CLANCY — Less than 24 hours before the start of the 2019 Legislature, with debates brewing over Medicaid expansion, the state budget and a number of other issues, a bipartisan group of lawmakers met to make the sausage.
Republicans and Democrats, longtime legislators and first-timers to the session, gathered around tables with ground pork, elk, spices and herbs in a metaphor come to life.
“Of course we’ve all heard the expression ‘You don’t want to see two things being made — sausage and laws,’” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion, who organized and hosted the event at his home. “And so I think that expression sells them both short in that it can actually be fun, rewarding and even though it's a little bit messy at times and intimidating, I think it can be very rewarding at the end and it's something you can be proud of."
Bennion invited about a dozen lawmakers, with representation from each party. The idea for the gathering came from his family's sausage-making roots — Volga Germans on his mother's side who passed down the family recipe of pork mixed with just the right amount of salt, pepper, garlic, paprika and brown sugar. After seeing the positive results of a good lawmaking process and the wreckage that can come when things go wrong, Bennion said he wanted to host a lighthearted event that would develop bipartisan relationships and let lawmakers have a little fun before the start of the 90-day session.
“It’s good way to get people talking to each other,” said Barbara Bessette, a Democrat from Great Falls serving her first term in the House. “It’s a good way to have different interactions with people you might not (otherwise). You realize we all just want to do the best we can for the people of Montana. It’s good to see it’s not always about party politics. You’ve got to work together to get stuff done.”
Fellow incoming House freshman Joel Krautter, a Republican from Sidney, said he liked the team-building aspect of the event.
“It’s a good way for us to get started,” Krautter said. “We can have different ideas but still come together with a good product.”
There was something about lawmakers gathered in a home, in their stocking feet and hands deep in ground meat, feeding each other sausage off little toothpicks, that helped break down dividing lines, at least for a few hours before the start of the session.
Rep. Frank Garner, a Republican from Kalispell, said he liked the idea behind the gathering.
“You have people from different parties, all across the state, working together. It’s a pretty cool idea. Everybody checked their ego at the door. You forget for a few minutes that we don’t always agree,” Garner said.
U.S. Senators Steve Daines, a Republican, and Jon Tester, a Democrat, also sent video messages for the group. From a snowy field, Daines said it was important to work across the aisle and keep their cool during the session, in much the same way sausage needs to be kept chilled during the mixing process.
Tester waved his trademark hang-loose left hand, which is missing three fingers from a meat grinder accident, and told the group he’s a butcher turned legislator. Tester drew parallels between the processes, saying both need good ingredients like communication, along with trust and hard work.
Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, also stopped by. He encouraged legislators to “share the bounty” of the work they do during the session, talking to the group as samples grilled on the stove top.
It was a message taken to heart as teams of lawmakers packaged and vacuum-sealed the finished product for everyone to take home.