legislature and why?


Name: David Fern
Age: 59
Occupation: Self-employed small business owner
Years in the valley: Since 1988

1. If there’s a tipping-point component that changes the realities of a national slowdown, I’m unaware of it. A business-friendly environment must look at many factors, including tax policy, regulatory climate, the caliber of the education system, a well-trained work force, available capital and quality of life. To that extent, I’ll look to legislation that fosters multiple factors that lead to a business-friendly environment. Specifically, we need to make sure the State Fund provides a competitive worker comp underwriting, our Department of Commerce is actively and effectively recruiting business to the state, our schools are adequately funded, and regressive “bumps” within our tax policy are leveled.

2. The Legislature must make the TRS and PERS actuarially sound this session. I will listen to the pros and cons of a defined benefit plan (a pension) versus a defined contribution plan (a 401k). We need to consider financial stewardship in respect to meeting the obligations of our employees and setting a course that does not pass this impending shortfall to a future generation of citizens. It is also essential that our older population has the financial resources to maintain a high quality of life and participate in the economy.

3. Many district residents are dubious of the Affordable Care Act. The state should not reduce current essential services inclusive of education funding in order to implement a new program. At the same time they are often very supportive of existing programs such as CHIP, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans programs. I believe many residents would be supportive of an expanded Medicaid if such services are deemed affordable by the state and yield an overall reduction in personal medical indebtedness. It also very important that such an expansion does not add to the national debt.

4. The state should divide the surplus in the following way: Reduce the phase-in values of residential property taxes and or credit property taxes for next year, spend money on infrastructure projects that provide Montana’s good-paying jobs, increase base wages for state employees and replenish reserves to fight future forest fires.

5. I would like to address regressive elements of the property tax to assure that longtime homeowners can stay in their homes. It is important that we study our tax system to assure it is well balanced in respect to its impacts on residents. Workers comp premiums should be examined to assure continued reductions, and growth impacts caused by oil and gas exploration should be addressed in eastern Montana communities. Locally, we need answers as to the future of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant. We have dangerous roads including U.S. Highway 93 West out of Whitefish and the stretch of U.S. Highway 2 into Hungry Horse. We also need to look at water quality issues in Whitefish Lake.

Name: Dee L. Brown
Age: 63
Occupation: Campground owner
Years in the valley: 61 years

1. Investors do not like moving targets as we’re seeing in resource development projects right now. Tell them which hoops to jump through and when they’ve accomplished the jump give them the permits they need to begin business. Joining hands with our northern neighbor to collaborate on projects and doing more business across the border are goals for me. A trade office in Calgary would be a worthwhile project using bed tax money to fund it. We could promote all the businesses in Montana under one roof, from agriculture to tourism, while keeping our jobs at home.

2. A number of immediate changes need to begin, including higher contributions from workers and their employers. Unfortunately, that means the taxpayer will eventually fund the increased contributions. We should be looking to make a transition to defined contribution plans to allow workers to invest in their own future, just as the private sector has done forever. The taxpayer cannot continue to have this burden in future generations. It would also allow for some portability for the worker to increase their investments no matter where they work.

3. We should not expand Medicaid since it is just another taxpayer-funded program that relies on hardworking Montanans to pay for it. I think a voucher system would work better so people with different needs can shop for the care of their choice. When it comes to medical issues there is not a “one size fits all.” Putting people back to work will eliminate the need for the Medicaid expansion and allow them to make choices of their own about their care.

4. We should give a permanent tax decrease to the people. After all, it is their money. There will always be those who want just one more government program, but we know what trouble the federal government is in right now with that philosophy. Montanans are smarter than the federal bureaucracy and don’t want to see us follow their lead.

5. Jobs, jobs and more jobs for obvious reasons. We must get back to our roots and use our treasures in the Treasure State to put people to work, fund our schools and allow our young families some stability to stay and raise their kids here, just as we were able to do for our own families.
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