One Family Has Spearheaded Montana’s Unflinching Conservatism

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During a legislative hearing in 2011 that was a prelude to Montana’s debates on abortion, State Representative Keith Regier displayed an image of a cow and made the argument that cattle were more valuable when pregnant.

The comparison drew a prompt rebuke from some women in the room, but Mr. Regier, a Republican, declined to apologize. Over the years, the former schoolteacher and sod farmer has seldom demurred from his growing brand of combative Christian-oriented politics, in which the Ten Commandments are the foundation of good law and some of the biggest battles have been with moderates in his own party.

Mr. Regier has now emerged as the patriarch of a new family political dynasty that has injected fresh conservative intensity into debates over abortion, diversity training and, this spring, transgender rights. Mr. Regier chairs the Senate’s powerful judiciary committee, while his daughter, Amy, leads its counterpart in the House. Mr. Regier’s son, Matt, has risen to speaker of the House. The trio of legislators, each wielding a similar brand of unflinching conservatism, were among the most powerful proponents of a set of bills that took particular aim at the rights of transgender people.

It was Matt Regier who led the move to bar one of the legislature’s only transgender representatives, Zooey Zephyr, who had spoken out vociferously on the House floor last month against a measure banning hormone treatments and surgical care for transgender minors. The proposal was one of several new laws that passed recently, including one prohibiting adult-oriented drag shows on public property and another creating a strict definition of a person’s sex.

At the close of the legislative session on Tuesday night, fellow lawmakers gave Mr. Regier a standing ovation. “There were many times of sunlight, and there were also times of shade, but overall it’s been an incredible ride,” the speaker said.

The Regier family hails from the Flathead Valley of northwest Montana, a majestic region of glaciers and fir forests around Kalispell that has become a destination for conservatives looking to flee urban life and liberal politics in other states. Militia groups and far-right religious leaders have also found a home in the valley, some of them drawn to the notion of establishing what is often called a “redoubt” in the American Northwest.

Keith Regier and his wife settled there in 1975 after he obtained a degree in physical education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At the time, Democrats dominated much of state politics, in part because of strong labor organizing in the state’s expansive mining and timber industries.

Keith Regier taught sixth grade in Kalispell for nearly three decades. Matt was a quarterback for the high school football team, taking it into the state playoffs. Amy earned a degree in nursing and began working at the hospital.

Keith Regier said he had not seriously considered running for office until he retired from teaching, telling The Daily Inter Lake news outlet in 2005 that he planned to focus on sod farming with his son and perhaps do some writing. But by 2008 he had won a seat in the State House, promising to lower taxes, protect the death penalty and undermine labor unions by converting Montana into a “right to work” state.

In an interview, he said he assessed all legislation through two lenses: whether the proposed laws were biblical and whether they were good for the average Montanan.

“This country was founded on Judeo-Christian values,” he said. “Just read the Declaration of Independence. It’s very obvious.”

His unyielding approach gained traction in the state capital of Helena — including his beliefs on abortion — and he rose up to become majority leader in 2015.

That was a surprise to Bob Brown, a longtime former Republican lawmaker from the Flathead area who once ran for governor. At his home where he displays artwork featuring former Republican presidents and a plaque thanking him for contributions to the party, Mr. Brown said he had noticed a shift since his days at the State Capitol: Republican lawmakers no longer wanted leaders who were looking for compromise, he said.

“They just want to implement their own concept of what is right,” he said. “I think Keith Regier is a pretty good example of that.”

The Regiers’ views appealed to the growing movement of extreme conservatives who were gaining traction in the region, said Frank Garner, a former police chief in Kalispell who later represented the area as a moderate Republican in the Legislature. That included not only militia groups but also people like Chuck Baldwin, a pastor with apocalyptic views and a Constitution Party candidate in the 2008 presidential election who had moved his family to the state seeking refuge from what he predicted would be escalating conflict elsewhere in the country. Mr. Baldwin used his pulpit to celebrate the Regiers’ brand of conservatism in Helena.

“They were philosophically the right people in the right place at the right time,” Mr. Garner said.

In 2016, Matt Regier joined his father in running for office, saying he was motivated to do so after the local school board added gender identity to its anti-discrimination policy. He said he feared that the rise of transgender advocacy was threatening traditional values.

