Teton County voters will have a chance to hear from local candidates in contested primary races at a forum on April 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Choteau Pavilion.
The Choteau Acantha is sponsoring the forum as a community service. The primary election is set for June 7. Absentee ballots will be sent out to voters on May 13, according to Teton County Election Administrator Paula Jaconetty. Teton County has 4,102 registered voters and 2,750 of those voters vote by permanent absentee ballot. The deadline for regular voter registration for the primary election is May 9, but late registration is allowed up to 8 p.m. on the day of the election because of an injunction that has been granted in a lawsuit over late registration.
The races that will be featured and the candidates in each of those races are:
In this race, three-term incumbent Ross Fitzgerald of rural Fairfield, a Republican, is facing a primary challenger, Justin Cleveland, also of Fairfield. The lone Democrat is Barnett G. Sporkin-Morrison of rural Choteau. The winner of the Republican primary will face Sporkin-Morrison in the November general election to determine who serves the two-year term in the Montana House.
Fitzgerald is running for his last term in the House as Montana law puts a four-term limit on House members. Fitzgerald resides with his wife Gretchen on the family farm outside of Fairfield and is a 1967 Power High School graduate.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture production from Montana State University. He is a business broker/intermediary and a real estate agent. In the past he has worked as a farmer, a commodities merchandiser, a fire training instructor, a livestock fieldman and he was the farm news director and worked in advertising sales for the KEIN radio station.
Fitzgerald served in the Montana Air National Guard and his civic involvement includes 30 years with the Power Volunteer Fire Department, 20 years on the MSU fire services training school advisory council, the Fairfield Lions Club and the Dutton American Legion Freeborn Post 64 finance officer. He is a past member of the Skyline Retirement Lodge board in Choteau and of the Montana Grain Growers Association board where he is also a past president. Ross volunteers at local fundraisers as an auctioneer and spotter.
In the state Legislature he has served on the Natural Resources, Business and Labor and Fish, Wildlife and Park committees and is known as a centrist who often votes with the Solutions Caucus — a group of Republican legislators who have worked across the aisle when supporting legislation that would benefit their often-rural constituents.
Fitzgerald’s primary opponent, Cleveland, moved to Fairfield with his family in June of 1964. He grew up on a small farm north of Fairfield where his family raised sheep and pigs and hay and grain. He has been married to his wife Pam for 40 years.
In high school, Cleveland participated in wrestling and FFA. He was involved in starting the Little Giant wrestling program in Fairfield in 1988 and was a volunteer wrestling coach for 25 years through all age groups at the school. With Mike May, he started a freestyle wrestling club that had kids from Choteau, Fairfield and the Sun River Valley.
After graduating from Fairfield High School, he went to work, building grain bins and steel buildings for a year, then onto Eisenman Seed which became Busch Ag where he ran the seed plant and grain elevator. After 10 years he took a new job with 3 Rivers Communications, where he has worked for the past 32 years.
Barnett lives outside Choteau with his wife, veterinarian Kristen Boroff, and their three young children. As a child, he lived in Valier, but his family moved to Wyoming, where he graduated from Meeteetse High School. He attended the University of Wyoming and graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture business and a minor in international studies. He then entered a graduate program which included service abroad at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. He graduated in 2006 with a master’s degree in agricultural economics and then worked as an agricultural economist for the USDA FFAS in Washington, D.C.
He next applied for lateral entry into the U.S. Foreign Service and was posted as a regional diplomat to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, covering Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, and later serving as an agricultural attaché with senior commercial officer duties. After being there for three years, he and his wife decided to return to rural America and she took a job with Double Arrow Veterinary Clinic in Choteau.
He is now the co-owner, with his wife, and chief operating officer of Moggies and Mutts Family Animal Clinic in Choteau. He is also the proprietor of the Immigrant Brands L.L.C.
Teton County Commissioner, District 2
This is the district that covers the northern third of the county, including half of Choteau and the rural communities of Bynum and Pendroy. The four nonpartisan candidates are three-term incumbent Joe Dellwo of Bynum, Cory Coverdell of Bynum, Dave Brownell of Pendroy and Rhea Brutosky of Choteau. This is for a six-year term in office.
In this nonpartisan race, the top two vote-getters in the primary election will advance to the general election in November. The winner will serve with Commissioners Sam Carlson of Fairfield and Dick Snellman of Power. The current salary for commissioners is $48,456.61.
