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Kalispell's Olszewski will challenge Zinke in House primary

by IRIS SAMUELS Associated Press
| July 1, 2021 12:05 PM

HELENA (AP) — Two candidates announced Thursday they are entering the race for the second U.S. House seat that was awarded to Montana earlier this year.

Democratic state lawmaker Laurie Bishop launched her candidacy in her hometown of Livingston, saying she plans to focus her campaign on increasing access to child care and affordable housing, strengthening mental health services, and protecting public lands. She is the first Democrat to enter the race.

Republican Al Olszewski, a self-styled "Trump conservative" from Kalispell, announced his plan to run on a platform of opposing abortion rights and protecting access to public lands and developing natural resources.

Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and former state lawmaker, will face former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the Republican primary race.

Zinke filed to run in April. The former Navy SEAL commander, who hails from Whitefish, served in the Montana Senate from 2009 to 2013 and held the state's lone U.S. House seat from 2015 until March 2017. He then took the helm of the Interior Department, where he helped spearhead the Trump administration's deregulation effort. He resigned in early 2019 under a cloud of ethics investigations that he says were politically motivated.

Montana was awarded the second U.S. House seat starting in 2023 based on the state's growing population in the recent U.S. Census results. The election is scheduled for November 2022.

The district's boundaries have not been set, but candidates do not have to reside in the district in which they are running.

Bishop said she intends to run in the district that includes Missoula — a liberal stronghold university town in the western half of the state — even if her hometown of Livingston does not end up included in the new district. Olszewski and Zinke also have indicated they will run in the western district.

Bishop, 51, has served in the Montana House since 2017. She is the director of the Montana Afterschool Alliance group that advocates for after-school programs.

Bishop has lived in Livingston since 1996. She previously worked for the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Olszewski, 58, is a veteran of three failed bids for statewide office. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018, finishing fourth in a four-way primary race. He ran for the governor's seat in 2020, finishing third in a three-way primary race. And he lost his race for lieutenant governor in 2012. He served in the Legislature from 2015 until the start of this year, moving from the House to the Senate in 2017.

Olszewski said in his campaign announcement that he would fight a tribal water compact passed by Congress last year that set up a nearly $2 billion trust to settle damage claims and refurbish the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project in Montana.

Olszewski called the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact "theft" and promised to oppose the legislation already signed into law.

Born and raised in Great Falls, Olszewski earned his medical degree from the University of Washington. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a flight surgeon and trauma surgeon.

Montana has undergone a decade-long GOP surge capped with Democrats getting routed in the November 2020 elections.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is the only remaining Democrat holding statewide office. The last Democrat elected to the House was Pat Williams in 1996. The state's at-large U.S. House seat is currently held by conservative Republican Matt Rosendale.

But Bishop said that with newly drawn congressional districts, she predicts a greater chance for Montana to reclaim its "purple nature."

She said it is "a unique moment to be able to start fresh with that seat, with a seat that hopefully really is a fair reflection of Montanans."

Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Daily Inter Lake assistant editor Chad Sokol contributed to this report.