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Rep. Bedey's nostalgia for a "big tent" GOP
The Hamilton Republican also reflects on Rep. Stromswold's surprise resignation.
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The term “conservative” has never meant the same thing to everyone. GOP Representative David Bedey, for one, sees a gulf between his own conservatism and others’ versions in the Montana Legislature.
Bedey, who has represented HD 86 (Hamilton) since 2019, votes regularly with the GOP. Nonetheless, he considers himself “an outlier” within the party.
This summer, for instance, the GOP met in Billings to craft its official platform. When Bedey disputed claims that the 2020 election—at least in Montana—had been subject to fraud, attendees booed him. Bedey also attempted to amend the party’s stance on abortion—a complete ban—to add exceptions for victims of rape and incest, and cases where the life of the mother is in jeopardy. His amendment failed.
Since the 2023 Legislature began earlier this month, Bedey and other Republicans have come under fire within their own party for supporting a rule that would lower the threshold for the House to “blast” a bill out of committee. In other words, if a committee gives a bill a thumbs-down, the House needs a certain number of members to override that decision and put the bill to a full House vote. Their proposed—and successful change—lowered the required count from 60 to 55 members.
Bedey and I caught up on an early morning to talk about his vision of a “big tent” GOP, the education bills he has introduced this session and why he feels like an outlier in his own party.
** The day after we spoke, GOP Rep. Mallerie Stromswold resigned from the state Legislature. In a statement, Stromswold—who is also a college student in Bozeman—cited the financial strain of paying rent on two apartments and her mental health, as well as “significant backlash” from members of her own party because, she says, she “did not fall in line.”
Representative Bedey agreed to a follow-up conversation about Stromswold’s resignation. His remarks can be found at the end of this interview. **
Max: Representative Bedey, we’re starting this interview at 7:45 in the morning. It makes me wonder, what’s your daily routine like during the session?
Rep. David Bedey: I get up around five in the morning. I work out. I put on my uniform, which consists of a business suit, and I eat a light breakfast. I’m usually in the Capitol by about 7:00 or 7:30. I usually get back between 6:30 and 7:00 PM. And then I do it again the next day.
I spent 30 years in the Army. I retired as a colonel, came home—which was a very good thing—and put all that behind me. But being in the Legislature is very much like being in the Army in a certain sense. I live in a motel room, which is like a BOQ—Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. It makes me reminisce oftentimes.
On your website, you describe yourself as a traditional conservative. What does that mean to you? It seems like being “conservative” means lot of different things to different people right now.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. Harkening back to the Reagan days, there were various brands of conservatism: social conservatism, fiscal conservatism. I mean, you could put all sorts of adjectives in front of the word “conservative.” And these various factions would fit under what Reagan referred to as a “big tent.” That's why Ronald Reagan was such a successful politician. He felt that the way you win elections and the best way to govern with a majority of people supporting you is to be open to different viewpoints.
You might recall the Reagan Democrats, people who crossed the aisle because of what he had to offer. My traditional conservatism is Reagan's big tent philosophy.
Regrettably, in the Republican party today, in the state of Montana, we have some folks that have dismissed Reagan's view as an anachronism. I think that's wrong-minded.
Before I got to the Legislature, I had a lot of time to read. I don't have that time much anymore. But I'm influenced by people like Edmund Burke, the [eighteenth-century] British statesmen. His view was a view of prudence; he recognized that our social moors and institutions have been created over years, centuries, maybe even millennia. And so a conservative point of view is that we should be prudent about changing the way we do things.
The other thing that I find attractive about Burke's thinking is that he refers to the foundation of society as “the little platoons.” Basically, it was your local community, your family, small businesses; it was civil society. And that ought to be the focus to keeping our social fabric intact.
Fast forwarding to where we are now, the term “conservatism” has been, in my way of thinking, captured by a further right-wing faction of the Republican Party. And if you don't espouse their particular points of view, then you're not considered a conservative, and you're an outlier. I am an outlier.
