‘Blue Bench Brigade’ protects bench where Zephyr has worked since censure

Group shows up after legislators’ wives staged a sit-in on the same bench

By: and - May 2, 2023 4:37 pm

Remote workers in Helena hold the bench for Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on May 2, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

A group of Helena professionals who work in tech made their way to the Capitol on Tuesday to join a revolving crew of people protecting the bench where Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, has been representing her constituents.

“I don’t do well with bullying, and I decided instead of just kind of staying at home and fuming about this, that I was going to come in and at the very least, just tell Zooey that I support her and admire her bravery,” said Kurt Fehlig, one of three people holding down the bench around noon Tuesday.

“We’re keeping the bench for Zooey. So we can’t move,” said Tom Snell.

Last week, a Republican majority voted to ban Zephyr from the House floor, its gallery and an adjacent room because she didn’t quiet a protest that broke out Monday in the gallery. Zephyr has said she wanted to amplify the voices of people calling on the Speaker of the House to let her represent her constituents.

Thursday, one day after the vote, Zephyr started working on a bench outside the chamber, and fellow legislators helped hold her seat if she had to get up. An orange Post-it note on the wall identifies the spot as Seat No. 31, the desk number she sat at on the floor.

The same day, however, Zephyr said the Speaker of the House tried to thwart her from sitting there, and this Monday, a group of people who described themselves as legislators’ wives took those seats across from the snack and coffee bar.

But Tuesday, one small band of Zephyr’s supporters arrived at 7 a.m. to bench sit, said Shani Henry, vice chairperson of the Lewis and Clark County Democrats. Kev Hamm called them the “blue bench brigade” on Twitter.

The effort appears to be uncoordinated, inspired by Zephyr’s resilience and commitment to work for her 11,000 constituents.

Henry has been helping to guard the bench for the Missoula Democrat, the first openly transgender woman elected to the House. Henry said it appears some of the people who arrived at the Capitol to help have done so organically, without prompting from Zephyr.

(Henry, who also serves as a statewide lead for Moms Demand Action, said she herself has been at the Capitol quite a bit: “Pretty much everything I care about is under attack.” Moms Demand Action works against gun violence.)

At her new improvised workspace, visitors have presented Zephyr with a corsage and cards, and many transgender youth have stopped by in person to talk with her, Henry said. The Speaker of the House stopped recognizing Zephyr after she said Republicans would have “blood on (their) hands” if they voted for a bill to ban gender affirming care, legislation since signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said her remarks that Republicans should be “ashamed” of themselves merited an apology, and he said he’s treating her just like he’s treated other representatives. Unlike others who have crossed the line of civility, he said Zephyr herself hasn’t apologized.

Zephyr has said the majority is using decorum as an excuse to silence her, and she and the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit Monday alleging First Amendment violations. Thursday, she worked from the bench with a recycle bin next to her and a makeshift desk over her lap.

Around 9 a.m., the tech crew showed up to take a rotation. Fehlig said he had a good idea of where he needed to go at the Capitol to lend a hand.

“I knew where to go because I saw the menu and a picture yesterday,” Fehlig said. “So it’s like, OK, it’s somewhere where people are getting food. So we just found our way up here, and I’ve been just hanging out.”

They hadn’t seen Zephyr for 15 minutes or so, but they were pleased to stake out the bench for her while working their day jobs. After all, they have freedom Zephyr herself hasn’t had since last Wednesday.

“We all work in tech, so we could work from wherever.”

Editor’s note: Kev Hamm’s name was misspelled due to an editing error. It has been corrected.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.