HELENA – One of the most hotly contested local races in the June 5 primary election will be for the Democratic nomination in Montana House District 81, covering parts of Helena and the Helena Valley.
State Sen. Mary Caferro and Helena city commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen are running for the open seat. The primary will likely determine the next representative for the district, since no Republican candidate has filed for the seat. Barring a successful write-in campaign, the winner will run unopposed in the November general election.
The primary will be a contest between a longtime legislator and a newcomer to state politics.
Caferro works with The Arc Montana as an advocate for people with disabilities. She was first elected to the state Legislature in 2004. She served three terms in the House, then was elected to the Senate in 2010 and 2014. This year, she was termed-out from her Senate seat, and chose to attempt a return to the House.
Caferro said her years as a legislator – most of them as a member of the minority party – have given her experience in working with Democrats and Republicans to accomplish policy goals.
“In order to get stuff done in the minority, it’s important to think of the greater good, and to be committed to the greater good,” she said. “With experience I’ve developed good strong relationships with my colleagues, and that has enabled me to really help people who need help, and that is my priority.”
Rob Farris-Olsen is an attorney in private practice in Helena. In 2015, he was elected to the Helena City Commission. Though he has not spent as many years in elected office, he says he is very familiar with District 81 and with what people in the district are looking for.
“While I may not have the exact same experience, I certainly have plenty of experience with the voters and on the city commission,” he said. “I’ve got the experience of a lawyer. We don’t have too many lawyers in the legislature, and so I’ve got a unique perspective, having interpreted those laws pretty much on a daily basis.”
Farris-Olsen grew up in Helena, attending local public schools. He returned after college, and says he has spent most of his life in this district.
“I chose to move back to Helena in particular because of the jobs, the economy and the people that are here,” he said. “If I’m elected, I will continue to represent those people with a consistent progressive voice, to make sure that my sons have a place that they want to come back to when they graduate from college.”
Caferro says she has lived in Helena for more than 30 years. She says she has been a single mother and lived in poverty, and that those experiences showed her the value of public services.
“I didn’t get to where I am today on my own,” she said. “It was a good public support system, good policies in place, good programs, and that’s what we need to get back to: empowering people and helping them with those pathways, so that they can create upward mobility.”
The candidates have campaigned on some of the same issues. Caferro and Farris-Olsen both call for extending Montana’s Medicaid expansion, currently set to expire in 2019. They also agree that some taxes and fees should be increased, to raise additional state revenue and help address the severe state budget cuts made over the last year.
Farris-Olsen emphasizes his record on environmental issues, including an endorsement from Montana Conservation Voters. He also highlights his support from the Montana Federation of Public Employees – a major union in the state, representing more than 20,000 teachers, state and local employees and other public workers.
“I think I have a maybe deeper understanding of our public education system and the public employee sector in Montana,” he said. “Our economy is based on the state, and if we don’t protect and ensure jobs for our state employees, then the economy of Helena just disappears.”
Caferro says she has made maintaining and improving public services her top priority as a legislator. She says she wants to continue focusing on that issue if she is elected again.
“I have support of people who have disabilities; I have support of their family members,” she said. “And who else is supporting me? Senior citizens, caregivers who care for their loved one who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia, people who have been suicidal or maybe even attempted suicide, people who suffer from mental illness, and veterans.”
House District 81 includes most of downtown Helena, along with neighborhoods on the city’s north side and in the Helena Valley. Caferro and Farris-Olsen are vying to replace incumbent Democratic Rep. Janet Ellis, who is running for Caferro’s Senate seat.
If Farris-Olsen is elected to the Legislature, he would leave his position on the city commission. The other members of the commission would then appoint a new commissioner to fill the remaining year of his term.