Republican Zack Wirth picked to fill Montana House District 80 vacancy

By: - January 3, 2023 5:40 pm
The Montana state Capitol in Helena on the opening day of the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 2, 2023.

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on the opening day of the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Commissioners from Lewis and Clark and Powell counties on Tuesday picked Zack Wirth, a Republican rancher from south of Wolf Creek, to fill the House District 80 seat vacated by Becky Beard’s appointment to Senate District 40.

All three Lewis and Clark County commissioners voted to appoint Wirth to the seat, while the Powell County commissioners selected Hailey Oestreicher. But since Lewis and Clark County has a larger population in the two-county district, its commissioners’ votes carried more weight than those of Powell County commissioners as required under Montana code.

Wirth said he is a fifth-generation rancher who owns and runs the Rocking Z Guest Ranch near Wolf Creek. He and his wife have six children and 18 grandchildren, and he said he has been a member of the Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee for eight years.

Wirth lost to Beard in the 2016 Republican primary for HD 80.

Commissioners from the two counties met in the joint session Tuesday afternoon and asked the three candidates — Wirth, Oestreicher and Nathan Nachtsheim — questions for more than an hour before voting on which of the three finalists to appoint. A panel of Republicans for both counties picked the three finalists in December.

Those questions included queries about how local governments and the state government work together; how much focus governments should put into criminal justice funding, grants and other funding mechanisms for smaller rural communities; how each would represent people with whom they disagree; nursing home funding; their priorities if appointed to the Montana Legislature; and what to do with the surplus since some of it comes from federal dollars.

Wirth said he felt law enforcement officers should be paid more, that more money should be put into funding volunteer fire departments, and that he wanted to have open communication as a lawmaker with other Republicans who have “a lot of different slants on bills,” as well as with Democrats.

“It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue at the end of the day. We all have to live underneath the laws and services that we have to provide — good, bad or indifferent,” he said.

Wirth said he believes Montana nursing homes — 11 of which have already closed or announced closures as vacancy rates at some wane — should be better funded in order to keep people closer to their homes. The Gianforte Administration has proposed increasing per diem rates, but not as much as a recent report recommended.

Wirth said he wants to work to address the housing shortages across the state and help people who need it no matter the issue, telling commissioners he would bring a savvy character to the Capitol who knows how to prioritize the needs of his constituents.

That includes fighting overregulation and trying to keep up with inflation, supply chain issues, the rising cost of timber and litigation that has tied up forest and water management, he said.

In terms of the budget surplus, Wirth said he wanted to figure out how it came to be, though he acknowledged he’d be “jumping in” as a legislator without the two months of preparation other freshman lawmakers have received.

“It’s going to be a very tough start, and I think it’s a win if we don’t put our foot in our mouth somewhere,” Wirth told the commissioners.

He said since he is not a career politician, he will be focused on what the people of HD 80 want and need from him.

“I go second; they go first,” he said.

A man from Canyon Creek voiced support for Wirth in the public comment period, saying he believed the rancher would do what was needed for the district and work across the aisle if, and when, needed.

Two others voiced support in public comment for Oestreicher, a law student, former legal assistant and the wife of Derek Oestreicher, the former chief deputy attorney general and now chief legal counsel for the Montana Family Foundation. Nachtscheim is a longtime Helena-area resident who owns three businesses.

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said he voted for Wirth because of his real-world experience and understanding of the role of a legislator, though he acknowledged all three would have been “what the voters asked for” when they re-elected Beard in November.

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Tom Rolfe said he voted for Wirth because of his experience but said Oestreicher and Nachtsheim should stay involved in the political process in the area because they “will both be a real asset to our community.”

Wirth praised the two other finalists, saying he hopes Oestreicher will continue her political pursuits because she is “an outstanding young woman” and that he wanted to stay in touch with Nachtscheim.

Because the legislative session is underway, Powell County will have five days, per law, to send the appointment to the Secretary of State’s Office. A spokesperson there said they imagined that would happen over the next day or two.

Madison Atkinson, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said the details on when Wirth will be sworn in were still being ironed out Tuesday afternoon.

As for Wirth in his new role, he said it was something he had been thinking about for years and that it was time to “put my money where my mouth is.”

“I’m scared to death,” he said. “I don’t think I would be normal if I weren’t.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Jan. 4, 2022 at 1:20 p.m., to correctly attribute the comments of Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Tom Rolfe. 

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.