HELENA - Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, was picked Wednesday to be the speaker of the evenly divided Montana House of Representatives in 2009, while the current speaker, Rep. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, was chosen as House Republican leader.
Democratic and Republican House members met in separate party caucuses to elect their leaders for the 2009 Legislature, which convenes Jan. 5.
With the House tied with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, Democrats under state law get the speaker's post because the governor is a Democrat. The speaker presides over the House.
Bergren, who defeated Rep. Dave McAlpin, D-Missoula, for speaker, struck a moderate tone and emphasized the need to work with Republicans.
The two parties were often at odds in the often bitterly partisan House two years ago, with 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and one Constitution Party member who usually voted with Republicans.
"The moderates on both sides of the aisle must come together," Bergren said in an interview afterward. "The people of Montana cannot afford another session of gridlock. We need to respect one another."
Bergren told his Democratic colleagues that he has a "great rapport" with Republicans in the House and said he would "govern from the middle" as speaker.
That approach will not change, regardless of the Republican leadership, Bergren said.
"I hope both sides are somewhat conciliatory," he said.
The House of Representatives alone has the responsibility to craft the first draft of the state's two-year budget, which is even more vital in the uncertain economic times facing the nation, he said.
"The people of Montana want to see us get along," said Bergren, 45, a retired firefighter who was deputy minority leader in 2005.
On the Republican side, Sales defeated House Majority Leader Dennis Himmelberger to win his party's top leadership spot.
While Himmelberger emphasized the need for improved decorum, civility and better communications with Democrats, Sales struck a less conciliatory, more partisan note.
After Montanans elected Democrats to all statewide executive offices Nov. 4, "lo and behold, the people of Montana went a different direction with the Senate and House," Sales said.
"Voters sent us a clear message," he said.
That gives Republicans the chance to continue to advocate their positions for limited government, lower taxes, family values and personal responsibility, Sales said.
"Voters knew what we stood for and affirmed what we did," Sales told reporters afterward. "I think they wanted some balance."
He said he doesn't believe that the projected state general fund surplus will be anywhere near the $1 billion figure estimated earlier this fall, citing national and state economic problems.
If there is any extra money, the Legislature should return it taxpayers through reduced taxes, Sales said.
He emphasized the need for Republicans to start planning for their next election and told them of a 2010 legislative campaign fundraiser Wednesday night at the Montana Club.
"The 2010 election begins today," said Sales, 48, who is retired from the high-tech industry and has a custom hay business.
Asked if he thought the 2009 House would have improved decorum over 2007, Sales said he did.
"I think who we had in the majority leader last session didn't facilitate as good a relationship as he could," Sales said.
He was referring to Rep. Michael Lange, R-Billings, who blasted Gov. Brian Schweitzer in an expletive-filled tirade in a caucus speech that aired on television. House Republicans dumped Lange as their leader after the May special session and replaced him with Himmelberger.
In the Democratic caucus, Rep. Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, won the No. 2 spot as floor leader. She told fellow Democrats that while she will push the party's agenda, she also urged her colleagues to remember that all lawmakers are Montanans.
"We are the voice of all Montana people," she said. "We need to look to our colleagues on the other side of the aisle as fellow Montanans and people who have much in common with us."
The Democratic leadership slate includes two American Indians, Campbell, who is an enrolled Assiniboine tribal member representing the Fort Peck Reservation, and Rep. Shannon Augare, a Blackfeet tribal member from Browning, whose district includes most of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, along with the towns of Cut Bank and Kevin.
On the Republican side, Rep. Scott Mendenhall, R-Clancy, won the No. 2 spot as House Republican floor leader over Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sidney.
Mendenhall said there were some "miscues" in the 2007 session, "but by and large, day in and day out, the work we did in caucus we can be proud of."
Montanans are "really tired" of the "long, mud-slinging session and campaign," Mendenhall said, voicing optimism that both parties in the House can operate with civility and decorum in 2009.
Legislature leaders for 2009
Here are the leaders, by chamber and by party, of the 2009 Montana Legislature. They were chosen in separate party caucuses Wednesday.
Senate President: Bob Story Jr., R-Park City.
Senate majority leader: Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo.
Senate majority whips: Roy Brown, R-Billings, and Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell.
Senate president pro tem: Dan McGee, R-Laurel.
Senate minority leader:Carol Williams, D-Missoula.
Senate assistant minority leader: Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda.
Senate minority whips: Trudi Schmidt, D-Great Falls, Kim Gillan, D-Billings.
House speaker: Bob Bergren, D-Havre.
House Democratic floor leader:Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar.
House Democratic whips: Shannon Augare, D-Browning, Rep. Julie French, D-Scobey.
House Democratic caucus leader: Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman.
Speaker pro tempore: Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman.
House Republican leader: Scott Sales, R-Bozeman.
House Assistant Republican leader: Tom McGillvray, R-Billings.
House Republican floor leader: Scott Mendenhall, R-Clancy.
House Republican whips: Reps. Chas Vincent, R-Libby; Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse; Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel; and Llew Jones, R-Conrad.