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State executive offices up for election in Montana this year

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 7:34 PM, Feb 19, 2024

HELENA — Every four years, Montanans elect not only a governor, but four other state executive officeholders – together, the five members of the state land board.

Currently, all of those offices are held by Republicans. MTN has already looked at Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s bid for reelection and at his challenger, attorney Ben Alke, a Democrat from Bozeman. Now, the races are beginning to take shape for three other land board offices.

Christi Jacobsen

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen filed for a second four-year term earlier this month, telling MTN she promised voters not to seek higher office while she was still eligible to run for this one. She said she considers her first term to be a success, and she plans to point to record business registrations in the state and reduced red tape.

If she’s reelected, Jacobsen says she wants to continue to focus on election integrity measures. She says she hopes the Montana Supreme Court will allow provisions like stricter voter ID to go into effect, after they faced legal challenges.

“We're working hard and fighting to keep those on the books into the next term,” she said. “So there's always room for improvement. We're already starting to talk with the legislators about possible legislation for next time around to continue to improve elections in the state of Montana.”

Jesse James Mullen

Running against Jacobsen is Jesse James Mullen, a Democrat from Deer Lodge. He owns a chain of small community newspapers in Montana and five other states, though he’s stepped back from the company during the campaign. This is his first statewide campaign, after he ran in a special election for state senate last year.

Mullen criticized Jacobsen’s office for their frequent involvement in lawsuits, saying it shows actions the secretary of state should have been taking without being taken to court. He says, as a business owner, he can bring an emphasis on “customer service” to the office’s interactions with businesses and the public.

“A good secretary of state should be a caretaker of the position,” he said. “A great Secretary of State isn't going to be out in the media all the time because they're doing the job and making sure Montanans can prioritize their own lives, their own careers and their own businesses.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen will be termed-out at the end of 2024 after serving eight years. Two of her former deputy superintendents have expressed interest in succeeding her.

Susie Hedalen

Susie Hedalen, the superintendent of Townsend Public Schools, filed for the Republican nomination last week. She worked at the Office of Public Instruction for three years, including serving as deputy superintendent for education services. She previously worked as superintendent in the Arrowhead School District, and prior to that in various other educational roles, starting as a classroom teacher.

Hedalen also serves as vice-chair of the Montana Board of Public Education. She says the various roles she’s held have given her an understanding of what school leaders need and how OPI can support them. She also wants to emphasize listening to parents’ concerns.

“I want to make sure that we bring education back to basics, and what I mean by that is that we have a well-rounded education that is built on the foundational skills that our students need – reading, writing, math, science, those skills that are going to bring them through along the way.”

Hedalen’s campaign has touted support from Republican leaders like Gov. Greg Gianforte, Knudsen and – on Monday – U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke.

Sharyl Allen

Sharyl Allen, currently the superintendent-principal for Harrison Public School, told MTN she intends to file as a Republican candidate in the coming days as well. Allen was deputy superintendent under Arntzen for three years. She had previously been a superintendent in Conrad and Boulder, a principal in Great Falls and a teacher in Augusta.

Allen says, during her time in the superintendent’s office, she got experience working firsthand on educational initiatives like student assessments and teacher residency programs. She says OPI needs to do a better job of being responsive to local school leaders.

Allen says she’s shown herself to be an innovator and risktaker throughout her educational career.

“I think the question is, what do you believe in most? And for me, it's always fighting for kids and the opportunities that they need,” she said. “I love kids, I believe they have incredible potential that often is untapped, I fight for them and I will continue to fight for them, and will ask Montanans to join us.”

Shannon O'Brien

The Democratic candidate running for superintendent is state Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula. She’s worked as a high school teacher, helping students access college, and as dean of Missoula College – as well as serving as education policy advisor to former Gov. Steve Bullock.

O’Brien says she wants to rebuild the Office of Public Instruction, saying many school districts aren’t receiving the support services they should be. She argues Arntzen’s office has been too focused on issues that aren’t important to families, and she believes she can get that message across to people regardless of their political party.

“We have mental health issues, we have safe schools we need to focus on, and we have a teacher shortage crisis going on right now,” said O’Brien. “So, first of all, I think we need to focus on what's most important to our families and our children and our teachers. And secondly, we need to make sure that our public schools are protected and our quality public schools in our rural towns are supported, and those teachers have the support that they need to do their job.”

State Auditor Troy Downing could run for a second term, but he’s campaigning in the Republican primary for Montana’s eastern district seat in the U.S. House – leaving the office, which regulates the insurance and securities industries in the state, open for now.

James Brown

The only candidate to file for auditor so far is Montana Public Service Commission President James Brown, a Republican from Dillon. Brown ran a prominent campaign for Montana Supreme Court in 2022, and says that helped him introduce himself to voters statewide.

Brown believes the state auditor and the PSC share similar regulatory roles, and duties to serve the public.

“Part of the reason I ran for the PSC in 2020 is because I believed I had a skill set in order to bring balance to that commission,” he said. “I feel like I've successfully done what I've started out to do at the PSC, and I believe that my skill set now is a better fit at the moment for serving as state auditor.”

Brown, an attorney, says he holds an insurance producer’s license, and that he got it to better educate himself about insurance issues that came up in his practice. However, he hasn’t worked actively in the insurance industry, so he says he’d have knowledge without the worry of a conflict of interest.

Any candidates still wanting to file for these and other state offices still has almost a month to do so. The deadline is March 11.