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Jon Bennion poses for a photo in Boulder Feb. 10. 

Since 2013, Jon Bennion of Clancy has served as Montana’s deputy attorney general under Tim Fox, overseeing the Legal Services Division. Now, he’s aiming to become the state’s top law enforcement official; a year ago, he announced his bid for attorney general.

The Billings native, 40, has been crisscrossing the state ever since, focusing his campaign on public safety, fighting government overreach, and protecting society’s most vulnerable. He says he has visited 45 of 56 counties, documenting his travels on his Facebook page before returning home to his wife, Jessi, and son, Jack.

Bennion spoke with The Monitor about Montana politics, substance abuse, and the tension between climate change and economic growth. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

You wrote a book in 2004 called Big Sky Politics, a history of post-war politics in Montana. Has what you learned in writing that informed your campaign?

I was interested in Montana’s political history, but at the time it was difficult to find even old election results. I pulled all the election results from major races starting in 1946, how it voted in national and state elections. I was at the University of Montana at the time, and I spent months going through old newspapers and looking at political ads, how people were selling themselves.

It made me appreciate Montana’s unique political roots, which are actually very different from the Dakotas, Idaho, and Wyoming. We often get lumped together, especially in Presidential elections. Montana gets called a red state, but when you look at history of results, we have very competitive races; the governorship changes hands every 16 to 20 years. So while we’re often conservative, there are a variety of reasons why people identify as Republican or Democrat.

I was up on the Hi-Line last week in this little town called Zurich, a town of 55. I knocked on this one door, and it was a fairly old guy who had lived there his whole life. He welcomed me right in, we got to talking about politics, and he told me he had been a Democrat his whole life up until 10 years ago. So, to me that was confirmation that you can’t stereotype people based on where they live or what they do for a living.

The attorney general’s office has played on both sides of the aisle to get bills passed. That’s striking at a time when the “Solutions Caucus” has been attacked by traditional conservatives. How has that legislation actually happened?

We’ve introduced 50 bills since 2013, and 48 have passed. We’ve done that by having half Democrats and half Republicans carry our bills. And the issues we’ve chosen to focus on are those where we feel we can get bipartisan buy-in.

Human trafficking is a great example. In 2015, we had a Democrat carry the bill, Kimberly Dudick of Missoula [who now is also running for attorney general]. We felt she would send a good message that if a Republican AG and a Democrat representative came together it shouldn’t be seen as a partisan issue. Also, she wasn’t a freshman legislator, and she’s an attorney. One thing I’m looking at is, when it gets to the floor, you have to have someone who’s ready to champion that legislation. That’s especially important when you have a complex bill: Who can carry it on the floor, who will make sure they won’t become a distraction?

In 2013, Representative Cristy Clark carried our DUI legislation. It tried to tackle one aspect: We have something called a lookback, where as long as you spaced your DUIs out by more than five years, they always counted as a first – until you got to a felony, which is your fourth. It was confusing and we weren’t holding people accountable. On DUI laws it’s often the more rural folks who are skeptical about cracking down, because they have to drive long distances – so there is a fear that bars would suffer. So we had Rep. Clark, a Republican from a rural area, carry that bill. You identify people who can speak to their peers and convince them that this law is the way to go.

Let’s talk about substance abuse. The attorney general sponsored bills in the 2019 session that increased support for drug courts and limited first-time opioid prescriptions.

With drug courts, there are huge pockets of the state that don’t have them. They’re cheaper than prison for high-need offenders; they allow people to stay in their communities with heavy monitoring and supervision. But in Montana, it’s almost like we don’t want them to happen. Judges have to take time from their regular court; they have to write grants to get funding; and if they successfully prop that up, then they can then ask the state for money. Our bill called for $2 million in new state support for increased capacity or opening new ones. But what we really want to do is identify an ongoing revenue source. We’re involved in litigation against drug manufacturers and distributors, and if there is a settlement, the proceeds could help support these initiatives.

For opioid users, there are studies showing that when you give people a 30-day supply after surgery, they don’t take them all. They leave them in medicine cabinets where they get stolen or misused. And there are some people who have susceptibility to opioids, where they get hooked after just a couple of days. So it’s important that people have follow-up with their doctors if they need treatment for more than seven days. [The bill, which was signed into law last April, also requires patients to present a photo ID to get a prescription.] There was opposition from doctors for many of these restrictions, and I can understand that: My dad is a physician, my sister is a physician, and there is concern whenever government limits a profession. What’s different here is that people are dying. In the end, the physicians were good about working with us.

You’ve said that you’ll fight efforts to restrict Montana’s coal industry. You’ve framed it as a tension between climate change and local economic growth, and that the latter should take priority. How do you see that calculus?

[We have to recognize] that if we shut down Colstrip, is that going to have any impact on the world’s climate? Not really. But by shutting down these plants prematurely, you’ll throw a whole bunch of people into the jobless world that are making $100,000 a year, and you’ll decimate the tax base of Rosebud County and severely curtail revenue that comes from coal severance taxes that fund our schools’ infrastructure.

I support continuing to invest in research that can improve emissions technologies, and I support looking at other options that don’t bring environmental catastrophe to the state. But Japan has replaced nuclear capacity with coal, and they’re going to get that coal from somewhere. The Powder River Basin coal is low-emission coal that they want, and Washington State is blocking [the shipping of that coal to Asia through its ports]. If Washington is successful, Japan will just get its coal elsewhere, from Australia or Indonesia, which is dirtier.

I want to figure out how to continue to use coal in some way. We have the largest coal reserves in the country of any state, so it’s to the state’s benefit to figure out how to use coal. To me, that’s going to be an important part of being attorney general: Standing up for Montana’s economic interest in fighting back overreach.

Why are you running for office?

I don’t believe the attorney general can solve everyone’s problems. But you can have a tremendous impact. And that’s what I’m passionate about: Where can I have impact on lives of Montanans?

When I was in high school, I had a moment of clarity. Up to that point, I thought I might follow the path of my dad, going into the medical field. But I realized that I felt a desire to be in public service, where I could provide leadership on issues I cared about. A lot of what I’ve done since is to give me the opportunity to potentially serve the public in a way that’s meaningful.

Two or three years ago I had a conversation about whether running for office was the right thing for me, my family, the state. Politics seems to be getting crazier, and that was something that almost kept me from running. When I take on something, I like to have a level of comfort that just through sheer work and determination I can have success. Politics isn’t necessarily like that. You can control some things, you can work hard, but there are so many factors outside your control. So, I have to be comfortable with that level of risk.

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