Republicans in central Kalispell have to choose between two candidates for November’s general election.
On June 5, incumbent Rep. Frank Garner will face Robert Welzel in the primary. Garner is seeking re-election after two consecutive terms representing Kalispell’s House District 7. In that time, he said, “I’ve definitely learned a number of lessons that have helped me to craft and promote the kinds of policies that will benefit my district and community.”
Garner has made some high-profile moves since being elected. He sponsored 2015’s “dark money” bill in the House, which toughened campaign-finance disclosure requirements. In 2017, he introduced a phased-in gas tax increase of 6 cents per gallon to better fund the Montana Department of Transportation.
These votes and others rankled many local conservatives, but Garner told the Daily Inter Lake that “doing nothing in this role is easy. Being able to get things done and make hard decisions comes with its set of critics.” The hotly contested gas tax, he argued, would spare property owners some of the tax burden of roadway upkeep.
Looking ahead, Garner identified three issues — education, public safety and support of jobs through infrastructure improvements — as his top priorities if re-elected. He sees changes to the state’s tax code as necessary to fund investments in these areas.
“It starts with our tax structure,” he said. “As a state we can see that our revenues really don’t reflect what our economy is doing.” A revamp of the tax code, he continued, “has to include a shift towards a greater reliance on these 12 million visitors (to Montana) every year.”
In addition to his legislative efforts, Garner works as a security consultant. He previously held numerous roles, including police chief, with the Kalispell Police Department, and spent much of 2007 in Afghanistan as an advisor to that country’s National Police Force. He has also served as a leader or board member for several local nonprofits, including United Way, the Rotary and Lions Clubs and Kalispell Big Brothers and Sisters.
He faces a primary challenge from former Marine Robert Welzel, who said many of his friends and associates encouraged him to run.
“There are a lot of people who are upset with our representative” in Helena, Welzel said of Garner. “He’s proven himself to be the best Democrat in the Republican Party,” he continued, citing his votes for the gas tax and Medicaid expansion, and against a bill allowing concealed firearms for teachers in schools.
Welzel also has his eyes on Montana’s economy, and sees its natural resources as a way to improve state finances. “I would look first at resources that we have in the state,” he said. Characterizing the state’s federally managed lands as under-utilized, he said that “I would look at trying to free up those lands from federal control so that we can use them to help prosper our own economy.”
He also wants to boost Montanans’ access to the internet. “We’ve got this growing economy of middle-income people around our world…(but) we have a limited ability to reach them” online, Welzel said. He would like to offer tax incentives for businesses to build data centers and other digital infrastructure.
Beyond growing the state’s economy, Welzel said the legislature needs to keep the state’s judges and executive branch in check — through impeachment, if necessary.
“The people’s house, the legislature, is responsible for keeping those other branches at bay, and it never happens,” he said
“I think that the distinguishing factor” for him in this race, he said, “is that I will comply with the (state and federal) Constitutions, and I believe…that it’s not appropriate or intended for the government to be able to fix all things.”
Welzel owns HGAC Machining and Laser Engraving in Kalispell, is an MD-11 captain with FedEx, and is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. He attends church at Liberty Fellowship and is involved with the Civil Air Patrol, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
Absentee ballots will be mailed out May 11, and the election will be held June 5. The winner in this race will face Democrat James Cossitt in November.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.