Amy Regier ran in 2020, sharing her perspective as a nurse about the societal dangers of coronavirus pandemic restrictions and vowing to cut taxes. In the primary, she defeated a veteran Republican lawmaker, Bruce Tutvedt, who characterized the new Republican stance as “very authoritarian politics, top-down — no tolerance for a Republican like me.”

While the Democrats had held onto the governor’s office for 16 years, that ended in 2021 as Republicans steadily gained ground.

The Regiers turned their attention not just to defeating Democrats but to ousting Republicans who did not fall into line.

In one race, the Regiers joined with anti-abortion activists to create a political action committee called Doctors for a Healthy Montana. Matt Regier was the treasurer, according to campaign finance records. Keith and Matt Regier accounted for two of the group’s five donors.

Among the committee’s targets was Representative Joel Krautter, a Republican from the eastern Montana community of Sidney who had voted to expand Medicaid. The committee leased a large billboard that showed a picture of a baby with the message: “Joel Krautter voted for taxpayer funded abortions.” Mr. Krautter, who opposes abortion, objected to the characterization.

“I thought it was bogus, but these people don’t care too much,” Mr. Krautter said. He lost in the 2020 Republican primary to a more conservative candidate.

Then last fall, in a private caucus vote, Matt Regier narrowly emerged as House speaker. It was a result that shocked some Republican lawmakers. Some were queasy about the direction that the party was set to take.

It did not take long: A text message went out inviting Republican women to a meeting in Mr. Regier’s office, according to two people who were in attendance.

Mr. Regier wanted to talk about Ms. Zephyr, who had been newly elected from Missoula. He asked the women what steps the House should take to manage the chamber’s bathrooms in Ms. Zephyr’s presence.

Mallerie Stromswold, who was among the Republicans at the meeting, said she was surprised that such an issue was one of Mr. Regier’s first orders of business. But some of the women in the room expressed concerns about sharing private quarters with Ms. Zephyr, she said, and a decision was made to add locks to the bathroom so that one person could use the whole facility, with several stalls, in private.

“I was the only one who openly had a problem with the conversation,” said Ms. Stromswold, who has since left the Legislature.

Once the session began in January, Keith Regier caused a national stir when he submitted a draft resolution calling for Congress to investigate alternatives to reservations for Native Americans; the resolution said the current system had caused “confusion, acrimony and animosity.” He later withdrew it.

Republicans also began advancing the bills on transgender issues, moving many of them through the Regier-led judiciary committees. As the bill prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors moved toward passage, Ms. Zephyr warned that the measure would be “tantamount to torture.”

“I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” she said. Matt Regier responded by refusing to recognize her in floor discussions. Later, a crowd began shouting, “Let her speak,” and Mr. Regier ordered people to clear the chamber. Ms. Zephyr raised her microphone in solidarity with the demonstrators.

Ms. Zephyr was barred from the House chamber and spent the rest of the session in a hallway. Matt Regier confronted her there last week and tried to have her moved to an office, but she remained outside near the snack bar.

Ms. Zephyr said the effort to “silence” her was an “affront to democracy” and vowed to fight it.

“The Montana State House is the people’s House, not Speaker Regier’s, and I’m determined to defend the right of the people to have their voices heard,” she said in a statement.

Keith Regier said he had long been misunderstood for his remarks all those years ago about pregnant cows, offered in support of his bill to make it a homicide to harm a pregnant woman whose fetus then dies.

“If unfinished buildings and unborn calves have a value in Montana, shouldn’t unborn children have a value?” Mr. Regier said as part of his cow analogy.

But opponents saw the 2011 legislation as a back door effort to undercut abortion, and it was vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor. His successor, also a Democrat, allowed a diluted version of the bill to become law two years later.

Republican lawmakers under the Regiers’ leadership have approved several new abortion restrictions, including a ban on the procedures after 20 weeks. The courts have ruled that the state’s constitutional right to privacy protects access to abortion, and new lawsuits are pending.

Keith Regier also defended Republican House members’ vote to bar Ms. Zephyr from the floor, saying her “blood on your hands” remark was inappropriate, and that she had taken it further by encouraging protests in the chamber.

“We need to be careful of what we say,” he said. “If we are offensive, you say sorry.”

Ms. Zephyr never apologized, but she did file a lawsuit, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and others, to regain access to the chamber before it recessed. A judge rejected the effort.

For this round, the Regiers had won.

Keith Regier said he and his children were doing no more than what they had been elected to do. “I guess people know our family and identify with our values and want us to come and represent them.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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