Three candidates vying to replace Stromswold give their pitch to Yellowstone County commissioners

Candidates include former commissioner, business owner and former prosecutor

By: - January 23, 2023 2:54 pm

Former Yellowstone County Commissioner and current candidate Denis Pitman speaks to the commission during its Jan. 23, 2023 meeting to replace Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, who resigned last week (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Three Republican candidates interviewed to represent House District 50, a legislative area in the central part of Montana’s largest city, Billings, which opened when Rep. Mallerie Stromswold resigned last week.

The Yellowstone County Commission will make a final decision on the replacement on Tuesday.

While each of the three who were nominated by the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee brought a different background, Naarah Hastings, Anthony Nicastro and Denis Pitman all said the top concern facing Yellowstone County is crime.

The legislature is entering its fourth week of the biennial 2023 session, and Stromswold resigned citing mental health concerns and the inability to manage being a college student and a lawmaker. She also criticized Republican leadership for not tolerating a difference of opinion in a party dominated by older men.

The three Yellowstone County Commissioners who will select Stromswold’s replacement on Tuesday morning are all Republican and male, and they will choose from the three candidates forwarded from the county’s Republican committee. All three of the candidates said they could begin on Tuesday, and all three said they planned to run for re-election if they are selected.

Naarah Hastings

As a small business owner, Hastings said she moved back to her husband’s hometown of Billings to escape the climate in Washington state, which she said would not allow her to raise her four children with the values her family espouses.

In addition to her concern with the rising crime rate in Yellowstone County, Hastings said she wants to make Montana an even larger, more prosperous hub for business and recruiting.

Candidate Naarah Hastings speaks to the Yellowstone County Commissioners on Jan. 23, 2023. She is vying to replace Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, who resigned last week (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

She said her family moved back for a number of issues, including the positions on healthcare, guns, tax policy and COVID-19.

“It was just impossible to raise kids,” she said. “We don’t want Montana to become what we left. We want this to be a land of opportunity for job seekers.”

While she said she’s never run for or held public office, she was planning on running in 2024, so this opportunity just sped up the process.

She said many candidates do not live up to their values, but Hastings described herself as “not wishy-washy” and someone who has conviction and is decisive.

“Government should be for the people when they need it,” Hastings said. “ And then it needs to stay out of people’s way so that we can be as successful as possible.”

She agreed with the county board and the other candidates that crime was the most pressing issue for House District 50.

“The crime here is bad,” Hastings said. “I heard about it before I moved here – car theft, drugs on the street. I would like to work on that. Also, jobs. How do we get more business to come here and how can we be more attractive?”

She said she hadn’t studied crime and the courts long enough to form plans, but said she would plan to use her position to learn more.

“What can we privatize to make sure that we can hold it more accountable?” Hastings said. “We have a problem with people committing crime, and leniency in judges.”

She also spoke about reducing the “red tape” in government to attract more businesses, prevent the federal government from “social scoring laws,” controlling Montana’s energy production, protecting the “innocents” and allowing parents to control more of their children’s education.

Anthony Nicastro

Nicastro is the managing partner in the law firm Knight, Nicastro and McKay and has previously served as a prosecuting attorney, as well as his current specialty, civil and business law. He said that his experience with both the political and the justice system give him a perspective and insight that not many other lawmakers may have.

“I want to preserve this Montana way of life for the next generation,” Nicastro said.

Billings attorney Anthony Nicastro speaks to the Yellowstone County Commissioners on Jan. 23, 2023. The three commissioners will select the replacement for Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings who resigned last week (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

He said when he first got involved in politics, he worked on a national level, but he quickly learned “all politics is local.”

“Regardless, you have to stop and listen to everyone,” he said. “As a representative, I would love to have those spirited discussions. And by listening to the other side, it makes you a stronger advocate for your position.”

He said accessibility to his constituents plus his experience make him a natural fit.

“The role of government is to help serve people. It provides resources for our community for things as simple as roads, water to drink and food we eat – helping to keep us safe. We rely on that and I think that’s important for us to realize,” Nicastro said. “But at the same time, the government is to give people the freedom to do things to help them prosper in daily life – raising children … or starting a business.”

He said more discussion needs to take place regarding crime and public safety, because those are really multiple issues, including areas like mental health and probation.

“We need more funding. It starts with funding,” Nicastro said.

However, that funding need can be found in many places, including evaluating salaries of prosecutors or defenders who often jump to private practice because it’s more lucrative. Nicastro explained that when that happens, there is a loss of continuity and experience that has a negative impact on how well the justice system works.

He cited several criminal justice bills being discussed in Helena currently, saying he’d be ready to participate immediately. He said other bills, like some civil procedure reforms, could lessen the litigious environment in Montana.

“We could look at doing something similar to other states so that we don’t attract as much outside litigation,” Nicastro said.

Also, Nicastro used his closing remarks to praise Stromswold for her service, acknowledging the tough decision she made.

“I’d like to thank her for her public service. It’s not easy, and it’s time consuming,” he said. “It has an impact on your professional and family relationships. “

Denis Pitman

The most recognizable public face among the candidates is Pitman. Pitman has been a business owner, funeral director, Billings City Councilman and was until 2021, one of the Yellowstone County Commissioners.

He touted that experience in the community and working at the city and county level as reasons he would be ready to serve beginning this week. He said his familiarity and contacts, plus the name recognition, would help him serve constituents, especially because the session has already started.

However, Pitman, in his closing remarks, also addressed the obvious political tension.

Last year, current Yellowstone County Commissioner Mark Morse ousted the incumbent Pitman after a protracted dispute about MetraPark, the county’s largest entertainment venue and fairgrounds. Pitman and Yellowstone County Commissioner Don Jones had pushed to privatize the county’s facilities, leading to pushback from the community and charges of backroom deal-making. Yellowstone County’s other commissioner, John Ostlund, stood against the Metra proposal and publicly backed Morse’s bid against Pitman. Morse beat Pitman in the primary, which led Pitman to launch an unsuccessful write-in campaign.

Pitman acknowledged that in order for him to fill Stromswold’s seat, he would need the support of both of the commissioners who opposed him in the previous, recent election.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to reconcile. Mark, you gave me a run for my money and I appreciate the dialogue that created,” Pitman said. “I concede that I need your support to get past this board, and the question is whether we can do what’s right for the citizens.”

During his interview, Pitman spoke of the need to do more to address public safety in Montana’s largest community. He also said that the state’s surplus should go to helping invest in the state’s infrastructure, including roads and bridges.

“Sometimes, we cut too many corners, and we piecemeal things instead of doing what’s right,” Pitman said.

He said the issue of public safety is complex because it isn’t just a matter of hiring more police or building more jails.  He gave the example of the lower reimbursement rates counties get for housing state prisoners.

“That’s not equitable funding,” Pitman said. “We have to make sure we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Pitman said his experience at the local and county level made him the candidate who would be best equipped to step in, but said that depended on the county commissioners’ ability to “let things go,” referring to the past political differences.

“This will be like throwing someone doused in kerosene into the fire,” Pitman said. “Don’t send someone to Helena where, at the end of the session, they will just know where the bathroom is. I know where the bathroom is there.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.