There’s a good chance that most Missoulians don’t know much about their newly elected state legislator Shane Morigeau, including how to say his last name correctly: It's pronounced MOR-i-zho. Don’t worry, even Bernie Sanders mispronounced it after Morigeau introduced the former presidential candidate in Caras Park earlier this year.
Morigeau, 32, will represent House District 95 – a large swath of central and western Missoula – in the upcoming legislative session after winning the November election. A Democrat, he also recently ran for – and won – the position of House minority whip, a very rare occurrence for an incoming freshman representative.
Morigeau is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and grew up in Ronan. He worked as a firefighter and a river guide and spent lots of free time hunting and playing in the outdoors. He once earned a pilot’s license for single-engine planes before attending forestry school at the University of Montana.
He liked his forest policy classes so much that he enrolled in law school at the University of Montana, then earned a master’s degree in law, with a focus on indigenous law and policy, at the University of Arizona before taking a job as the in-house counsel for the CSKT. He worked for two sessions at the legislature as an advocate and lobbyist and even helped with the Flathead Water Compact.
He is using up his paid leave to commute to Helena to be a lawmaker, but he and his wife Jamie Iguchi decided he should run — with encouragement from his mother Constance — because he wants to make a difference.
“I ran for the legislature for a lot of reasons,” he explained. “It’s not something I did on a whim. I want to help, and I think I can help the Democratic Party. Not everyone can devote their time to public service, and I have an opportunity to do so and hope to make the best out of it.”
Morigeau said he is committed to finding ways to make progress on a number of issues. He said he will advocate for clean energy without sacrificing jobs, infrastructure spending, reducing homelessness, expanding health options for the mentally ill or drug-addicted, raising the minimum wage, reducing the cost of college tuition and Native American issues, among other things. On the issue of renewable energy, he said he’s hoping to find common-ground solutions.
“Montana’s tricky, right, because we have communities like Colstrip and people whose livelihoods and well-being depend on the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “We can’t take that for granted. Montana has benefited greatly from fossil fuels and extraction, but the way the industry is moving is toward renewables in so many different places. To see this expansion of renewables and clean energy, it’s the future.”
Morigeau said that if Montana embraces clean energy technology, then the state will bring good-paying technology jobs here.
“We have a very good opportunity right now to jump in and capture and embrace that and start creating jobs for Montanans in some communities where they are losing them,” he said.
The issue of creating tech jobs and attracting skilled workers also ties in with his core belief that college tuition costs are way too high. He believes that students who perform well should have access to cheaper and even free college education, a belief he shares with Bernie Sanders.
“That’s why education is important,” he said. “We should be developing programs where we capture industries that keep workers here. We have this grand opportunity here to do more, branch out in more ways and recruit companies. We are one of the windiest states in America. We should really be thinking big picture about industries that can bring jobs in and make sure the environment is protected. A lot of times we are just thinking about the quickest return we can get, but I think we just need to have a lot more long-term look on a lot of these things.”
Morigeau said his studies in college gave him a perspective on issues facing indigenous people all over the world. He is proud to be a member of the “Indian Caucus” in the House.
“I am passionate about Indian issues and working with the tribes that are close to 8 percent of Montana’s population,” he said. “I’m proud of the Democrats in the legislature. We look like Montana. We have teachers, Indians, a lot of women. When I look at our party sitting in a room, I feel like I’m in our community here in Missoula. We have a lot of women and minorities."
"If you look across the aisle (at the Republicans), there is a different makeup, although they have some women chairs. But that’s just reflective of the different communities they come from.”
Morigeau said he made the decision to run for a leadership position, even though he’s a young freshman representative, because he believes that young people should contribute if they have skills.
“I’ve never been an establishment type of person,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t respect knowledge and experience. But if people have some capabilities or talent they can offer right now, whether they are 15 or 100 years old, we should harness and utilize that.”
Although he acknowledged that the upcoming session will be “tough” for Democrats because they are outnumbered 41-59 in the House, Morigeau believes he will work will with people across the aisle.
“I think I bring a diverse background of education and culture,” he said. “The Flathead Reservation is a mix of Democrats and Republicans. People want a candidate who is going to make things better for Montanans. They don’t want career politicians. In Montana, you have to get stuff done.”
He believes that, especially in national politics, the party in power often hinders good things from happening because they don’t want a politician from the other party getting credit for an accomplishment.
“A lot of times the fight is, ‘We want to have the record for doing this,’ and ‘We don’t want this politician to have the press or publicity for getting this done,’ and who suffers? We do. The people in local communities. It’s frustrating to walk in and see that,” he said.
With all these new responsibilities, Morigeau credits his wife with keeping him grounded. She also works at a law firm and the two met at a Continuing Legal Education seminar.
“She is very smart and articulate,” he said. “She didn’t grow up on the reservation. She is Japanese-American, so she comes from a different background and has a different view. Her experiences are different from mine, so it’s nice to have that grounding to be able to discuss things. I have to give my wife a standing ovation for making me a better person. It’s nice to have that in life.”
Morigeau's favorite quote applies to his family life, his work and his goals for the upcoming legislative session:
"You are only as good as your team."