By Michael Wright
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

Employees from a Dickey’s BBQ franchise in Billings called their boss when the cash register went down in January, but he didn’t answer. He was busy. 

“Of course I don’t check my phone in committee meetings,” said Rep. Don Jones, R-Billings, the owner of the restaurant, who was sitting in the joint appropriations subcommittee on education at the Montana Legislature at the time.

Right afterward? Sure. After the meeting, he saw the messages and missed calls, discovering a problem he had to fix.

It’s a feeling most in Montana’s citizen legislature know. They’re only politicians for 90 days every two years, and outside of Helena they have jobs and lives that inform their policy decisions and sometimes require their attention.

The 150 citizen lawmakers work in more than a dozen different fields, according to data from the Legislative Services office. Lawmakers are also attorneys, farmers, ranchers, government employees and teachers, and 27 who are retired.

Several own their own businesses, and some, like Jones, can’t afford to step away completely for 90 days every two years.

“There’s always something exciting going on,” Jones said.

 

When the register went down at his restaurant, Jones called the company that runs his software. It was about noon.

Jones had a bill in committee that afternoon – House Bill 322, a school choice bill – and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke would be speaking to a joint session of the legislature in about an hour.

“It was perfect timing,” Jones said.

Zinke’s speech gave him enough time to get the software company to solve the problem before Jones had to punch in and vote on bills on the floor.

Jones said he checks in with his staff whenever he can, usually each day. He also runs a marketing firm called Big Sky Loyalty, which runs text-message advertising programs for several businesses in Billings. That puts him in the largest employment category listed on the legislative site: business.

The other Jones in the legislature runs a few different businesses as well.

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, owns several businesses in the state and runs a ranch in Conrad. He has a car dealership and a few tractor dealerships, as well as some rental property.

After 12 years in the legislature, he’s managed to find a balance to keep his ventures afloat. He goes home on weekends to do what he can, but relies on others to handle daily operations.

“With a different crew, this would be a whole lot harder,” Llew Jones said. “It’s all a function of who’s there.”

He said his sons and wife are able to take care of the car dealership and ranch, and credits his business partner for handling the tractor dealerships.

Strong showing from agriculture

As can be expected, a number of farmers and ranchers occupy desks on the third floor of the Capitol.

Legislative services data says 22 lawmakers work in agriculture, which includes people on both sides of the aisle and some in the majority leadership of both Houses. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Moore, R-Miles City, has a ranch and a string of feedlots spread from Miles City to Forsyth. Moore said he could have as many as 18,000 cows on his property at a time.

Like Llew Jones, Moore said it’s important to have good employees who can handle the workload while he’s away. But, unlike Llew Jones, who only has to drive about two hours to get home, he can’t make the six hour trek to Miles City every weekend.

“It’s really hard for me to get home,” Moore said.

He tries to check in when he can, but sometimes calling home isn’t the top priority.

“I get so wrapped up in the budget,” Moore said. “When I get home, things are really slipping.”

 From lawyers to loggers

 Five legislators work in government at different levels, including Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena.

Dunwell, a former Emmy-award winning journalist, is on leave without pay from her spot as the public information officer for the Department of Revenue. The Department of Revenue is the third government agency she’s worked for in Montana.

She said her work there has been a great advantage as she examines tax bills during the legislative session.  When people have questions about tax policies, she has to explain them.

“I get taxes,” she said. “I understand them.”

Of course, she’s one of only a few who get to step away from their jobs completely.

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, manages to get some work done during his scant amount of free time in Helena. He is one of 12 lawyers serving in the legislature this session. A partner in a law firm, he mostly works on insurance defense cases. Others in his firm pick up what he can’t do, but there are some things he can’t completely let go.

At the outset of the session, he was worried one case might end up going to trial, requiring him to trade Helena and the House chambers for Missoula and a federal courtroom, but the parties in the case settled, which Fitzpatrick said was “like getting the weight of the world off my shoulders.”

Fitzpatrick, who is in his third term, said being a lawyer is a significant advantage as a lawmaker. He understands a number of different types of law because he had to study it in law school.

“I know enough to talk about it coherently here,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that as a lawyer, “you just learn about life in a way that I don’t think others do.”

Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, is a lifelong logger. He’s worked in the private sector auditing timber inventory transfers for decades, and during the first part of the legislative session he was working on a project in the Bitterroot Valley. His job is to make sure that logs moving between two companies get to where they need to be.

He counts the logs at the beginning and end of the transfer, after they’ve moved a few miles down the road. He makes sure all of the logs made it to their new home, and he said his experience is important to those types of deals.

“Bankers do not understand what a log looks like,” Connell said. “That’s why I am there.”

But possibly the most staggering workload belongs to Rep. Gordon Pierson, D-Deer Lodge. Pierson, the persistently upbeat second term lawmaker, is a nurse. After about 20 years working in a sawmill in Deer Lodge, he decided to go back to school and become a nurse.

He’s worked at a hospital in Anaconda for about two years now, and during the session he manages to get to Anaconda twice a week to work 12-hour night shifts. He leaves Helena by 5 p.m. and is at work by 7 p.m. By around 10 the next morning he’s back at the Capitol.

When asked how he can pull that off, he said a “complete lack of sleep.” Sometimes he has to leave long committee meetings to get to work on time, but he said he’s able to keep up through online recordings, and finds ways to stay positive despite the long hours.

“It’s all mental,” he said. “It’s mind over matter.”

- Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.