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Former Billings Rep. Mallerie Stromswold reflects on her time in the Statehouse

 Mallerie Stromswold
Kevin Hudson
Montana Legislature
Mallerie Stromswold

Former Billings Rep. Mallerie Stromswold resigned two weeks into the 68th Montana Legislature citing logistical challenges and backlash from the Republican Party when she voted apart from the majority. In a conversation with Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar, Stromswold recounts her experience in Montana’s Statehouse, why she left and what she hopes for future lawmakers.

Shaylee Ragar: Before we get to why you left your seat, talk to me about why you first decided to run for public office. What were your goals?

Mallerie Stromswold: The story of how I decided to run for office is actually one of my favorites. I was 17 and I was a page in the '19 Legislature. I was a page for Bill Mercer, and I spent the week just absorbing the whole experience and seeing how the process worked and was actually approached by Daniel Zolnikov, who is now in the Senate, about running for office because he could see my engagement and I just was interested in it. He was like, you know, have you thought about running for office? And I was like, you know, I haven't. And so I was a junior in high school at the time, and later that summer before my senior year, I had gone into contact with him and my central committee about running, and they were like, how about this seat? And I was like, cool, that sounds like a good seat. So I decided to run for that and just got really into some human trafficking policy, education policy, and now that I'm in college, have just been really interested in housing, and so that was part of my goal. But more than anything, my goals were to represent a constituency of young people and represent a group of people that aren't typically represented in the Montana state Legislature.

How would you describe your political philosophy?

I'm not huge on parties anymore. You know, I realize that I don't know that a two party system necessarily works. So I would say that my political ideology is kind of more of the Libertarian Conservative. Just limited government, keeping your hands out of people's lives and making sure people have what they need to also survive.

You just announced your resignation last week. Why did you resign?

There's many reasons. One definitely being the personal struggles that I have been facing. You know, mental health is hard at this age and people don't really talk about it. But when you have, when you're struggling with that and then decide to throw on the challenges of serving and especially the way I chose to serve, which was not aligned with how those around me would have preferred me to, at times, it makes it difficult to do that. And, you know, there's other reasons. It's hard to pay two rents when you're paying in Helena and Bozeman and commuting and trying to do school. I kind of realized that, you know, maybe now, although I love serving and it's a pleasure and such an honor, it's just right now, I can't be the leader and public servant that I want and know that I can be.

You did say in a statement that you were on the receiving end of significant backlash for not falling in line with the Republican Party. What did you mean by that?

There's many things that happen, you know, within people who are actually in the Capitol and those around the state, whether it's news or constituents from other districts. Just a lot of pressure and anger and feelings of being ostracized. You know, to keep it pretty broad.

What kind of impact do you think that had on you?

It made it difficult to feel like I was doing the right thing at times, because although I knew that these are the morals that I – and principles, I'm big on principles more than anything – you know, if you're going to say “it's my body, my choice, it's my body, my choice,” it's my body, my choice with everything. I feel that's like the only, that's the best example I can give. You know, that means abortion, that means vaccines, that means transgender rights, etc. And when that's not the culture or the norm of the Legislature, it's hard to make those decisions and serve the way you properly want to, if that makes sense.

You were one of several Republicans who voted apart from the majority of your caucus a few different times during the 2021 session, and in particular you voted against two bills aimed at restricting the rights of transgender Montanans. How did you decide to break from your caucus on those votes?

Those two transgender bills had come to my committee on judiciary within the first few weeks of serving, and so we hadn't really seen many contentious issues. I was unaware that it was of the norm to be told to vote the same way the rest of your party does. And so at first I didn't really think it was a big deal for me to be like, yeah, I don't want to vote for these bills when I first heard them. And then, you know, when we caucus and it became a thing of, no, this is a party bill, like you can't go against these types of things. It never really sunk in my head at all to be like, okay. It was just like, no my constituents don't want this. I don't like this. This is not representative of my district and my generation and what I believe. And so it's just a no. It wasn't really even a question ever. So it wasn't really a decision I had to come to. It was just the decision.

What kind of impact do you think the division in the Montana Republican Party has on policymaking in the state Legislature?

I think it makes it more difficult to make policy for the greater good and to focus on what Montanans really need. I think it becomes a lot of political statement legislation, if that makes sense. Something that people can talk about on the doors, which is great and all. But why are we so worried about kids attending drag shows when people can't afford housing? You know, that's my issue. It's become political rather than policy.

Another challenge I want to get into that you brought up in your statement, you wrote that the Montana Legislature was designed for people, often men, who have flexible schedules and steady and significant incomes. I looked it up and about 67% of state lawmakers are male. About 60% are at least 55 years old, and the largest single occupation listed among a survey of lawmakers for the 2023 session was "retired." You said the Legislature should evolve to make it easier for single parents, students and people with low incomes to serve. Why is that?

Montana state Legislature meets once a year every other year for 90 days. That is not very much time. The purpose of that is to have a citizens Legislature, to have people from all different walks of life and to make it so we aren't creating more laws than necessary, you know, for small government, but it's not working.

What do you think those kinds of different perspectives bring to the state Legislature?

You know, there's an ag bill that comes across my desk and I know very little about ag, but I know my fellow representative over there has a ranch or has worked in ag their whole life. And so I can go over there and ask them a question about it, and I think that's really awesome. Or, you know, right now there's a big conversation about what to do with the budget surplus and a lot of the conversation has been around property tax relief and that sounds great to about 99 of those in the House. But, you know, I brought this up in many conversations right before I resigned. What about those who rent? Me? College students, those who pay their landlords' property taxes? I do not think that my landlord's going to give me a break on rent for a month just because he got a $2,000 check from the state for his property tax refund. You know, there's two sides to it. You are able to educate those around you, but it's also you're able to speak for those that are often forgotten about. It's difficult to leave that position knowing that oftentimes I feel like my perspective was very important.

You've talked about protecting your mental health. That poor mental health makes it impossible to do this job well. Do you think our generation can change the conversation around mental health and workplace culture for good?

I think we can work towards it. I'm not necessarily sure that it'll be perfect by the time the next generation comes around, but I think I think we can do a lot.

Mallerie, what would you tell other young people who want to run for public office?

Part of me, it's hard because, you know, I actually had a page come up to me on my last day and was like, I want to run for office, and the only thing I can think of in my head was I want to like, warn you and tell you like it's not what you think. But that's not what I want the message to be. I want the message to be that more people need to run so that it can change. Because right now, young people running and being in there, it's not a conducive environment for us. It's hard. It's very difficult. But, you know, if more and more do it, we can change it from the inside. And so I guess I would say do run, but encourage those around you to run, and let's try to get more young people up there, but also know what you're getting yourself into a little bit.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Mallerie.

Yeah, of course.

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.