Amanda Curtis was selected by state Democrats at a special convention Saturday to replace John Walsh as the party's Senate nominee. Curtis is a graduate of Billings Skyview High School.
BUTTE — For someone still pretty new to Montana’s political scene — a one-term legislator who won’t get a second come January — Butte’s Amanda Curtis speaks with the surety and bite of a seasoned mover and shaker.
Curtis, a 34-year-old math teacher at Butte High School, scoffs at any suggestion of being just a late-game, no-shot fill-in to replace Sen. John Walsh in Montana’s U.S. Senate race.
“I’m not a sacrificial lamb,” Curtis said this week. “I’m going to win and I’m going to come out swinging for the fences and I believe this is a winnable campaign.”
Not likely — not this late in the race with little prospect of getting big money or support from national Democrats — said Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
National Democrats are furious with their brethren in Montana for the way things have played out, he said, in one of the races that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
“I don’t know of any analyst who believes it’s not over,” Sabato said.
But Curtis, an unabashed backer of labor unions, public education and the “working class,” is seemingly fired up at the chance to take on Steve Daines, the freshman Republican congressman who has had front-runner status for months in the Senate race.
“I might have the chance now to go across the state and say with a loud, aggressive voice that Steve Daines is wrong for Montana,” Curtis said.
Not because he was successful in business and earned millions, she says, but wrong in part because Congress has enough of those people already.
“We all need to remember that Washington, D.C., is full of folks that have done incredibly well for themselves and when you send folks to Washington, D.C., who have done incredibly well for themselves, they take votes that tilt the playing field to the wealthy and against us regular working folks,” she said.
Curtis was selected by state Democrats at a special convention Saturday morning in Helena to name a replacement for Walsh, who bowed out of the race last week amid allegations he plagiarized a 2007 thesis paper for his master’s degree. She was selected the nominee over Dirk Adams, 82-46. Now, she'll take on Daines and Libertarian Roger Roots.
Curtis is backed by the AFL-CIO and MEA-MFT, the two largest unions in Montana.
She said lots of others are backing her, including many who had encouraged her last year to run against Daines if he sought a second term in the U.S. House.
Eddie Zimpel, secretary for the Butte-Silver Bow Democrats Central Committee said Curtis would certainly be a sharp contrast to Walsh. The military veteran and former lieutenant governor was viewed by many as lacking charisma, personality and command of the issues.
Walsh was on the quiet side. Curtis is not.
“I think that she is very smart and knows what she is doing as far as getting her ducks in a row,” Zimpel said. “She has been very aggressive in talking to delegates going to the convention and counting her votes and it seems she is really going after it.”
A clean slate
Curtis’ foray into politics didn’t come that long ago.
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As a young teacher in Butte a few years back, she started going to teacher union meetings and got involved with Butte Democrats. She ran for an open Montana House seat in 2012, easily won the primary and was unchallenged in the general election.
It was an improbable journey, she said during a talk at the Butte-Silver Bow library following her first legislative session in 2013.
Her parents had divorced by the time she was 4, she said, her mother struggled with mental illness, they bought groceries with food stamps and had their utilities disconnected several times. A grandfather and uncle abused alcohol and died in jail, and her 16-year-old brother died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while playing Russian roulette. Had it not been for her father’s labor union benefits, she might not have had fillings in her teeth or glasses or health care.
She saw education and college as a way up and out.
“If you would have told that little girl that she was going to grow up to be a state representative someday, she would have had a hard time believing that story,” she said.
Curtis gained quick notoriety in the Legislature for filming and posting daily updates from the 2013 session on Facebook and YouTube. She was outspoken on many issues, including a bill she supported to remove language from Montana law that made sodomy a felony. After the House approved the bill 60-38, she commended its passage in that day’s video but slammed the 38 who voted against it.
She said it was hard to refrain from walking across the House floor during debate and punching a Republican legislator who “insinuated that if you are gay you do not have moral character.” That’s how the national publication Huffington Post summed it up.
She sponsored several bills that session, including one to steer Montana lottery proceeds to university student aid and one aimed at increasing the percentage of Montana workers hired for public works projects. They failed to pass, but a couple she sponsored did, and she was a vocal opponent of others she said amounted to a “full assault on people” by taking aim at free, public education, workers’ rights and access to courts and public lands.
Curtis has supported a state expansion of Medicaid — something Republicans who control the Montana Legislature have blocked — and says now there are good things and bad things about the Affordable Health Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“I’m not a person who will throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Curtis said.
Curtis did not seek another term in the Legislature, in part because redistricting would have pitted her against other Democratic lawmakers from the Butte area. She said she also wanted to finish her masters’ degree.
Then came this chance to get back in, one she seized with enthusiasm.
She’s a big supporter of protecting access to public lands, she said, and “keeping the government out of our bedrooms and our doctor’s offices.”
But none of that will be enough, Sabato said.
“It’s mid-August — how does a candidate even get up to speed on all the national issues,” he said. “I’m sure she’s familiar with the Montana state issues, but you have to answer the tough questions about what is going on in Iran and Hamas versus Israel,” he said.
“Then there’s the money. I can’t imagine the DSCC (Democratic Senate Campaign Committee) wasting a lot of money on this. They have enough close races to worry about. So there’s the money issue, the lack of name ID and the overall sense that Democrats in Montana have blown it.”
But Democrats will at least have a new candidate and a clean slate of sorts after Saturday, and many speak highly of Curtis.
“She is definitely motivated and she is a very good voice for working-class folks,” said Democratic state Rep. Pat Noonan of Ramsay. “She puts working-class folks out front when making decisions. And she’s also the consummate educator.”