by Scott Rice -
SGN Contributing Writer
Bryce Bennett is not your average 25-year-old. He's a buttoned-down politician with an agenda and well-honed talking points. He's also an openly Gay man running for the Montana State House of Representatives. Yes, his district, Montana House District 92, is comprised mostly of one of the most liberal areas of Montana (north Missoula's Rattlesnake Canyon), but it's still Montana and the district does extend north into the rural and more conservative areas of Seeley Lake and Condon.
If elected this November, Bennett would be the third openly Queer person in the Montana State Legislature joining Congresswoman Diane Sands (D-Missoula) and State Senator Christine Kaufmann (D-Helena).
I met Bennett at Liquid Planet, a trendy coffee joint in the heart of downtown Missoula. He walked in wearing khaki pants and a blue oxford shirt with a nametag pinned just above the pocket. He carried himself with a calm assurance that seemed slightly at odds with his boyish face. But don't let Bennett's age or his boyish good looks fool you; this young man means business.
Scott Rice: So, Bryce, who are you?
Bryce Bennett: I'm a fifth-generation Montanan. I was a key organizer here in Missoula. For all of my adult life I've been working on every progressive cause under the sun, from renewable energy to civil rights to keeping cyanide out of our rivers. & And now I'm taking that passion to a run for the House of Representatives here in Montana.
Rice: Has your family always been involved in politics, or are you the first?
Bennett: Well, first of all, most of my family are hardcore Republicans.
Rice: That makes for fun Thanksgiving dinners.
Bennett: I know, it's charming. And the rest of them are just apathetic. I think [the family] has had a city councilman here or there, but that's about as far as it goes. I'm definitely & I wouldn't say the black sheep, but I'm different than everyone else.
Rice: You're a young guy. How old are you?
Bennett: I'm 25.
Rice: So, you must have known from an early age that politics are a passion for you.
Bennett: I started figuring it out in the 2000 election when I was in high school. It really got me interested, and I was becoming more and more of an Al Gore supporter.
Rice: You say you became more and more of a Gore supporter. Did you have to "come out" to your family as a Gore supporter?
Bennett: [Laughs.] My immediate family - lucky for me - falls into the more apathetic category. But both my parents voted for George Bush in 2000, and by 2004 I had them both turned around and they voted for John Kerry. They've both become a lot more moderate. My mother is a now a left-wing liberal, which I think is pretty funny.
Rice: That's amazing. [Laughs.] It's interesting that you're only 25. Aren't you supposed to be out being promiscuous and making life-threatening mistakes?
Bennett: Every now and then I'm like, "Hey man, you've got to be this politician," and you have to think about what people think about your actions - not that I'm out there doing anything illicit. It's a weird juxtaposition because a lot of my friends are & a little more carefree and they're able to do things a little more easily without thinking about the consequences. It's always in the back of my mind & and in the front a lot of times, too.
Rice: I understand. Considering all the crap I did in my 20s, there's no way I'm ever running for office. [Laughs.] One thing I don't think most people realize is that Montana has a record of electing progressive candidates. Right now, your governor and both senators are Democrats, and they elected the first woman ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, right?
Bennett: Jeannette Rankin. We're very proud of her in Montana.
Rice: Were you at the seven-hour meeting the other night for the [Missoula] city ordinance that protects residents from housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity?
Bennett: I work for an organization called Forward Montana, and we are some of the people who were working actively to put that together. That was an amazing evening. From seeing the rally beforehand with, in my mind, at least a thousand people rallying to say, "We support this," and the people converging on the courthouse & [there were] just so many more people in our city saying we support anti-discrimination as opposed to the small minority saying we're going to stand up for discrimination. It was really heartwarming to see Missoula stand up for its citizens, for those in need.
Rice: Why do you think the ordinance passed?
Bennett: I think, at a very basic level, Missoulians did a good job in electing good people to the city council, people who have strong progressive values and understand that people who are constantly being discriminated against need these protections. On top of that, I think the community came together in a large way to support [the ordinance] and say that this is something we stand for.
Rice: Missoula, over the past eight or nine years, has a checkered past when it comes to the LGBT community dealing with the sheriff's office, the police department, and the county attorney's office. Do you think this ordinance is a reaction to that, or is it simply a community saying, "These are our values"?
Bennett: If you say just that word in any other area of the state, there's definitely a connotation that comes with it.
Bennett: Yeah, solid progressive values. That makes us a very special part of Montana and it's one of the reasons I love living here. But, it was really a perfect storm that came around this ordinance that the sheriff and the county attorney, where in the past they may have been apprehensive around these issues, stepped up and they were ready to help this time around. I don't know the specific details of what brought this all together, but I think the page has turned in Missoula and we're ready to stand up together.
Rice: You are a founding member of Forward Montana. What does Forward Montana do?
Bennett: Forward Montana works to train, mobilize, and elect the next generation of progressive leaders. We work with young people across the state on issues like LGBT equality and renewable energy to move our state forward and get young people involved in the political process.
Rice: What's the biggest misconception about Montana? As a fifth-generation Montanan, here's your chance to speak.
Bennett: I don't know if I could pick just one misconception. When you travel outside the state, people go, "Oh, do you ride horses to school?" and all this sort of stuff. But I think that people have a misconception that Montana is this backwoods, redneck, super-super-conservative state, and while there are pockets of that, Montana for a long time has been a very progressive state. Like you said, we had the first woman in Congress, we were one of the first states to give women the right to vote & we're one of the few states to pass [medical marijuana]. There are so many different progressive things, because we're a live-and-let-live kind of place, that our state has gotten behind, and I think that people have kind of brushed over these ideas with cowboys and backwoods.
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