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Two Americas: Retiring Montana politicians say civility needed at Montana State Capitol

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daine sands
Frank Garner
Mary McNally
Doug Kary
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Posted at 3:17 PM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 17:17:02-05

MISSOULA — Democrats and Republicans agree more effort could be put into being "civil" during these politically turbulent times.

In our "Two Americas" series, MTN's Dennis Bragg reports four leading Montana lawmakers finishing their terms even agree on the steps that could be taken to resolve the division.

GOP lawmakers Frank Garner of Kalispell, and Doug Kary of Billings and Democratic lawmakers Mary McNally of Billings and Diane Sands of Missoula reflected on "Maintaining Civility in an Age of Division" during a recent seminar sponsored by The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center.

Montana State Capitol
The Montana State Capitol in Helena

Even with different political perspectives, there was a feeling that civility at the State Capitol is in decline.

"Right now, I think our society isn't really in agreement about who we are as a country or how we should operate and how we should treat each other. And I think that is fueled by a number of things, including our social media, a different perception of what reality is,” noted Montana Sen. Diane Sands (D-Missoula). “And certainly, our willingness with the anonymity of things like social media to attack each other. We call each other names and abuse each other as enemies."

daine sands
Montana State Senator Diane Sands (D-Missoula)

"It seems like I see more division, more rancor, more kind of public discourse that I wouldn't have seen before, right? The kind of stuff that my mom wouldn't have put up with in the backseat of the car,” added Montana Rep. Frank Garner, a Republican from Kalispell.

Frank Garner
Montana State Representative Frank Garner (R-Kalispell)

"My personal experience, like many, many others I think, is that it has deteriorated. I don't think we're in a unique time that way, I came of age in the 60s and that was not a particularly civil time,” noted Montana Sen. Mary McNally (D-Billings).

Mary McNally
Montana State Senator Mary McNally (D-Billings)

"It's horrid what the news does to us while we're in session. But that's politics, I guess,” said Montana Sen. Doug Kary, a Billings Republican. “They make us out to look, terrible."

Doug Kary
Montana State Senator Doug Kary (R-Billings)

Despite all the rancor, and the rallies, the four veterans were also able to look back with satisfaction, and times when agreements were reached -- such as the bipartisan effort it took to approve the Flathead Water Compact.

'That took a real bipartisan push to make that happen, and it was not easy. But you know it, it did happen,” McNally said.

Common ingredients all four lawmakers see as a more positive way forward? Not confusing campaigning with service and building relationships, even with your perceived opponents.

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“And so, in our communities, in particular, we only talk to people who really like us,” Sands pointed out. “And the campaign cycle makes that even worse, because all we do is talk in this hot rhetoric."

"Once you're elected, throw that running, that having to have the front center of every stage,” Kary said. “Put that away. Put your business hat on. And get down to business."

"I think the first is you've got to recognize when you're the problem. And I think you have to have a process to check yourself right?” Garner said. “A small group of people around you that can kind of help provide feedback whose opinions you value and who aren't afraid to hold you accountable in the same way that you are willing to hold them accountable when you don't hit the mark.

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"And get to know each other at a deep level. Listen to each other deeply or you don't have to pick a fight with them but come to understand them at the deep human level,” Sands added. “Because the danger is when we don't do that, we then start categorizing each other as just being wrong or they're not worth listening to, and that sort of dehumanization is what justifies violence."