Friday, February 15, 2013

Young UM grad keeps busy in second House term

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 10:16 pm
Two turns of the election cycle are all that separate a wide-eyed first timer and a progressive, political powerhouse.
Bryce Bennett made headlines when he was first elected in 2010 for being both very young – he was 25 – and gay. He’s now wading through his second session in the Montana House of Representatives. When Bennett won his seat representing Missoula’s House District 92, he was the youngest lawmaker in the state. Three years later he’s lost that accolade, but gained experience without letting success go to his head.
“I feel good about the fact that somebody walking up to my desk and calling me ‘Representative’ still feels a little silly to me,” Bennett said.
The University of Montana graduate grew up in the small town of Hysham, Mont., located between Billings and Miles City, but graduated from high school in Missoula. He said his transition from freewheeling freshman to legislative leader – a role he’s been training for since he was a teenager – has brought increased responsibility.
“Last session I felt like I had more free time,” Bennett said. “I always kind of felt like I was on top of things. Now, from the point I walk into the Capitol in the morning to the time I leave at night, I am constantly busy.” 
Bennett, 28, now chairs the House Democratic Caucus and is State Administration committee vice chair. As caucus chair, he helps communicate the House Democrats’ philosophy to the media, constituents and other legislators. As a committee vice chair, Bennett presents his party’s case in committee meetings and informs other Democrats of the details of bills that are produced or altered by the committee.
It’s not just free time that he misses from his first session in the House. Bennett said he laments not having as much time to keep in close contact with his constituents. 
“I don’t want people to be sitting at home thinking that I’m setting their concerns on the back boiler,” Bennett said.
The second-term legislator said his priorities this session are keeping voting rights strong and “bringing some transparency to politics in a post-Citizens United world.”
“We need to know who’s spending money in our elections, and how much and where,” Bennett added.
When he was elected in 2010, Bennett was Montana’s first openly gay man in the state Legislature. As the prominence of his youth fades, he hopes this distinction will, too.
“We're getting to the point where there are not going to be a lot of firsts anymore. You're not going to be the first gay, or lesbian or transgender person; you're just going to be another person” who got involved, Bennett said. 
He said some people feel Montana has a social and political climate that does not allow gay politicians or issues to be taken seriously. But he urged other members of the LGBT community to enter local politics.
“I think our state is moving forward,” he said, pointing to other successful LGBT politicians, including Missoula’s Democratic Councilwoman Caitlin Copple and Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena.
At UM, Bennett said he was involved with the Lambda Alliance and the College Democrats and was an ASUM senator. In fact, he said extracurricular activities were the highlight of his education.
“I showed up to class and did the work,” Bennett said. “But I don’t know if there are any professors who could pick me out of a line-up.”
When the Legislature isn’t in session, Bennett works as the political director of Forward Montana, an organization he helped found in 2004, while a freshman at UM.
“We were really tired of hearing the conventional wisdom that young people don’t vote; young people don’t care,” Bennett said. “So we put together Forward Montana as a response to that.” 
Matt Singer, a Forward Montana co-founder, said the organization has grown exponentially since that time, when his living room was its home base.
Forward Montana now has a paid staff and a mass of volunteers known around campus as the pink bunnies who relentlessly prompted students to register to vote upon coming or going from the University Center last fall.
Having worked with Bennett intermittently for eight years, Singer described him as “an incredibly hard worker and good listener.”

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