Dellwo is seeking his fourth six-year term as a commissioner. He and his wife, Dana, live on a ranch west of Bynum in the Blackleaf and have two grown children. Joe is a graduate of Choteau High School and attended Montana State University-Bozeman, for two years before heading to work in the oilfields. He has worked as a cattle and sheep rancher most of his life.
He is a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Choteau and served for 13 years on the Bynum School Board. He is the vice chairman of the Northcentral Area on Aging board, serves on the Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable, and is the vice chairman of the Center for Mental Health governing board.
Dellwo is the chairman of the Teton County Board of Commissioners and serves several other boards.
Brutosky, filing for office for the first time, lives at 27 Ninth Ave. N.W. in Choteau with her husband, heating and cooling contractor Brian Brutosky, and has lived in Teton County for 44 years.
She grew up on the Fairfield Bench on a farm and ranch and graduated from Simms High School.
She worked for Choteau Public Schools for 10 years, one as an office aide and nine as a Title I math tutor. She then went to work for Teton County, spending 15 years as an administrative assistant with the Montana State University-Teton County Extension Office and working part-time as the Teton Airport Commission clerk and the secretary for the Teton County Weed District Board.
Last October, she retired from her most recent position as the office manager for the Teton County Road Department, where she had worked for the past five years.
Coverdell is a fifth generation Montanan. He grew up in Kalispell and graduated from Flathead High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences from Montana State University.
Coverdell has lived in Bynum since 2010 when he took over as the executive director at the Montana Dinosaur Center (formerly the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center). Coverdell and his wife Stacia have been active in growing the community, focusing on growing tourism opportunities around the county. Coverdell also contributed to the Economic Development Community Roundtable for the Choteau area. He has been elected to and is serving on the Bynum/Teton Water District Board and the stand-alone Bynum Elementary District School Board.
Brownell has lived almost his whole life in either Teton or Pondera County, having farmland in both. He was raised northwest of Pendroy on what is known as the East Lake Road where he has resided since 2012. He attended the Pendroy Elementary School through eighth grade and then went to Conrad High School, graduating in 1969. He then attended MSU, majoring in accounting.
In 1970, he joined the Montana Air National Guard. He has worked most of his life in production agricultural. He also worked construction for 12 years, building roads and installing water and sewer lines, operating most construction equipment and driving all kinds of trucks needed on each project.
Brownell has served on the Pondera County and State fire district boards and served on the New Miami Colony school board.
Public Service Commissioner, District 5
This district includes Glacier, Flathead, Lake, Pondera, Teton, Lewis and Clark counties. The outgoing District 5 Commissioner is Republican Brad Johnson of Helena, who serves as the vice president. Republican candidates are Dr. Ann Bukacek of Kalispell, Dean Crabb of Marion, Joe Dooling of Helena and Derek Skees of Helena. The Democratic candidates are Kevin Hamm of East Helena and John Repke of Whitefish.
The Public Service Commission board positions are salaried and the current salary is approximately $112,445. The PSC’s job is to balance the interests of ratepayers with the need to maintain financially sound utilities. The PPSC regulates the rates and service quality for investor-owned electric, natural gas, water, wastewater and legacy telecommunication companies. The PSC also plays a role in protecting public safety by inspecting railroads and ensuring the integrity of intra-state pipelines.
The PSC also provides limited oversight over the transportation industry, including garbage trucks, taxis, and limousines. Although the Commission does not set the rate for all of these services, it does regulate the entry to and exit from the market place, as well as accept service complaints from customers.
Not all utilities in Montana are regulated by the PSC. Outside PSC jurisdiction are: rural electric and telephone cooperatives, cellular telephone companies, internet service providers, cable TV companies, the quality of municipal water and sewer services and propane dealers.
Hamm resides in his hometown of Helena, where he attended schools from kindergarten until college. He is the CEO of Auxilyum and the CEO of Treasure State Internet & Telegraph, making his family’s telecommunications legacy a five-generation story that has provided him with a thorough understanding of utilities and regulations.
He has served on the boards of Queen City Ballet and Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies, as well as founded the Happiness & Joy Foundation nonprofit that puts on Big Sky Pride, the statewide Pride celebration for Montana. A dedicated patron of the arts, he has been in several productions at Grandstreet Theatre, was a founding member of the improv troupe Cow Tipping Comedy, and has hosted and performed in many stand-up comedy shows.
