HELENA — Incoming Montana Senate President Debby Barrett wants to have a united Republican caucus in the Senate this year after the bitter split that divided the GOP two years ago.
In 2013, the self-described “responsible Republicans” teamed up with the Democratic minority to pass much of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s agenda in the Senate and House, while rejecting key bills favored by the hard-line Republican conservatives.
Barrett, a conservative Republican from Dillon, said in an interview last month that one of her top goals is “to have our caucus united and have a smooth session.”
She said she believes Senate Republicans, who have the same 29-21 majority over Democrats as two years ago, are united this time.
In November, Republican senators chose Barrett for president over Sen. Rick Ripley of Wolf Creek on a secret ballot. Then the separately elected Committee on Committees, made up entirely of Republicans, assigned senators from both parties to various committees.
“You know, I think they’re together now,” Barrett said of fellow Republicans. “We have people where they need to be, and for the most part, where they want to be (on committees). So right now, I think we are united, and I have no reason to think we are not.”
One of the “responsible Republicans” leaders in 2013 praised Barrett’s efforts so far.
“I think Debby’s trying,” said Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, who chairs the Senate Taxation Committee. “She’s reached out to me a couple of times with emails for suggestions on taxes. I guess we can be reasonably hopeful.”
Besides party unity, Barrett has another goal.
“I believe the 2013 session benefited for the main part those working in government and for government,” she said. “I think we need to bring back a balance. I think we need all Montanans to benefit when we leave in 2015.”
Barrett will be the first woman to be the presiding officer over the Montana Senate — or the House, for that matter, in the state’s 126-year history.
“I’m humbled and excited to be here,” Barrett said. “I guess if you’re excited and terrified at the same time that’s a good balance, and that’s about where I am right now. And add to that just a little overwhelmed, but I’m really looking forward to this session.”
Barrett, 62, is a Kansas native whose parents moved to the Dillon area when she was 5 years old. After graduating from Beaverhead County High School, she attended what was then Western Montana College for two years before marrying Mike Barrett, who comes from a longtime ranching family.
The Barretts live on a ranch 40 miles southwest of Dillon on the Montana-Idaho border, right on the Lewis and Clark trail. She described the cattle ranch as “old, but it’s small.”
She said entered politics when the area’s longtime legislator, Bill Tash, was term limited and couldn’t run again in 2000.
What led Barrett into politics?
“I think it was public land issues,” she said. “Living on the ranch, we use public lands. We’ve been on the ranch, we’ve been on the same place, since 1868. So before there was a Forest Service, before there was a BLM (Bureau of Land Management), we used all those ranges, but we continue to use those.
“For each species, for each issue, you have to go and defend your grazing rights. ... It’s my husband and his brother and me. They could not take time off to go to those meetings, so I would, and it was just about full time. I was also in the Republican Party, so I think I would have run for office, for the Legislature, eventually.”
All legislators bring their own unique perspectives and expertise, Barrett said.
“My world revolves around livestock, water issues, private property rights, burgeoning wildlife populations and increasing large predators,” she said. “That’s the norm, I think, for a lot of the people in my district. I represent more cattle than people in my district.”
This session, as president, Barrett said she won’t be able to focus as much on individual bills. She decided not to serve on any standing committees, but instead will be a full-time Senate president, with her door open to meet with legislators and lobbyists.
Barrett said she looks forward to working with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, but as of Friday, she hadn’t met with him, her spokesman, Eric Sell said.
She agrees with Bullock on the need to invest in infrastructure in Montana — such as roads, bridges, water and sewer systems — but would prefer to pay cash than issue bonds for much of it, as the governor proposed.
“I would rather pay cash, but I would be willing to look at bonding if it’s short term, if it’s low (interest) rate, if we can get something for 2 percent,” she said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to that.”
Expanding Medicaid to extend health insurance to 70,000 Montanans is one of Bullock’s other major proposals for the second straight session.
“That’s a hard one,” Barrett said. “Just this week (in early December) they announced at the federal level that our debt is $18 trillion and growing. So I think it would be a leap of faith to believe that the (federal) money would be there.”
She called Bullock’s proposed budget “pretty bloated, pretty aggressive.” Rather than increase state spending, Barrett wants some of the $300-million-plus surplus to be returned to taxpayers as tax cuts.
In nominating Barrett for Senate president, new Majority Leader Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, described her this way: “She doesn’t play games and doesn’t do deals. She’s always straightforward and honest. You might not always agree with her, but you know where she stands.”
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, agrees.
“We’ve disagreed on nearly everything, but were never really ornery with each other, and for that I’m grateful,” Sesso said.
Sesso characterized Barrett as someone bringing a “strong ranch woman perspective,” adding: “There’s just no messing around on the ranch, and the job that comes on the ranch. The work’s never done. You keep moving. You don’t stop for chitchat. I respect that.”
One senior Senate Republican, John Brenden, R-Scobey, said he knows from serving on committees with her that Barrett does her homework.
“She’ll read the bills very thoroughly, she’ll look them up in the code book to make sure everything is copacetic,” Brenden said. “She does her due diligence very well.
Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Moore, R-Miles City, praised Barrett for her “selflessness and lack of personal ambition” and for her “grace and integrity” as well as keeping a cool head when the pressure is on.
Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, said Barrett recruited him to run for the House the first time in 2008.
He thought they worked well together on local issues, only to have Barrett and others attack him in his primary in 2014. She wrote a letter to the Dillon Tribune calling Welborn a hypocrite for attacking his opponent’s receipt of political action committee money when Welborn donated to another PAC.
“I don’t feel it’s my job to extend the olive branch,” said Welborn, who won the race, but added he won’t shut down communications with Barrett. “It’s absolutely in everybody’s interest for her, and I to get along and work together for the people that elect us.”
The last Democrat to challenge Barrett in heavily Republican Beaverhead County was retired teacher Richard Turner, who lost by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
“I knew I wasn’t going to win,” Turner said. “I ran to raise issues. I didn’t want her position to be the only one out there. I felt some of her views needed to be countered.”
He said Barrett talked about the need to eradicate wolves and “repeated the usual canards against Obamacare.”
Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, has served with Barrett in every session since 2001.
“Debby’s quiet and she’s thoughtful, and I think she represents Beaverhead County very well,” Keane said. “She’s conservative, and the people in Beaverhead County are conservative. I’m hoping she’ll be a great president. She’s my president too.”