Debo Powers may live off the grid, but she’s prepared to plug into Montana politics as the new representative for House District 3.
On Oct. 23, the Flathead County commissioners appointed Powers representative, following Democrat Rep. Zac Perry’s resignation. Perry had held the seat – which covers Columbia Falls, the North Fork and the U.S. 2 corridor to Glacier National Park – since 2014.
Powers was not born and raised in Montana, but currently lives near Polebridge and boasts an impressive record of civic engagement in the area. She’s been president of the North Fork Landowners Association, is currently president of the North Fork Preservation Association and was the chief election judge for Whitefish Precinct 47 on Election Day 2018.
She also spent multiple summers volunteering as a fire lookout for the Flathead National Forest and teaches dance classes at a community center near Polebridge.
But holding political office is a new experience, even though it’s been a “lifelong dream” for Powers.
“I’ve just always loved the workings of government. I love democracy, I love the idea that people could work together to make the world a better place,” Powers said, speaking to the Inter Lake at Uptown Hearth in downtown Columbia Falls. “I’m still kind of idealistic.”
Powers said she’s been passionate about government and politics since childhood. She studied U.S. history and government at Florida State University, then taught the subjects for 20 years at a high school in Florida.
Even though Powers has spent most of her life in Florida, she “fell in love with Montana” when she visited as a kid, and returned nearly every year. She bought land north of Polebridge in 1996, and worked on her cabin each summer for 12 years while remaining the principal of a K-8 school in Tallahassee, Florida.
Powers retired in 2011 and moved to the North Fork full-time around three years ago.
“There’s no grid in the North Fork, no electric grid. So I have solar electricity at my house, I heat with wood. I cross-country ski every day in the wintertime. In the summer I have a greenhouse and a garden,” she said.
“I love being surrounded by public land. The North Fork is like 96% public land, so we’re just surrounded by it,” she said.
Public lands are what drew Powers to Montana in the first place, so she is adamant about their protection.
“I think that public lands are what make this place special. It’s what drives our economy here in this valley. Every one of the small businesses on this street and all through the district, their bottom line is based on outdoor recreation and people coming here because we have this beautiful place and there’s public land and there’s clean water and clean air,” Powers said.
Powers has demonstrated a passion for public lands with multiple organizations and associations, but she is especially proud of what she helped accomplish as part of the Whitefish Range Partnership. The Partnership was a collaboration of citizens representing different interest groups who were concerned about public-land management in the Whitefish Range.
“We had snowmobilers and loggers and mountain bikers and backcountry horsemen and wilderness advocates … people who had fought each other for decades over how public lands should be used. And we came together, and we met for 13 months, and we listened to each other and we started to understand each other,” Powers said.
She said the group unanimously voted for a proposal that was sent to the Flathead National Forest supervisor, and the Forest Service incorporated a majority of the proposal into its management plan for the Whitefish Range.
Powers hopes to foster more of this kind of collaboration as a legislator.
“And I think that’s the kind of work we need to do at every level – like in the Legislature and everywhere else. People who can disagree with each other can actually come together and reach some kind of compromise that will move things forward.” Powers said.
She said her skills in “collaboration, cooperation and negotiation” will be an asset with the Montana Legislature.
The next legislative session is not until 2021, but she hopes to get on an interim committee during Legislative Week in January. She would like to find a spot on the environmental quality council or the education committee.
“I’m passionate about education. I’ve been looking at some of the things I think people should work on in the Legislature and I’ve got some ideas,” Powers said.
“One thing is the Montana budget. And I noticed the percentage of the state budget for education has gone down continuously since the early 1990s at the same time the population of Montana has increased. And if just seems like if we’re going to have quality schools in Montana, that percentage should not be decreasing.”
She said there is “work to be done on taxation,” but stressed she does not mean raising taxes on low- and middle-income Montanans.
Powers is not concerned about having to cover such a large district from her isolated location. She is looking forward to talking to and getting to meet her constituents.
“I’m looking forward to spending some time talking to a lot of people in Columbia Falls and these other towns and finding some things out,” she said.
“I’m learning more and more every day … a good legislator would be somebody who listens, who studies, who tries to find out what the issues are for people, what concerns them, what keeps them awake at night and what worries them.”
Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.