Two Dem legislative seats in Helena feature high-profile primary - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Two Dem legislative seats in Helena feature high-profile primary contests for 2018

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HD81 candidate Rob Farris-Olsen HD81 candidate Rob Farris-Olsen
State Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena State Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena
State Rep. Janet Ellis, D-Helena State Rep. Janet Ellis, D-Helena
SD41 candidate Mike Uda SD41 candidate Mike Uda

Starting Thursday, candidates can file to run in 125 legislative seats in Montana in 2018, as Republicans and Democrats get ready for their biennial battle this fall for control of the Legislature.

But in some of these races, the spring primary election may be all that really matters – and two of these higher-profile contests are in Helena.

The contested primaries are in Senate District 41 and House District 81, two strongly Democratic districts where the winner of the June 5 primary is a heavy favorite in the general election this fall.

The two races also feature incumbents from each seat – but they’re trying to win the other district.

HD81, which covers downtown Helena and parts of the north Helena Valley, pits City Council member Rob Farris-Olsen against state Sen. Mary Caferro in the Democratic primary.

Caferro can’t run for re-election in SD41 because of term limits and wants to continue her 14-year legislative career in the House, where she started in 2005.

The incumbent in HD81 – state Rep. Janet Ellis – has decided to run for Caferro’s seat in SD41, which includes central and north Helena. She’s being challenged in the Democratic primary by Helena attorney Mike Uda, a first-time candidate but a veteran on public-policy issues such as renewable power.

Ellis, a two-term House member and senior director of policy for Montana Audubon, says she’d like to move up to the Senate, to have more opportunity to work on policy issues that reflect the values of Helena and the district.

“My background is conservation, so obviously I’m interested in clean water, clean air, open space,” she told MTN News. “Privacy rights are very important to me, in addition to public schools, and funding of public schools.”

Ellis also says she wants to try again with a bill that failed last year, to allow cities to issues bonds to finance street repair and maintenance.

Uda, who has represented wind- and solar-power developers trying to build projects in Montana, says the overriding issue for Montanans is income-inequality – and that it’s time for Democrats to start talking and doing more about it.

“Right now, a lot of people are having trouble just paying bills; they’re living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “The benefits of our current economic system are not being passed down in a fair, distributive manner, and that needs to change.”

Uda says he favors phasing in an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

He also says he plans to appeal to many people who’ve not been involved in politics before, from all points on the political spectrum, whose concerns aren’t being addressed by the Legislature.

Farris-Olsen, an attorney in private practice, says he will emphasize conservation, preservation of public lands and open space, and advocating for the rights of all citizens.

He points to his work on a pair of active lawsuits, as examples of what’s important to him: One suing the editor of a neo-Nazi website, for comments it made about a Whitefish woman, and another challenging state laws that he says unfairly suspend driver’s licenses of poor people.

“I’ve stood up for Montana’s poorest, across the state, and all demographics,” he says. “I’ve also stood up for the environment, both through my education and my work. So I will continue to do things like that.”

Caferro, the director of a group advocating for the disabled, says she has spent a career fighting for funding for programs to help the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled and the elderly, and wants to continue that work.

Her legislative experience gives her the edge to be successful in this area, she told MTN News.

“I have learned how to negotiate, collaborate and work with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and that really matters,” Caferro says. “I’m effective at finding efficiencies in government to find money to fund underfunded services that really matter to people.”

Caferro also says she wants to try again to raise the state tax on cigarettes and tobacco, to finance health programs and encourage less smoking. She sponsored a tobacco-tax bill that failed last year.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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