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House members jockey for posts

House members jockey for posts

HELENA - Two Democrats, Bob Bergren of Havre and Dave McAlpin of Missoula, are vying to be speaker of the tied House when Democrats pick their leaders next week for the 2009 Legislature.

As it stands, the 2009 House will have 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Because it's tied, the party of the governor determines who holds the speaker's post.

Most legislators running for the top leadership jobs emphasized the need for the political parties to work closer together in the House after the bitterly divided 2007 session, which was often paralyzed by partisan gridlock.

Both parties will meet in separate caucuses in the Capitol on Wednesday to choose their top and secondary leaders.

Rep. Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, is the only announced candidate for the job of House Democratic floor leader.

On the Republican side, Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, will face off for the job of House Republican leader against the Majority Leader Rep. Dennis Himmelberger, R-Billings.

Squaring off for House Republican floor leader job are Reps. Scott Mendenhall, R-Clancy, and Walter McNutt, R-Sidney.

Bergren, who turns 45 Sunday, is a retired firefighter who has served in the House since 2003 and was a whip the past two sessions. He worked as a Democratic consultant for legislative races this year.

"I have a great rapport with both sides of the aisle," Bergren said. "Hopefully, we'll work to repair the institutional damage that was done last session and restore integrity and restore respect for the body and all of the colleagues. Instead of having the partisan gridlock we had last time, we need to go back and serve the people of Montana."

McAlpin, 43, is executive director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Missoula after working on congressional staffs of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams and Sen. Max Baucus and as deputy clerk of the Montana Supreme Court.

He has served in the House since 2005 and was a whip in 2007.

"For the last 20 years, I've been right in the middle of public policy, making good policy, getting progressives elected," McAlpin said. "I think that well equips me to be speaker of our caucus, but as someone who can work with Republicans as well."

McAlpin said he believes he has enough votes to become speaker but added that it's up to Bergren "whether he tries to bring Republican votes to bear when we have the first day of the session."

That was a reference to the tied 2005 session, when all 50 Republicans and three Democrats voted to elect Gary Matthews, D-Miles City, as House speaker over the Democratic caucus choice, then-Rep. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula.

"That would never happen," Bergren said, adding that he was offended by the comment given all his work for his caucus and to help elect Democratic legislators.

On the Republican side, Sales, 48, is a private investor who has served in the House since 2003.

He cited his experience as an asset in seeking the House Republican leader's job and believes this week's election results vindicate what the House did in 2007 under his leadership.

"I took some controversial stands, no doubt about it, but the voters in my district wanted to return me, and they did in large numbers," Sales said.

"If they were that disgusted with the stances we took on taxation and the budget, they would have said we have had enough of these guys. They didn't vote for any of our statewide guys, but voters put us in charge of the Senate and dang near the House."

Himmelberger, 53, owns a micro-brewery. He has served as a Republican whip in 2005 and picked to be Republican majority leader in 2007 after the his caucus replaced Rep. Michael Lange, R-Billings.

"I think my experience comes into play here, and my willingness to work with others," Himmelberger said.

"I'm talking within the caucus, I have kind of a perspective that everyone's equal. I think I have some good relations across the aisle that I've developed. I've spent a fair amount of time working behind the scenes. I realize we need to be working together."

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