Politics is a family business for Speaker Galt

Family has ties that intertwine with Montana’s history

Peel back the layers of Montana’s political history and you will quickly encounter the Galt family. 

Or just drive around central Montana. There’s a chance you’ll travel on Galt Road in the northeast Helena valley, or more likely, that you’ll end up near the family’s considerable land holdings, the bulk of which are centered around White Sulphur Springs, around 90 minutes to the east of the capital. 

With 260,000 acres in their possession, the Galts own more land than almost any other private landholder in the state — in fact, they rank 48th among all private landowners nationwide in terms of acreage.

About as many Galts as have worked that land have worked in state and regional politics, first in Minnesota at the turn of the 20th century, and after a generation, in Montana, beginning with 1930s Republican state senator Errol F. Galt. 

“The Galts started heading west, and slowly started dropping off around Montana,” said newly elected Montana House Speaker Wylie Galt, the most recent inheritor of this century-plus long legacy. His given name, like his great-grandfather, is also Errol. The family did not, it should be noted, make it to the more liberal bastions of the West Coast; just about all of the political members of the family have been Republicans. 

“My great-grandfather served, my grandfather served, and my dad (Errol T. Galt) served as an RNC delegate,” the younger Galt continued. 

In other words, explained political analyst and University of Montana professor Lee Banville, tradition is important to the Galts.

“There’s a long respect for the institution there,” he said. 

But the institution that Galt, R-Martinsdale, an incrementalist by nature, now leads looks drastically different than it did in the family’s political heyday, or even than when the Speaker was a freshman lawmaker in 2013.

Montana Speaker of the House Wylie Galt talks with Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, in a floor session of the House. (Photo by Eric Seidle of the Daily Montanan.)

With the decline of the state Democratic Party, which has held the governor’s mansion for the past 16 years, the GOP has a unique opportunity to enact a strictly conservative program of social and economic policies that were essentially impossible before — if it can put the divisions that allowed legislative Democrats leverage in the past behind.

“There’s really only one thing that could mess up the Republicans this cycle, and that is if some of the bitterness and infighting that informed the end of last session continue,” Banville said. 

This is the task that falls on Galt. His grandfather, Jack, arguably the most prominent member of the family, was known for his quick gavel and aversion to political showmanship. He held the line. To continue the legacy of conservatism that his family has established in the state, the new Speaker must do the same, albeit in his own way, even as progressives aim to halt the movement of unfettered Republican ideology wherever possible.

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Jack Galt — who married Louise Rankin, the widow of Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin’s brother Wellington (himself a prominent politico) — served for the better part of two decades in the state legislature and Republican Party politics.

Jack and Louise Galt (Photo courtesy of the Galt family).

He “probably could have been governor,” Banville said, but preferred more influential behind-the-scenes roles. For years, the cattle trader and ranch foreman, whose sons inherited the Rankin land after he and Louise died, “was the eminent dealmaker and architect within the Legislature,” he said. 

Jack Galt left his most significant imprint on the state’s water and agricultural laws, and cemented his role as a kingmaker in mainstream state Republican politics — though he never left the ranch full-time. 

“You could always tell which candidates the Republican Party establishment supported by reading the alphabetized campaign finance reports,” wrote Helena presscorps veteran Chuck Johnson when Jack died in 2007. “When you saw a page or two filled with donors named Galt — Jack and Louise and the Galt children and their spouses and children — you knew that candidate had the blessing of mainstream Republicans.” 

Even today, you can’t go anywhere in the state without bumping into a Galt — whether Speaker and rancher Wylie, or distant relative Dave Galt, a lobbyist who has run both the state Department of Transportation and the Montana Petroleum Association, or Wylie Galt Gustafson (brother of Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras), the country yodeler, or the younger Jack Galt, who plays football for Montana State, and so on. 

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However, the legislative Republicans whom Wylie Galt now leads are in a much different position than when Jack was in power.

For one, there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 1,000 Montanans and led to bitter fights among lawmakers over the chamber’s rules. At this stage, the Legislature has allowed for remote attendance and testimony, but has not required masks. One lawmaker, Rep. David Bedey, a Republican from Hamilton, announced a positive diagnosis on the fourth day of the session. 

And between the Tea Party and Donald Trump, the kind of establishment cachet that comes with the Galt name is not the prize it once was, especially now that the 16-year reign of Democratc Govs. Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock is done. Some in the state’s right-wing chattering class were quick to label Galt as a RINO — Republican In Name Only — for handing some plum committee assignments to bipartisan-minded veteran lawmakers. 

“Now that that wing of the Republican Party has become more vocal, I really wonder if now that they don’t have to fight a Democratic governor, if they’re not going to reshape the Republican caucus,” Banville said. “Unless they want to destroy Medicaid expansion, you might see some more dissension in the ranks.” 

