Sherry Essmann to replace Patelis in HD52

The statue of Thomas Francis Meagher in front of the stairs of the Montana Capitol (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

The Yellowstone County Commission has appointed Sherry Essmann, a current member of the state banking board and wife of former lawmaker and state GOP chair Jeff Essmann, to fill the vacancy in House District 52 in west Billings.

Sherry Essmann confirmed her appointment to the Daily Montanan on Tuesday and said she would be handing in her letter of resignation from the State Banking Board later in the afternoon. Her term was set to expire in 2023.

Essmann, a Republican, also said she’s planning to run for election to the seat, which political observers in the state expect to be a competitive race. The urban (by Montana standards) district has been represented by GOP lawmakers since 2014, when the incumbent Democrat Virginia Court ran for a seat in an adjacent district, opening a path for Republican Dave Hagstrom to defeat Chris Goodridge.

Goodridge also ran the following cycle, losing out by around four points to Rep. Jimmy Patelis, who didn’t run in 2018 but returned to the seat in the 2020 session. Patelis, a former corrections officer, resigned from the seat in May in order to accept an appointment from Gov. Greg Gianforte to the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, creating the vacancy that Essmann is filling.

Essmann said she’s aware it will be a “challenging race” but that she knows the district and its constituents.

Patelis’ quick turnaround from lawmaker to executive appointee has not gone down without controversy. As reported by NBC Montana, he requested an opinion from legislative lawyers in January as to whether the state constitution would allow him as a legislator to take the board position after the 67th Legislative Session adjourns. A nonpartisan staff attorney suggested that the constitution would bar his appointment, according to the report, as the voters elected him to a two-year term, regardless of the duration of the legislative session or whether he resigned.

Although legislative sessions in Montana are constitutionally limited to 90 days — a fraction of the length of a legislative term — lawmakers have a variety of responsibilities during the off-year, such as serving on interim committees and steering groups like the ones this summer advising the state on how to spend federal COVID-19 aid. State law says that county commissioners are to fill legislative vacancies in most instances, though the lawmakers they appoint must run for re-election in the next cycle if they want to hold onto the seat.

Jeff Essmann, Sherry Essmann’s husband, served in the Legislature as recently as the 2017 session and now sits on the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission.