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Family Matters
Like I Was Sayin...
There are alarming details in Great Falls Tribune reporter John Adams’ story about leaked emails sent by Republicans in the state Senate, and the story pokes several holes in the overarching narrative that the new leadership touted in the run-up to the legislative session.

In an interview with the Beacon just a few weeks before the 63rd Montana Legislature convened, newly elected Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said there would be a “new tone in Helena.” That may be true in regard to how his party’s leadership works with a new Democratic governor, but that is apparently not true among members of his own party.

Emails obtained by Adams show Essmann and his colleagues in the Senate plotting against what they considered more moderate Republicans in line for leadership positions, particularly Buffalo Sen. Jim Peterson and Kalispell Sen. Bruce Tutvedt. Following November’s general election, Essmann defeated Peterson for the Senate presidency and Bozeman Sen. Art Wittich defeated Tutvedt for majority leader.

Diversity of ideas is a good thing within a party and so is competition. But the effort to downplay any internal strife within the caucus now seems rather disingenuous. Following the leadership vote, which by most accounts took both Peterson and Tutvedt off guard, Essmann maintained, “We are going to be united.” But that obviously isn’t the case – especially now.

After the Tribune published the emails on Jan. 15, the Associated Press interviewed Peterson, who said he was shocked by the story: “I think this is a case of where politics is getting in the way of good policy making. I think Montanans expect more from us public servants than the gridlock of Washington, D.C.”

Many of the emails exchanged among Essmann, Wittich, Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge, Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena, Sen. Ed Walker of Billings and Majority Whip Frederick “Eric” Moore of Miles City are strategy discussions that involve brokering power with party members with whom they disagree on some issues. This is how caucuses operate and is not all that unusual.

But the correspondence also includes multiple references to not trusting other members of their party. At one point, Priest writes: “In reality, they [the moderates] see conservatives as their enemies and the status quo spenders as their friends” and “appeasement has never worked.” In another email, Wittich refers to the “old guard” as “chumps.” In still another, Essmann wrote that Tutvedt “spent the entire convention spewing about vengeance” (perhaps this was a reference to the Kalispell senator’s displeasure with attack ads conservative groups ran against him during his primary).

Since the Tribune broke the story, it has run everywhere. The intra-party conflict is out in the open for all to see and must be making the halls in the Helena capitol a little more uncomfortable. The question now is, as the legislative session just began, can those relationships be mended? Essmann believes they can.

He called Senate Republicans together after the emails surfaced and said he was “optimistic” the party can move forward.

“It’s just like a disagreement in a family,” Essmann said, according to the Associated Press. “First you have to recognize the differences and then make things work.”

But at least one family member was skeptical. Tutvedt believes the groups who attacked him during his primary have ties to those involved with Essmann’s rise to power. He called the leadership in Senate “extremists” who have not disclosed their agenda.

That agenda is sure to surface in the coming weeks. But it’s unclear whether the Senate leadership will have enough support to implement it.
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