One is a former Air Force officer and realtor; the other a professional mediator and human rights activist. Marta Bertoglio and Bryher Herak are both Montanans by birth, both entrepreneurs, and both active civic volunteers – and both say they want to confront the polarization that has increasingly disrupted the county and the nation. But they’ve taken very different paths to the race to succeed Gred DeVries as representative of House District 75 in the next state legislature.
The Monitor spoke with Bertoglio and Herak in separate interviews about their lives, their work, their ideals and their politics.
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
—Keith Hammonds, publisher
Marta Bertoglio: ‘People are tired of the negativity’
Monitor: Before the primary, you said that reading articles by [Republican incumbent] Greg DeVries had prompted you to run for his seat. So, you beat him in the primary. What’s your reason for running now?
It’s been something I wanted to do since high school. Over the years, when I’ve traveled, I always tuned in to what was going on in Montana and I’ve said, someday, I’m going to be a representative. Lately, I’ve watched the divisiveness in our politics, and I’ve thought, our kids are watching this. I want to leave our state, our country, a better place for our kids. So I put my name forward.
You’ve said you hope to bring civility to the public policy arena. But arguably, the state legislature, like politics everywhere, is more partisan than ever. What can you do to fix that?
It does seem like the divisiveness has grown tenfold. Everyone comes with a different belief, and that’s the wonderful thing about our country. But you need to be able to talk openly and honestly about issues without name-calling or pitting people against each other. Just sit down and talk things through, and move things forward. I’m a positive person, and I respect people. I am open to listening to all people. That’s how I work.
You grew up in Deer Lodge.
I was the youngest of six kids. There were about 40 of us in our neighborhood, and we played outside all the time. I loved that small town.
What sort of student were you?
I was valedictorian of my high school class. I just loved studying. My faith has always been a very strong part of me, and I feel I was given talents, and I need to use them to help people and give back.
Where does that come from?
My dad grew up in Butte. He had a sad childhood, and he failed his sophomore year in high school. But he became a Navy medic and served in Guadalcanal in World War II, then he put himself through Carroll College in three years and went to medical school. He loved his country, and he worked hard without complaint. He loved taking care of people. Just watching him, that influenced me a lot.
You went to the Air Force Academy after high school, which I’m guessing was an unusual decision for a young woman in 1987. Why?
Growing up, my dad had a telescope, and I would look at the moon and stars. My parents always tuned in to all the space stuff, and I followed it and loved it. I had read that people who want to go into the space program go to the Academy — so, it was kind of foreign for me to go into the military, but I wanted to get into the space program.
Did you enjoy it?
I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word, but man, was it a great opportunity. The caliber of people there was amazing. It was very time intensive and stressful, because you had both the military side and academics. It was character building, for sure. It’s who I am: Learning to dig deep when you wonder if you can.
You served as a space operations officer for 12 years. What is that?
Once I got to the Academy, I learned I couldn’t actually be an astronaut because I’m 5’2” and you need to be 5’4”. But I put space operations as my top career choice, #1, and I was one of just eight people in my class of 1000 to get it. And I was the only woman. And in my first Air Force assignment, I was the only woman. That first job was about tracking space junk and satellites around the earth. Then I worked at a place called the Space Warfare Center, studying new technologies. And I went to Germany, where I was executive officer for the ambassador. I was so lucky: I got to travel and to meet all sorts of people from all walks of life. I miss the camaraderie, the mission, serving our country. But we decided to come back to Montana; our kids were toddlers, and my parents were aging and started needing help. We said this was the time; family first.
In 2016, you co-founded Uncommon Ground, a real estate business. Tell me about that.
I thought about teaching after my military career. But at the time, one of the ladies I’m working with now helped sell my parents’ house. I had moved a lot in the military, so I knew what questions to ask – and she said, ‘Marta, you should be in real estate.’ Moving is so stressful, and I think I bring the empathy to buyers and sellers. The business has done well. It’s been very busy since March, and I work a lot. But I do plan, if I win, to pull back and refer everything out. I want to dedicate my time and energy to the district. And I have a senior in high school, and I want to be there for her. You can only do so much in one day.
You’ve served as chair of the Montana City School Board. What have you learned from that that informs your objectives as a legislator? How should education policy change to better support schools?
At the end of the day, it’s about the child. Yes, it’s about helping staff members become the best they can be for those kids. I’m very impressed by the school system, how the teachers in Montana City really empowered our kids. Working in education and in real estate, I see that we need people who are going to go into the trades, qualified people who are going to go into apprenticeships. [The state could support] programs for career trades people. Both my brothers went to Montana Tech but they had to leave the state to get jobs; wouldn‘t it be great if we had businesses here so they didn’t have to leave?
You’ve said you’re a “principled fiscal conservative with a focus on expanding upon the good paying jobs in our District.” How can that happen?
Growing up, when I saw the railroad leave or the mine close, I saw our town shrink. It’s important to keep jobs in our community. The Boulder Transition and Community Transition Advisory Councils are great because you bring people together in community. These are the people who make a community thrive. You need to find the holes where they need to be filled, where they need economic help. I don’t have the answer, but that’s part of learning. I’m not going to go into the legislature with someone else’s agenda.
You won the Republican primary by 22 points. What does that say?
I think I struck a chord with people. Service to community, that’s part of being an American. That’s what our founding fathers had in mind: That we would put forth people who would work for their fellow man. I think people are tired of the negativity. We are not a perfect country, but we are trying to look at our failings and hopefully return to a better direction. It starts with one person leading. First you have to learn to be a good follower. And to not blindly follow someone because of the narrative of the day. Not buying into the negative, but looking for solutions.
