Jonathan Karlen's faith in the middle ground
The young lawmaker is one of two Montana Democrats who flipped a seat in November's election.
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Centrism doesn’t get much love these days in our political discourse, and attempts at compromise often get construed as betrayal or weakness. RINOs, DINOs, these terms are not employed with kindness.
But Jonathan Karlen sees the middle road as the best road.
In last November’s midterm elections, Karlen—whose district includes the western edge of Missoula City, and more rural parts of Missoula County—was one of only two Montana Democrats who flipped legislative seats held by Republicans; Paul Tuss, in Havre, was the other. His win carries an additional distinction: at 23, he is the youngest Democrat in the State Legislature.
Karlen and I recently caught up for coffee to discuss a whole slew of topics related to his campaign and the 2023 legislative session. We dug into the impact of January 6th on his political philosophy, the role his age played in his campaign, what he considers “extremism” in the two parties and much more.
Woven through our conversation was a consistent thread: Karlen’s optimistic view that finding common cause offers a way forward.
You studied wildlife biology and public administration here in Missoula. Are there any lessons from your education that have informed your politics?
I've had the chance to work in the science realm of collecting data and also on the policy side of things. And one of the things that I have carried with me is the link between healthy, well-managed ecosystems and a strong economy.
I think that sometimes we divorce the environment from business and from effective operational local government. I’m thinking about things like municipal water sources: when we have really healthy ecosystems, our sources of water are gonna be cleaner. And that's gonna cost less for local governments to purify [what comes out of] our tap.
Montana's second-largest industry, behind agriculture, is tourism. Many of those tourists are coming here to explore our natural resources. When we have well-managed forests, when we have healthy wildlife populations, that supports a hell of a lot of jobs.
You were a legislative intern for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) during the summer of 2021. How did that experience inform your own politics?
There were things I agreed with the Democratic majority on, and there were things I didn't. But it was fascinating, because I really got to see how some of the highest level policy is made.
What’s something you agreed on, and something you didn’t?
I'll start with something I disagreed on. During the budget reconciliation [process], I was concerned that we were seeing the marks of inflation starting and this sort of economic overheating. I was concerned about a trillion dollar bill. I felt like some of these proposals would be pumping, frankly, too much money into the economy. Of course, it’s different in hindsight than at the time.
Something I agreed with was a big emphasis on [embracing] renewable energy.
The way I see it, we have a choice to make: We can either be a leader when it comes to clean renewable energy, or someone else is gonna be the leader and we're gonna be the customer. Personally, I would love to see a Space Race-type effort devoted to clean and renewable energy. Talk about a job creator in rural areas. Montana can be an energy exporter.
I agreed with a lot of [Senate Democrats’] work related to infrastructure that of course helps rural Montana, broadband, and some of the voting rights initiatives.
Did that internship inform your own campaign?
I found that there was—at least among the more moderates on both sides—a real feeling that our republic was at a scary crossroads. This was not long after January 6th. It felt like we needed people on both sides of the political spectrum to make progress and not be a source of division.
And so hearing from members of Congress [during talks to interns] that they were afraid of their own parties, on both sides, and that we need people to come to the middle, that was a little bit of a wake up call.
And so that was one of the things that inspired me to run. I felt like in the Montana Legislature—not comparing anything to January 6th—we have a similar level of divisiveness that's unproductive.
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You recently mentioned on the “What the Helena” podcast that you didn’t want your age to be front and center during your campaign. Why not?
I don't want to be viewed in a negative or positive way because of my age. I wanted to be elected because my vision and my approach to serving in the Legislature is one that people agree with.
I do think that we need young people on both sides of the aisle who are gonna be pragmatic and who see issues differently [than older lawmakers].
One of the things I'd like to do is work to revitalize the College Democrats. I've been talking with our Missoula County Democrats Central Committee on that. The more young people who are engaged, who are voters, the better, regardless of who they're supporting.
I imagine that you nonetheless spoke to potential voters during the campaign who had a reaction to you being young?
I certainly didn't hide my age (laughs).
[One constituent] said, “I have underwear that's older than you,” in a joking way, of course. But [still suggesting], like, ‘what do you know?’
Just because I'm young, it doesn't mean I'm not seeing the same issues. I might just be seeing them in a different way.
I felt most people were pretty open-minded. I mean, I definitely got eye rolls and “my grandkids are older than you.” But I'd also say that the constituency that I represent is of all different ages. I represent kids, 18-year-olds, senior citizens. Sometimes we forget that, too.
In your campaign announcement video, you say that the “extremism gripping our Legislature is coming at the cost of getting real work done for our community.” What’s an example of that extremism?
Here's a perfect example: The election denialism. Of course we need election security, right? And we also want to make sure that voters’ rights are being held and protected. But we had leaders last session that did not believe the president of the United States was duly elected, and they wanted the state taxpayers to fund all sorts of nonsense audits and this and that. And I truly believe that is not what people are sending us to Helena to do. I believe it's extremism because when you make unfounded claims that our democracy is essentially rigged, that's attacking the fabric of our republic.
Do you think there are examples of extremism in the Democratic Party as well?
In Montana I'd say we're a pretty moderate caucus. At the federal level is where I see it more, [like with] some of the anti-law enforcement sentiment. To me, investing in mental health and investing in de-escalation is great. But we had the Defund the Police call, which I think is really harmful.
