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ACLU of Montana's Keegan Medrano shares a strategy to combat the GOP supermajority
The Director of Policy and Advocacy also offers advice to the diminished Montana Democratic Party, and highlights opportunities for bipartisan collaboration.
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As we inch closer to the 2023 legislative session, Montanans of all political stripes are gearing up for what’s guaranteed to be a wild ride. Thanks to a powerful showing in this November’s elections, the state GOP will hold a veto-proof supermajority in the Legislature. The party’s dominance will furthermore enable Republican lawmakers to craft amendments to the state constitution; voters would subsequently need to approve those amendments at the polls in order for them to be enacted.
Today’s newsletter explores a question central to the dynamics of the upcoming session: in the face of the supermajority’s ability to pass bills without any Democratic support, how can the GOP’s opponents effectively push back?
Keegan Medrano, the Director of Policy and Advocacy for ACLU of Montana, has delved deeply into this question, and assembled a strategy that aims to disrupt and dilute the supermajority’s power.
Raised in Sacramento, California, and a descendant of the Muscogee Creek people, Keegan moved to Montana over a year ago. During the upcoming legislative session—their first—Keegan will work with an expanded team at the ACLU to fight against what the organization anticipates will be an "onslaught” of bills that they oppose.
While our interview focuses on the particulars of Keegan’s strategy, they also offer some suggestions for the state’s diminished Democratic Party, and chat about where they see opportunities to establish consensus with Republican lawmakers.
Max: Many folks in Montana have framed the GOP’s newly-established supermajority as an enormous threat. Do you agree, or do you think that assessment is overhyped?
Keegan Medrano: A supermajority bloc poses a danger by being able to pass bad bills, but it’s also prone to divisions in priorities and personalities. It represents the failings of our two party system, of our legislative districts, and ultimately the failings of the Montana Democrats. It signals to non-[politically] right Montanans that our state is, or symbolizes, conservatism. I think it cannot be overstated how devastating a supermajority is for what it means.
I think that, for what it's worth, the Montana Democratic Party needs a deep autopsy to reflect on what the future of the party is, if there is a future. Because right now, the slow whittling away of seats is its future and it's in a very precarious place to lose some of the Indian country seats. Once they lose those seats, it's going to only be the blue places, like Missoula and some parts of Helena, that are [Democrats’] only places of representation. So the Democratic Party needs to know what that means, reckon with that, and change course.
When it comes to the world that we're going to live in in Montana, I think that a supermajority means a full-on onslaught. And so it's not necessarily the strength of the supermajority, it's the flooding of bad policy, which means that more gets through my organization and my lobbying team. And then that floods our litigation team. That's what's really scary, just how much bad is coming, and how overwhelming that is.
How do you prioritize the bills that you’re preparing to fight against?
With a supermajority, it becomes less about individual bills and the whips’ counts for those bills. It's more so about the environment that you can create: you can create a toxic environment that allows you to peel off votes, more [effectively] than talking about policy.
A supermajority is a powerful block, but it is a collection of individuals with different policy beliefs, different life experiences, different regional reasons for representing the seats that they do. And egos, political ambitions. And these are all like little things to pick at, little wounds to fester.
Even [during the 2021 legislative session], Republicans started to turn on each other. Once you get to March or April, everyone's tired of each other. We're fifty, sixty, seventy days into a session; six days a week, eight to ten hours a day of trying to pass all these bills. Our supermajority strategy is to pick at that, expose that.
We have more people [on the ACLU team] this session, and so we're going to be playing in all sorts of different spaces. We have our bills and our issue areas that we focus on. But we may need to lobby and or show up in spaces that wouldn't traditionally be ours, to play at those tensions, to push at those boundaries and those relationships and put strain on them.
Our organization and our partners will need to be, I believe, bulls in the china shop just causing mayhem [with these kinds of bills]. We'll need to be doing that in the media and on social media and in our lobbying and policy.
What’s an example of how you see that playing out?
There’s a bill that I tweeted about that dropped yesterday: [State Representative] Braxton Mitchell's bill to ban youth from attending drag shows. How is that gonna work? Are the police going to swarm in? Who's going to be criminalized: Is it the parents? Is it the drag queens? Is it the children? What defines a drag show?
One of the things that we can do is ask other Republicans, is Braxton Mitchell your future? Is Braxton Mitchell who you want to be the face of your party moving forward? Are you okay spending multiple legislative days, multiple committee days on this bill, and not on the deregulation of extractive industries, for example? If not, then crush that bill and let's have some actual conversations about policy.
There’s issues where historically there have been split votes or tensions. Part of what our team does is analyze old votes to find those fissures.
There are some Republicans who are sort of true libertarians, who don't believe in growing the government. And then there are Republicans who want to grow the government, but for them that means a government that controls what women and other people are able to do with their reproductive and sexual health.
I believe that you can inflame when you center people like Braxton Mitchell and [former State Representative] Derek Skees. When Republicans who ascribe to civility politics or to institutionalism become frustrated, tense, angry or annoyed, those are emotions that I can use to defeat those sorts of heinous bills. And also then use that as an entry point to talk about some of the other things that they're interested in.
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It seems that, considering your opposition to these GOP bills, you run the risk of appearing synonymous with the political left. Historically, at least, that isn’t the case for the ACLU, right? Do you see that potential association as a challenge?