I have become affiliated with what is referred to as the Conservative Solutions Caucus. The press tends to call us relatively moderate Republicans; the right uses more pejorative terms (laughs).
I find that [rhetoric] to be counter to Reagan's notion, and it's counter to what I think is politically the best way to go forward, if you truly believe in “conservatism” as I defined it earlier. It's disappointing, but it's something that's gonna have to sort itself out within our party.
I vote with the Republican Party about 93% of the time. The Democrats typically vote together. What that camouflages is that Democrats and Republican are [often] voting together, because many of the actions we take in the legislature are bipartisan.
As a member of the relatively moderate part of the Republican Party, we vote with the party because, generally speaking, the policies that we're debating and the decisions we’re making align with what's conservative. There are things on the fringe; that’s where the debate takes place. Medicaid expansion during the 2019 session is a case in point.
2021 was a very successful session, from a Republican standpoint. In terms of doing the work of the people of Montana, I think we did a good job. I think we had great leadership, and we were able to work pretty well together.
The divisions within the party were not apparent. We haven't started quite that well this session.
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Are you referring to the debate over the blast motion?
I interjected myself into the middle of that particular fight. One thing I'm not prudent about is, I'm not anxious to silence anyone or to see certain voices in the state of Montana not heard. That's a matter of principle for me.
For the record, the Senate does not have a high threshold for blasts, either. It never has. It’s a simple majority in the Senate. My position is that if a majority of the body as a whole would like to hear something that's been tabled in a committee, we ought to be able to do that.
Having a high threshold on blasts has, in the past—either on purpose or inadvertently—allowed some bills to languish in committee that deserve a hearing on the floor.
As I said on the floor, I think the people of Montana are tiring of the hyper-partisanship. Not all the people of Montana, obviously, but I think people expect us to do our job, and they expect civility, and they expect the rules to not be tilted towards one party or the other. The rules are there so we operate effectively, period.
You know, I got plenty of communications from people prior to the votes on the rules accusing me of turning the Legislature over to the Democrats by supporting these rules votes. But I think many of those people hadn't actually read the rules very actively.
There was a very well-orchestrated attempt to brand these rather modest rule changes as a great departure from tradition. [But they] replicate what the Montana Senate [already] has. We're not stepping into some untested water. With 32 out of 100 Representatives being in the Democratic Party, there is absolutely no way that the Democrats, because of these rules, are going to seize control.
I want to return to a place where we have civility and respectful disagreements. I have plenty of Democrat friends and constituents, and I respect every one of them. But I also think they're wrong (laughs). And they have the same attitude about me.
Even within the Republican party, we may have disagreements, but we ought to not engage in character assassination and some of the other things that unfortunately some members of my party seem to think is necessary in order to restore what they believe is a conservative vision.
Can you provide a couple of examples of what you would consider conservative solutions to current issues?
Right now, within the Legislature, we're dealing with the [dispersal of the $2 billion budget] surplus, which is kind of eye-popping.
Trust me, you get six legislators, or a hundred, in the same room, and you're gonna get a lot of different ideas on what ought to be done with that surplus. It ranges from, “give it all back” to making strategic investments, or some combination of the two.
I'm still taking this in; there are a lot of moving parts here. But I think from a conservative standpoint, we ought to look carefully at paying down obligations we already have, whether it's debt or an opportunity to fix things that we have been kicking down the road for the last many years.
For example, the conditions at the state hospital at Warm Springs. Or the problem we have within the correctional system. The notion that putting money towards some of these things is somehow not a conservative way of looking at things, I think is wrong.
I'd like to understand more about where this budget surplus came from, how much of it is artificial, and how much of it represents a fundamental restructuring of the Montana economy. One thing I am certain of is the situation is absolutely uncertain.
Conventional wisdom is that has to do with the insertion of money into our economy due to the Covid interventions made by the federal government. There's also been a dislocation of people from other states moving into Montana.