Bryher Herak: ‘We need leaders who don’t want polarization’
Monitor: You ran for HD-75 in 2018 and lost. Now you’re running again for the same seat. Why?
I had not planned on running again. But after I was beaten in 2018 by Greg DeVries and then watched his performance in the legislature, I was very concerned about his representation of the county. This year, no other Democrat wanted to run, and I was concerned that he would run unopposed and without someone talking about issues I thought were relevant to the county.
Then Marta [Bertoglio] filed, and I was delighted when she beat Greg. I’ve had some conversations with her, and I think she would be a good representative for us. I’d rather have a Democrat win, and I’m in this race seriously. But I ran to make sure Greg wouldn’t win unopposed, so I’ve already won in that sense.
You worked as a mediator for the Montana Human Rights Bureau from 2008 to 2014.
That’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. The bureau investigates human rights violations around the state. So if you’re working in a business or public entity and you have a complaint of discrimination, you file it with the bureau. Then the bureau investigates and tries to reach a settlement. My job was to meet with the parties before the investigation to try to resolve what was happening so the person could either keep their job or leave with some monetary restitution.
Tell me about a case you mediated.
There was a case back in Seattle, when I first started working for the Office of Women’s Rights. A bus company had refused to hire women as drivers, because it said women were too short. And it was true: The buses had big seats, and women couldn’t reach the pedals. But when we sat down and talked, we figured out that the bus seats could be adjusted. We spent three months on that, and it ended up being a pretty cheap solution.
There usually is a moment in mediations when the conflict switches from very antagonistic to people wanting to come up with a solution together. It’s kind of a miracle, really. It happens when both sides feel heard, when no one feels like the bad guy, and you’re there to understand their positions and help them move out of the position they’re in conflict around.
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have amplified polarization across the nation, and in this county. Do you agree with that assessment – and if so, what can we do about it?
The polarization is really problematic. I’m seeing a kind of anger that feels at times pretty irrational, where both sides are not even thinking and are reacting viscerally and so angrily. It worries me. The only reason mediation works is, you get a commitment from both parties: I’m here and I honestly want to find a solution. The problem in the county and the country now is, I’m not convinced everyone wants to find a solution. I’m not convinced that polarization in itself isn’t meeting some need.
I think we can find ways to work together. We find places where we are in agreement and try to focus on that, because I don’t know what to do with the kind of anger I’m seeing on the streets now about masks, about freedom, about liberty. Part of being in a community is, we’re always balancing liberty with shared needs. Primarily, we need leaders who don’t want polarization. When we have leaders who are intensifying polarization, it’s hard on the grass roots level to calm it down.
What do you mean when you say that polarization may itself meet a need?
I thought the Black Lives Matter movement was great. And 95% of those people were not violent, they were there to make a statement. But there is that kind of anger [around racial justice]. And that anger brought in anger from the other side, an anger that was seething and now has a target. There is anger in the country that people want to spew right now, even on issues that don’t have to be polarizing. For example, I think we could have worked with the county Health Board to come up with a solution without someone losing her job. But it just seems like people are saying: I’m mad, and I’m going to act.
In 2000, you moved from Seattle to Boulder to be near your brother, George.
I grew up on a big, beautiful family farm in the Mission Valley, north of Missoula. George and I were twins. My family didn’t have a lot of money, and George was severely disabled. He couldn’t talk, couldn’t stand being touched. When we were five, my parents decided to have him institutionalized, and he spent the rest of his life funneled between Warm Springs and Boulder. That was Georgie’s life. When I came back from law school in 1972, I became his guardian and the contact for him with the family. But I had my life in Seattle.
In 2000, I got a call from his doctor that Georgie was dying. I had just sold my business, I had just bought a condominium, and I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. And the doctor told me that he would die in a couple of months. So, I just moved. I knew people in Basin, so I rented a house here, and started spending every day with him. We’d go for drives, and I got to know him. And he started getting better, and better. After a year, I was seeing him every day. I sold my condo in Seattle and bought this place in Basin and decided to spend time with him. Ultimately we got him into a group home in Butte where he died four years ago.
He was a beautiful man. George never spoke, but he sure communicated. I learned a lot.
You started and ran the High Note coffee shop and art gallery in Basin. This was 2004 to 2008, when Basin was a vibrant cultural center. How could Basin return to that?
One reason the High Note worked was we had the Montana Artists Refuge in Basin. What was lacking then was a place for those artists to come together, have breakfast, and hang out. And a place for people in the community to meet those artists. That’s what made it fun for me, bringing those communities together. But a lot of those artists came on grants, and when that funding dried up, the refuge folded. But we still have a lot of artists coming here to Basin, so a group of us have been talking about starting something like the refuge. We just have to start putting the word out that we’re here. Then once artists get there, they’ll need places to hang out. That’s what we need to do to help businesses here. Basin is interesting: It has these interesting people, it’s got the health mine, and then there’s the rest of the community working Boulder or Butte, or living up in the hills. Like all communities, we’re small but complex.
Tell me about your childhood.
My biggest influences were my folks. They were fabulous people. They were farmers and hard, hard, hard workers; my God, they worked hard. And my mom especially was a community activist, active in the Democratic Party, in the Catholic Church, in a thousand different ways. I worked in the fields a lot, and I’d come in, and there would be Mike Mansfield at the table, and Mom and him in some sort of political conversation. My dad was a big farmers union person. We were pretty self-sufficient and lucky that we had enough to eat, and it was important to my folks to make sure that everyone in the neighborhood had enough to eat, too. My folks said, you are nothing without family and without community; you need to make sure you are out there helping people all the time.