In a primary race flying under the radar, three Helena men are vying for the Democratic nomination in Public Service Commission District 5 in western Montana – with the winner taking on PSC Chairman Brad Johnson this fall.
All three of the candidates, Andy Shirtliff, Henry Clay Speich and Tyrel Suzor-Hoy, are largely unknown by the public and have similar political messages, saying the Republican-controlled PSC favors corporate utilities and is discouraging energy innovation.
So, to draw some contrasts that might help Democratic voters decide who to support in the June 5 primary, they’ve been talking about their own unique experience and skills.
“I’ve worked not just here (in Helena) or not just in Kalispell, but all across the state, in areas from small communities to smaller towns to Indian Country,” says Shirtliff, a former small-business advocate for Gov. Steve Bullock’s Economic Development Office.
Shirtliff says his Kalispell roots and business experience are an advantage in a district that includes his hometown, the state’s largest Indian reservation and rural areas.
PSC District 5 stretches from Helena to Kalispell and also includes Polson, Lake County and three counties long the Rocky Mountain Front: Teton, Pondera and Glacier. Republicans have controlled the seat since 2010 and Johnson, from East Helena, won the seat in 2014 and is running for re-election.
The PSC regulates electric, natural gas, water and telephone utilities and taxi service in the state. It also can influence small, independent power generation and other energy policies.
Shirtliff, 38, grew up in Kalispell and has worked as an assistant to former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, under Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and for Bullock.
He’d raised about $6,700 for his campaign through the end of April and says he’s been traveling the district and getting out his message that he won’t be a “rubber stamp” for utility rate-increase requests.
He also said the PSC is standing in the way of renewable-power development, and that it should be leading the way on innovation that will lead to more jobs and lower utility bills.
“One of the things I want to do is usher in new energy development that’s going to be led by union workers,” Shirtliff told MTN News.
Suzor-Hoy, 24, is a materials-compliance specialist at the state Department of Transportation, where he ensures that construction material, such as asphalt, meets federal standards.
Suzor-Hoy has put nearly $15,000 of his own money into his race, including a $10,000 personal loan to the campaign and almost $5,000 of “in-kind” expenses that he’s paid for.
He said his experience working on infrastructure and familiarity with federal regulations make him a good fit for the PSC.
“I’m equipped to step in and deal with the regulatory policies that are in play with the PSC,” he told MTN News.
Suzor-Hoy said he’s seen too many Montanans struggle to pay their utility bills, and that the PSC should work to stabilize or even lower rates. He also dinged the PSC for its decisions to limit contract lengths for renewable-power projects, saying it had hurt development of solar and other clean power.
Speich reported that he’s raised no campaign funds at all, but said he plans to travel the district to make himself known.
Speich, 64, a former United Parcel Service driver, said he doesn’t believe the PSC is representing the average person or broad swaths of rural Montana.
“They’re letting corporations have the upper hand and we need to represent ourselves,” he said. “I’m going to be the watch-dog.”