Hamm says these experiences have given him a range of perspectives on a host of issues that impact Montanan’s lives, and he has maintained a strong interest in politics and policy throughout. Hamm said has been fighting for equity and equality for everyone for years and looks forward to the opportunity to continue that work while serving on the PSC.
After graduating from Ohio State University, Repke moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he worked in the oil industry. He transferred to Gillette, Wyoming, and worked as a materials man for a field near Savageton. After a few years, he and his wife, Beth, moved to Denver where he earned a master’s degree in business administration and worked in accounting for a couple small producers.
He then went to work for Waste Management in Illinois for 13 years, progressing from financial and planning analyst to senior director of financial services. In 1999, he became the chief financial officer of an international supply chain partner company to McDonald’s. Ten years later, he returned to the environmental services industry as CFO for Veolia North America.
He and Beth moved to Whitefish in 2014. He taught business classes at Flathead Valley Community College, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Economic Development and Lake County Community Development Corporation. He also volunteered with Montana West Economic Development. In 2018, he went back to work full time as CFO with SmartLam LLC in Columbia Falls. He retired in 2021.
He is active in Whitefish on city committees and has contributed substantial time to local environmental organizations.
Dooling is a Montana farmer, rancher and infrastructure consultant. He has served on several boards and is a past-chairman of the Lewis and Clark County Republican Party central committee and served on the Montana Farm Service Agency Committee, as an appointee of past-President Donald Trump. Dooling says he was appointed to this committee because of his strong understanding of agriculture and the issues facing farmers and ranchers.
“PSC seat number 5 needs a representative that understands that agriculture is in crisis. I know firsthand the devastation the ag crisis has created in our state,” said Dooling. “As a kid, I watched nearly every neighbor lose their farm to bankruptcy. I saw what it did to the families, the community, and the stress it placed upon my family. I hope to bring my knowledge of agriculture, infrastructure and small business to the commission. The PSC is long overdue for a house cleaning.”
Bukacek is the founder of Hosanna Healthcare in Kalispell, where she has been providing healthcare for families for more than 25 years. She received her medical degree from the University of Illinois Medical School in Chicago in 1986 and completed her internship and internal medicine residency at the Oregon Health Sciences University in 1989.
She has served on the Legislative Committee for the Montana Medical Association and is also a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. She has done peer review work for the Montana Pacific Quality Health Foundation and previously served on the Peer Review Committee at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Bukacek is the author of the book “The Best You Can Be One Day at a Time—A Weight Loss Program That Works.” She is also a Montana Pro-Life Coalition leader and, according to the Billings Gazette, has been at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement in Montana for years.
A doctor, Bukacek has recently received national attention for suggesting that COVID-19 deaths have been inflated by the Centers for Disease Control when preexisting conditions were the cause, the Billings Gazette reported.
A multigenerational electrical lineman, Crabb told the Daily Inter Lake that he has experience literally in handling energy and other utilities. As such, Crabb said, he spotted a lack of actual trade experience on the commission
“I’ve been in utility work for 30 years,” he said told the Kalispell newspaper. “I looked at all five of the commissioners, and I’m like, ‘How come nobody has any utility experience?’ So I decided to run.”
He told the Inter Lake that his vocational expertise started in underground utilities — installing water, sewer and gas infrastructure — before moving on to underground and overhead fiber optics. He then became a journeyman lineman, now retired but still a card-carrying union member.
“I think there needs to be utility experience sitting on the PSC,” Crabb told the newspaper. “From everybody that I’ve looked at, most if not all of them are just average people or termed-out politicians.”
Skees, a construction consultant, who hails from Orlando, Florida, is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and has been active in Montana politics since November, 2011, when he was elected to the Montana House as a representative for District 4.
He represented House District 4 from 2011 to 2013, then took two years off after running unsuccessfully for the PSC in 2014. He was re-elected to represent House District 11 in 2016, 2018 and 2020 and is now term-limited out.
In the 2021 legislative session, he was the chairman of the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee, served on the House Judiciary Committee and chaired the Rules Committee.
Skees previously chaired the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee, which oversees the PSC, and he has worked on various pieces of energy legislation, according to the Daily Inter Lake. In the 2021 legislative session, he sponsored a bill that laid the groundwork for nuclear energy production in Montana and removed the ability of voters to have the final say on proposed nuclear plants, according to the Daily Inter Lake. The bill passed.
He and his wife, Ronalee Skees, have three children.