I have a few thoughts around that. We as an organization have to commit to issue areas which historically—or at least now—are viewed as political issues that have been sorted in a particular [partisan] way. So an example is privacy. When people hear privacy or at least when I hear privacy, I immediately think that it’s a Republican issue. I don't think about Democrats, [with the exception of] bodily autonomy. We as an organization need to commit to privacy work. We're going to be doing free speech work, we're going to be doing religious freedom work. Any moment when the government is expanding its power and reach is a moment that we must treat with the utmost suspicion.
What kind of privacy are we talking about?
I think a good example is facial recognition technology. There's at least two bills that we know of around facial recognition technology: one is a full prohibition of it in the state of Montana. And the other is facial recognition technology introduced with guardrails, like—and this is not something we would ever agree to—criminal cases.
When we show up in those spaces and we talk to those people who are the champions of those issues, we're looking to authentically engage and show ourselves as something that's more than [a left-leaning organization].
I think the second piece of it is that I think that there's been a framing of civil liberties as maybe a white issue where it's sort of abstract, like something that exists in our head.
Once we ground [civil liberties] and root them in real life experiences and also speak to the experiences of different communities, we can start to bring together this idea that we're the left and the idea that we're here defending civil liberties, right? It’s in our name.
So for example, I don't talk about religious freedom without talking about Indigenous cultural practices and spiritual practices and how that's been criminalized since contact and then sort of codified. Reckoning with that history is key to how we talk about free speech, religious freedom, privacy, even gun access. We want to use that lens to talk about those issues.
It sounds like there’s some real opportunity for bipartisan collaboration on that front.
We saw Constitutional Amendment 48 win with like 80% [earlier this month]. I think that there's a real appetite for Montanans to have control over their digital data and their bodies. And I think that facial recognition technology is an example of that, right? The idea that someone can view our body and then use it to run it against a system and say, well, it looks like this person and this person has a warrant. We want Montanas to have complete control over their bodies.
You referred earlier to the future of the Democratic Party in Montana. What do you see as a viable path forward for the Democrats?
I think in Montana, we need a deeper bench, and the way that you get a deeper bench is you make it worthwhile for people to be engaged in the process and in politics. And that starts back down here at the community level.
It's not about like, oh, you're this identity and therefore I'm gonna uplift you, or, oh, you're young so I'm going to uplift you. But it's, you have these experiences. You're young, you have these values, let's empower that and have that voice be at the fore. And I think there may be some reluctance in the Democratic Party as to what that might look like.
As long as the Montana Democratic Party is an instrument to stunt transformative change, it won't be the vehicle I think that there needs to be.
Let's run on our values, but also let's uplift the issues that are important to the communities that we're in. And I think we can do both, but there seems to be the sense that we can't do both. There's this archetype of what a Democrat in Montana is. I think that we have to break that mold, and just let community members who have deep relationships, who are authentic, who have values come to the fore.
I'm not trying to wrench a 12-point description out of you, but what comes to mind in terms of that archetype?
There's a masculine mold of what a Montana Democrat should look like. This isn't unique to the eastern part of the state. We saw [congressional candidate Monica] Tranel use this, we've seen [former Governor Steve] Bullock use this. It's dad jeans and it's guns and it's a public lands vest, right? And you have to look over the meadow at snow falling and all that sort of imagery, right? I think we just need to ask ourselves, why is that the imagery that we think we need to run off of? And to me it's rooted in frontier culture, southern colonial culture, and this idea of what the west is and what Montana is.
Again, I think it's really about people who show up for each other. Are you fighting for renters? Are you fighting for unhoused people or are you willing to put those people up on the chopping block when you need political votes and political power? As long as the Democratic Party is the party that does that, then they will have no future. I think that was only four points (laughs).
Does ACLU of Montana, generally speaking, engage on the local level, like with city councils?
Historically, no. But during my tenure that's our intention moving forward.
We're looking at maybe building some community between Missoula and Great Falls, and the community organizers and activists that are working in those two areas. That’s the way that you build power. There are amazing people who are on the vanguard of protecting unhoused people and getting them resources and getting them housing, listening to them and uplifting their needs and allowing them to speak to the issues that are impacting them, right?
Keegan, is there anything you want to add before we wrap up?
We’re currently about 1,500 bills deep [that have been introduced]. In 2021, over 3,000 bills were introduced. There are lots of scary bills that would endanger Montanans and make our lives less beautiful, less safe, less communal.
Some of those bills will never see the light of day.
We need to be able to hold our outrage and hold our energy, but also our love for each other through this session. It's early days. There are at least 50 anti-voting bills. There are anti-trans bills, there are anti-drag queen bills, anti-sex education bills. There are bills to increase criminal penalties, so that we're going to, as a state, incarcerate more people.
I want people to confront that reality but not lose sight that we’ll be fighting in all those issue areas. We have many great partners who will be fighting in those issue areas. We’ll never stray from that commitment to them, that we're looking to stop those bad bills and looking to sprout new ideas and new worlds for what Montana might look like.
It can feel overwhelming when you see 1,500 bad bills or you know, some portion of those bills of the 1,500 are bad. But that isn't who we are and that isn't who we have to be. And so I think that if anything I can leave people with, it’s that nugget of hope.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. Thanks for reading, and we’ll be back with a new installment next week!
In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.