In Ravalli County [which includes Bedey’s district], the influx of people drove the value of real estate up astronomically, which is something else we have to deal with, in terms of, ensuring that we don't have longtime Montana residents taxed out of their homes.
Right now, we're seeing the forecast that we're gonna return to a low inflation environment within a couple of years. But the same forecast I saw over the last two years [said that] we'd be there today (laughs). So I'm not sure about that. Then there's also the real possibility of a recession down the road.
Part of our handling on the budget surplus has to recognize that uncertainty and ensure that we have retained sufficient reserves to respond. Right now, I think we'll have clarity in two to four years.
You served on the Hamilton School Board for nine years. What impressions did that experience leave on your work in the Legislature?
I was a combat engineer for the first half of my career, after the Persian Gulf War. The army repurposed me afterwards as a professor [of physics] at West Point. I did quite a bit of administrative work as well.
When I came home, there was an opening on the school board. I was appointed to it. I felt like I owed my community something because I thought a lot of the success I had in my life was based upon the foundation that I got in the Hamilton school system many, many years ago.
What I discovered is that local school boards have much more authority and power than they think they do.
For example, we there was no requirement for civics education required by the state. We instituted that program; within a month [the teachers] had laid it out.
Another example is we felt that every student should take a course in personal finance, which was at that time, not a state requirement.
I'm a local control sort of person. In Helena, I want to empower local school boards to meet the needs of their communities. For the people of Montana that are concerned about what's going on in their school districts, they have the power largely to have those addressed. They don't have to call their legislator to do that.
That reminds me of Burke’s idea you mentioned earlier, of the “little platoons.” Can you highlight a couple of the education bills you’ve introduced or are working on this session?
I am carrying the school funding bill. There's no creativity involved. it implements inflation adjustments to a very well-defined formula [that we have].
A couple of the other bills I had were really just adjustments on how we do business.
The bill that I have moving right now reduces paperwork requirements for school districts. It also reduces this local property tax assessment that was embedded in the old way we did business. We backfill [that cost] from the state general fund instead.
Another bill that I have put forward is an issue I didn't think I'd ever get into, but last session, we discovered we were not adequately funding children being educated at our psychiatric treatment facilities; there's only three or four of 'em in the state now.
We have it in our Constitution to provide equal educational opportunity to all Montanans. We have to address that.
Last session I didn't have good enough data to really scope the problem out, but I got a framework for it. I asked the superintendent of public instruction to examine the actual costs of educating kids at those institutions. And they came back with a very thorough analysis. We worked through the interim on that. It’s gonna take about $2 million a year to fill the gap. As a fiscal guy, I don't like to see budget increases, but, when you have a duty to do something, you ought to do your duty.
I wanted to ask you about Representative Stromswold’s resignation, given that you’ve both embodied a bit of a contrarian streak within the GOP.
I was impressed with her. I thought she was an independent-minded person and, like many young Republicans, has a libertarian bent [but is not a] hardcore Libertarian.
Her problems started on the Judiciary Committee and some of the stances she took there that were not appreciated by the leadership of that committee. [Note: In 2021, then-Representative Stromswold was the only Republican member of the committee who opposed a bill that would have prevented transgender youth from accessing gender-affirming care, and another bill that would have blocked trans women and girls from participating in women’s sports.]
She is a very courageous and smart young woman. Like many young people, including me when I got to the Legislature, she is pretty idealistic. I think it was more difficult for her to process the reality of politics as opposed to her perception of what it ought to be.
She’s responding to a demand by a certain faction of the Republican party that requires absolute conformity, and she refused to conform.
What you would say to her right now, given the opportunity?
Continue your education. Please stay engaged in politics and in the Republican Party. You and people like you are the future of this party and you’re the future of the conservative movement. I understand your departure, and it’s a loss for the legislature and a loss for the state that it came to this.
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.