Farmers, ranchers, encouraged to run for public office
for Tri-State Livestock News
It’s election year across the country and everyone considering running for office – whether it’s for Congress or school board – is throwing their hats in the ring. People in rural America, which includes farmers and ranchers, are being urged to become a part of that venerable democratic process.
“Farmers and ranchers are less than six percent of the population in Montana, and less than two percent nationwide,” noted John Youngberg, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. He explains that because of redistricting as well as population shifts, urban areas are getting more legislators with urban ideals.
“We are seeing a migration of voting districts to urban areas, so it’s especially essential to have ag producers involved who not only understand ag issues but who can talk to their counterpart about them. For instance, House Bill 286, a water rights bill, passed with bi-partisan support across the spectrum because our legislative members who understand agriculture were able to educate the rest of the body. Other bills benefitting from an agricultural perspective deal with wildlife, private property and access laws. It’s important to have those voices at the table who understand those issues.”
Gary Wiens, CEO of Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association, explained the need to have the rural perspective in the halls of Helena. “From the electric co-op perspective, rural Montana needs to have a strong voice. On average, we have 3 members per mile, and many of our co-ops have less than one member per mile; we’re often very rural. Yet there are so many critical issues our electric co-ops need to address every legislative session,” noted Wiens. “For instance, something such as the expansion of net metering, a subsidy program for renewable home energy generators, can increase the cost to our rural co-ops and thus have quite an impact. It’s pretty fragile in rural Montana to keep prices reliable and affordable with stable rates. What the legislature does can actually hurt that so it’s so important to have someone who is knowledgeable seated in Helena.”
Wiens acknowledged that rural legislators face an uphill challenge due to their large districts and bills that affect rural areas. He pointed out that the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association serves all but one of the Indian reservations.
“In general, reservations tend to be economically depressed so they need to have their voices heard in the legislature, as well,” Wiens added.
Encouraging farmers, ranchers and other rural residents to run for office might be difficult, but giving them the tools to succeed is paramount. The Montana Farm Bureau and the Montana Electric Cooperative’s Association both hold campaign schools to teach the skills needed to run a successful campaign.
“The days of just sitting on your tractor and thinking that nobody will notice what you are doing are over. Today there are a lot of people paying attention, so it’s important that farmers and ranchers are at the table to have a voice when the laws and rules are made,” said Youngberg. “It’s important people in rural Montana run. We have a citizen legislature, which means you don’t have to know everything. There are people who can help you with decisions. If your concern is about helping Montana move ahead or helping agriculture, run for office. There will be people to help you.”
Wiens echoed those sentiments and added that it’s good to build confidence before the election process by learning how to run for office. “These campaign schools help a candidate get the information they need to get elected. They really can make a difference in the legislature. Keep in mind, that once you are elected, there is help. Organizations like ours, the Montana Farm Bureau, the Montana Stockgrowers and others provide objective information to help you with your voting decisions. We try to be accurate so legislators will rely on us. You don’t get very far as a lobbyist if you don’t have credibility and facts.”
The Farm Bureau Campaign School was developed when it was noted that there were less and less “boots under the desk.”
“We realized how important it was to get people elected who had an understanding of agriculture and Farm Bureau. We needed to have a very comprehensive way to do that, so the campaign seminar was developed,” said Youngberg. “I’d say the greatest takeaway from the seminar is you need to determine those peoples’ minds you can change. Don’t spend the time and money on the people who will always vote for you or the ones who never will. Find the ones who are undecided.”
This year Victory Montana: A Campaign Management Seminar will be held March 2-3 at the Delta Colonial Inn in Helena. The instructor will be Mike Sistak with American Farm Bureau, Washington, D.C. Sistak serves as the Director of Grassroots Program Development and has worked on several political campaigns, including John McCain’s 2010 and 2016 Senate re-elections, and Mitt Romney’s 2012 run for the White House. He additionally worked on Senator McCain’s staff at the Senate Armed Services Committee. He graduated from The University of Arizona with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master of Arts in International Security Studies.
“I know many people worry about campaign financing, and this hands-on seminar explains about developing a budget. Once you learn that, you learn about campaign tactics and what to do to get elected,” said MFBF’s State Affairs Director Rachel Cone. “This takes the worry off your shoulders. The attendees will do mock interviews and then be critiqued. In addition, this event allows for networking with others running for office. Keep in mind this seminar is open to candidates from all political parties.”
Senator Butch Gillespie, an Ethridge rancher, attended the campaign school for the first time in 2018. “I attended the MFBF campaign school just after I announced my candidacy. Having never run for a state position before, I was in need of a well-thought-out strategy to base my campaign on,” said Gillespie, who brought his wife, Doreen, to the school so she could learn her role. “This school was very intense and gave us plenty of ideas and practical experience to sort through and use in presenting ourselves as a worthy candidate during the campaign. I was able to win both my primary and general elections with over 70 percent of the vote. I credit the MFBF school with providing me the fundamentals to get this done.”