HELENA - Former Republican House Speaker John Mercer of Polson, whose ideas steered the Montana Legislature throughout the 1990s, is Gov. Judy Martz's choice to be the newest member of the Board of Regents.
The governor's office announced Mercer's appointment late Thursday to the university system governing board. Martz said the choice was clear.
"I specifically looked for a candidate who could serve as an effective liaison between the Legislature and the Board of Regents," she said. "John has the kind of background to provide strong leadership to the board, and I am honored he has agreed to serve the public once again."
The Board of Regents is a voluntary body whose seven members are appointed to seven-year, staggered terms by the governor. It oversees the eight-campus public college system.
When first contacted by a reporter Thursday, Mercer hadn't yet heard he was Martz's selection, but was called later in the day and offered the job. He said afterward he accepted the position and welcomes the opportunity.
The private attorney and unprecedented four-time speaker of the Montana House said he's excited about the prospect of serving as a regent because of the complex issues the board considers and because he believes he can make an important contribution.
"Primarily, I see a real need for a possibility to improve relations and understanding between the legislative and executive branches and the Montana university system," said Mercer. "It looks very, very challenging."
He will succeed Deborah Wetsit of Billings, the board's only American Indian who was appointed by former Gov. Marc Racicot. Wetsit was chosen to complete the last two years of the late Colleen Conroy's term.
Mercer said he was approached by the governor's office earlier in the year about applying for the post and was interviewed by the governor Thursday morning.
The 44-year-old Missoula native said he looks forward to returning to public service after being in the Legislature for 16 years. Mercer, known for his dry wit and unmatched political savvy, was forced out of the House in 2001 because of term limits.
At that time, Mercer ruled out running for another office, saying he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two young children. Being a member of the regents, he said, would allow him to get involved, but only on a part-time basis.
Despite his highly political background, Mercer said, he doesn't intend to bring partisanship to the board.
"I think I have good training, but I'm moving on," said Mercer. "This is something different."
Others aren't so convinced. Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, D-Great Falls, said: "John Mercer spent most of his political career diminishing the university system. I'm hopeful people can have a change of heart and look forward to John becoming a champion of the university system."
Doherty added that it's disappointing Martz "couldn't break out of the narrow confines of the 'in' group" and either choose someone different or continue with Wetsit.
Commissioner of Higher Education Dick Crofts characterized Mercer as extremely knowledgeable and an effective public servant who may help improve the university system's relationship with the Legislature. The university system has long faced a credibility gap with lawmakers and governors of both political parties.
"He's a very articulate and intelligent person, a graduate of the university system. We look forward to working with him," said Crofts.
Mercer's appointment means the representation on the board will weigh heavily Republican and to the western part of the state. Currently, the members are Republicans Margie Thompson of Butte and Ed Jasmin of Bigfork; Democrat Lynn Morrison-Hamilton of Havre; independents Mark Semmens of Great Falls and Richard Roehm of Bozeman; and student regent Jessica Kobos of Missoula.
Under state law, the board can hold no more than four members from the same political party nor can it hold more than two from the same geographical district.
The regent position had been open since January when Wetsit's term expired. Mercer takes over his new job Saturday.