On the southern border, I’m someone who believes in robust legal immigration, but that we need a secure border. And I think that there are people in the Democratic Party who don't share the importance of having a secure border.
There have been calls on the left to stack the Supreme Court. I don't support that.
But is it extreme? No, it's a good conversation to have.
On the right, where I think things are different, is that there is a vein of extremism that—to evoke January 6th again—goes from being an ideological difference in saying, I think our tax code should look like this versus that, to being a currency of lies.
We have people who are willing to make policy based on lies, based on the election being stolen.
I'd even go so far as to say people who refuse to acknowledge the facts about climate change and decide that these facts are not facts, and [that they will] manufacture their own set of facts, to me, that's extreme.
What's not extreme is having a difference in opinion.
Let’s talk about a couple of the bills you’ve requested. Can you provide a summary of your social security taxation bill?
One of the things that I found on the campaign trail is that a lot of seniors are on a fixed income and they're really struggling with this. This bill will revise the portion of social security income that is taxable at different incomes.
There are two thresholds at which social security is taxable in Montana. Long story short, we're gonna be increasing those thresholds so that lower income and middle income seniors can keep more money in their pocket and less of their social security money will be subject to state income taxes. At higher income levels, typically you're getting a lot of outside income, like investment income, and the social security tax is not hurting you all that much.
There have been bills in the past to completely get rid of the tax on social security, but those bills have died because it costs the state a lot of money. You lose a lot of money when you do that. So this is sort of a compromise that I'm proposing.
You’ve requested a couple of “generally revise housing laws” bills. What’s your focus there?
[In addition to supporting other Democrats’ housing bills], what I'm envisioning—and I'm not speaking for anyone else—is to approach this housing crisis on two fronts. The first one being regulatory relief, the second one being an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that spurs the development of housing at all price points.
What would ensure the affordability of that new housing?
This is where I think the Affordable Housing Trust fund comes in to actually allow government to be more proactive, [if we] want X percent of homes here to be affordable.
The other aspects of this are high material and labor costs. And so I'm interested in looking at how we can train more Montanans in the trades that we need. I'm even interested in ways to train people coming out of prison in some of these critical trades that we need. They are lucrative trades. We reduce recidivism rates and we can build these projects faster.
At the high school level, how can we make sure that students know that four-year college is a great option, but there's also a great way to make money in plumbing, electrical work, carpentry.
And the natural resource side of me thinks, how can we find innovative ways to reduce material costs, you know? I don't know what the answer is there, but I think that we need to approach this from lots of different fronts.
Zooming out, what would you consider a win for Montana Democrats coming out of the 2023 session?
I'm optimistic, and to me, success looks like us working together with our Republican colleagues to address the problems that Montanans are facing. The ability to find affordable childcare is a perfect example, right? If we could make progress on that, that would be a success. If we could make a more fair tax code, that would be a success.
But, you know, I think part of success is also going to be trying to stop bad bills and amending bad bills to be as good as possible.
Considering that a unified GOP can pass bills without a single Democratic vote, what actions can you take to stop or amend bills?
The two ways I envision this are [first] trying as much as possible to work collaboratively. Income tax is a perfect example, right? The governor has his income tax plan—that I'm still reviewing—but I can almost certainly tell you it disproportionately helps wealthy Montanans. To the extent possible, I would love to try to work with my Republican colleagues and say, how can we make this better?
And there's some bills that are really bad, that target members of the LGBT community, for example. And, you know, I think the public has a far greater role than me, right? I can vote no, I can try to talk colleagues out of it. Realistically, it's having people show up to testify. It's having people write and contact their legislators, to engage in activism the way that people always have, from hunters to the LGBT community to people advocating for pro-choice.
One of the best ways that I can help is trying to provide information through social media, through my website, and to try to make sure people know that, on this day and this time there's gonna be a hearing on this issue. And now we can participate by Zoom. People can be at work on their lunch break and can weigh in.
In this newsletter, Minority Leader Abbott pushed back on the idea that the Democratic Party should be a vehicle for “transformational change,” after Keegan Medrano of ACLU of Montana separately argued that the party currently “stunts” that kind of change. Where do you stand on that dynamic?
I'd say I'm somewhere between the two. If we're not adapting and changing, we're not doing our job, right? Society continues to change. And the job is to try to make sure that our laws and government are keeping up with that change.
So for me, like I view it like the people who elected me, how can I maximize an impact they have on their life?
When I think about the future of the Democratic Party, to me, we have to keep a big tent. We talk to a lot of voters, especially outside of some of the kind of the core urban areas, and we have to recognize that transformational change is scary for a lot of people. For a lot of people, change is tough. And I think we need to make sure that when we're thinking about change, we're making sure we're not leaving people behind in that change.
I feel like you’ve made a pitch for embracing ideas from across the ideological spectrum in this conversation. But you yourself seem committed to the middle. Is that a fair assessment?
Personally, yes. I'm very much a middle of the road person because I think great ideas come from all different places. Here's ideas from the conservative end. Here's ideas from the liberal end. Let's take the best of everything and put it together.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. Thanks for being here. We’ll see you next week!
In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.