Exactly what the state’s trifecta GOP majority will do with Medicaid — those Republicans who joined Democrats and voted to renew expansion of the program quickly earned the ire of their hardline colleagues in past sessions — remains to be seen, though Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposed budget has retained the program. 

Galt has come out supporting a predictable package of tax cuts and deregulation as a method of helping businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, though he said that he expects there to be more wiggle room on the regulatory front than with the state’s revenue. 

“We’re going to have a mixed bag,” he said. “There’s going to be cuts, places we hold the line, and maybe some increases.” 

He’s particularly interested in ensuring funding for institutes for career and technical education and expanding rural broadband, a rare point where Republicans and Democrats have generally found common ground. 

“If it’s on policies that are boosting our economy, creating jobs, bolstering public education, these are places we can work together,” said House Democratic Minority Leader Kim Abbott, of Helena. “But sometimes we get into trouble on the approach, on the details.” 

Ultimately, Galt said, the state’s economy is in better shape than previous projections had suggested, even with rising unemployment. 

The presence of Gianforte in the governor’s office means that legislative Republicans can aspire to more than conservative economics. Gianforte is a businessman, sure, but he’s also a staunch social conservative, a young-earth creationist who has helped fund a museum in Glendive that depicts dinosaurs as coming over on Noah’s Ark. 

Galt has spoken of “protecting the right to life” — longhand for limiting abortions — and told the Daily Montanan one of his top non-economic priorities is to allow permitless carry of firearms. 

Such right-wing social goals were impossible to achieve under Bullock and Schweitzer, even with a longstanding GOP majority in the Legislature. Now, the winds have turned.

“We’re gonna have to do both,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, whom Galt named as House Appropriations Committee chair. “There’s no doubt that the new administration is substantially more socially conservative, and there’s no doubt that social conservative issues will be front and center, consuming bandwidth.

“I tell folks, it’s about 26 (votes), 51 and one,” Jones continued, referring to the governor. “That’s what drives the legislature. The overwhelming factor is going to be that the one is different.” 

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In the House, even with a significant mandate from conservative voters, reaching that 51 still has its challenges.

Galt ran as a unity candidate, hoping to seal the gaps in the fractious House GOP with a careful act of political kintsugi. He planned to make committee assignments based on merit and seniority, giving chairmanships to more pragmatic Republicans like Jones, a longtime appropriator, as well as to the more territorial members of the party’s right flank. 

“A lot of members I have talked to have a goal in mind of bringing the Republican party back together,” Galt said. “Everyone’s been very open.”

Gone, he said, are the days of naming factions within the party.

“We’ve all agreed to move forward as one,” he added. 

Still, he won the speakership over hardliner Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, by just one vote. Regier helped manage a committee in the primaries that spent heavily against many so-called Solutions Caucus members, including former lawmaker Nancy Ballance, a close ally of Jones’. 

Speaker of the Montana House Wylie Galt. (Photo by Eric Seidle of the Daily Montanan.)

The challenges associated with his charge became evident early on in the session, if not before. Regier and other farther-right conservatives like Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, were champions of rules proposals that would restore the Speaker’s unilateral authority to change committee assignments and empower committee chairs to pocket veto bills they didn’t want to consider. 

In 2019, Democrats and Solutions Caucus Republicans joined to craft a new set of House rules to limit these powers, to the chagrin of the so-called “.38 Specials,” a loose caucus made up of lawmakers like Regier. 

Though Galt always denied the possibility, some lawmakers have previously mused that dissent about rules combined with a pandemic that has left Democrats wary of doing business on the House floor could have led to a last minute shakeup that installed Regier or one of his allies as Speaker when leadership votes were formalized on Jan. 3. 

This did not happen, and Galt ascended to the speakership without major hiccups — save for a substitute motion from Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, to wipe clean the 2019 rule revisions until the chamber adopted new rules for 2021. The motion failed, with Galt joining Democrats and a minority of his Republican colleagues to retain the 2019 rules.

“We’ve got 67 members who are all very independent,” Galt said the week before taking the Speaker’s gavel for the first time. “I don’t think we can go through any session without friction.” 

And Democratic lawmakers won’t be rolling over, Abbott said, even if the margins look dire for the minority. 

“Finding enough votes to stop something — that’s what we’ll be doing every single day,” she said. 

Democrats also believe that if the state government shifts too far to the right, there will be a response from voters in two years that restores balance in the Legislature.

“Republicans haven’t had to actually govern in two decades,” Abbott said. “We’ll see how they approach it.”

To return to the concept of 26, 51 and one: Even if Abbott’s caucus manages to hold the line on key votes, Republicans still have a nearly insurmountable majority, one that has grown from last session to this one. Galt has only shown confidence that he’ll be able to keep that majority together. And, as Jones said, the one has changed.

“It’s a mistake to assume that those divisions are automatically still there,” Banville, the professor, said. 

“All of their legislative history is built on a model that does not exist anymore, at least for the next two years,” he added. “If they can stick together, they can kind of do whatever they want.”