Emails document GOP leadership power struggle in Montana

2013-01-16T10:19:00Z 2013-01-17T00:02:25Z Emails document GOP leadership power struggle in MontanaThe Associated Press The Associated Press
January 16, 2013 10:19 am  • 

HELENA — A series of emails shows plans by conservative Republicans to take over leadership of the state Senate from a more moderate faction.

The documents also outline a long-term strategy that includes "changing the face of the Montana Supreme Court" and remapping legislative districts to favor Republicans, according to an email written by Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings last September.

"If we can implement the long term strategy we will be in a position to actually elect a majority of conservatives in both (the House and Senate), adopt conservative legislation and have a court that will uphold it," Essmann wrote.

Essmann was elected Senate president over former president Jim Peterson of Buffalo in November.

The emails were exchanged among Essmann, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman, Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge, Majority Whip Eric Moore of Miles City, Sen. Ed Walker of Billings and Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena.

Lewis nominated Essmann to replace Peterson as Senate president.

"My feeling is that we need to be much more clear about what we stand for as Republicans, how in fact we differ from the Democrats in our beliefs," Lewis said in making the nomination.

Essmann, Wittich, Priest and Moore said Tuesday that the email exchange shows only that there is a philosophical tug-of-war between conservatives and moderates within the Republican Party.

"I think that diversity strengthens us," Wittich said. "Just like we have diverse debates here at the Capitol between Democrats and Republicans, having that discussion strengthens us. This is a marketplace of ideas."

In a Sept. 13 email with the subject "Agenda Control," Essmann suggested that moderate Republicans could derail the conservative agenda.

"The moderates are in position to block the advancement of our policies if they align with the (Democrats) on either the votes on the bills themselves or the votes on the leadership, which can operate the levers of power to block the advancement of bills," Essmann wrote.

Peterson, who calls himself a "Reagan Republican," said Wednesday that he was shocked.

"There doesn't seem to be any safe space for Reagan Republicans if we focus too much on the extremities or the fringe," he said. "I think this is a case of where politics is getting in the way of good policymaking. I think Montanans expect more from us public servants than the gridlock of Washington, D.C."

The September emails also discussed how the outcome of the governor's race would affect the efforts of conservative Republicans.

"The discussion will be somewhat academic if (Democrat) Steve Bullock is elected Governor, as we will be left to our strategy of putting another 4 or 5 referendums on the 2014 ballot," Essmann wrote.

Bullock was sworn in last week as Montana's 24th governor.

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