Ex-lawmaker faces ex-PSC attorney in District 4 race
By James Bradley Community News Service, UM School of Journalism
Whatever happens in the Nov. 3 election, western Montana voters will elect a fresh face to Montana’s Public Service Commission, the body that decides what utilities can charge home and business owners for energy.
With no incumbent in the race, this year’s open contest features former state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Thompson Falls, versus former PSC staff attorney Monica Tranel, a Missoula Democrat, now a private attorney representing renewable energy clients.
The candidates in the PSC District 4, which covers far western Montana from Ravalli County in the south to Lincoln County in the north, offer voters different backgrounds and experiences to choose from.
In addition to being the PSC’s attorney from 2001 to 2005, Tranel has also worked for the Office of Consumer Counsel, which advocates for utility customers. A graduate of Gonzaga and Rutgers University Law School, she competed as an Olympic-level rower, winning a gold medal in the sport’s world championships.
She made news this winter in testifying against the PSC before the Montana Supreme Court, arguing that the regulator had discriminated against solar and wind energy producers and others by setting rates and contracts terms that made it difficult for smaller producers to compete.
The court recently ruled against the PSC in that case.
Fielder served two terms as a state senator, beginning in 2012. She has chaired the Senate’s Fish and Game Committee and was vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She also served on the body’s Local Government and Natural Resources committees.
She has degrees in recreation from Western State University of Colorado and Wenatchee Valley College. She has a certification in horticulture and completed Montana State University’s Forest Stewardship program.
Fielder said she decided to run after she was termed out of office because “numerous constituents asked me to stay involved, and some supporters suggested the PSC.”
“After weighing it out with my family, praying over it, and assessing the other candidates who had filed, I decided to step up,” Fielder said in a text message.
She has made news for her state’s rights views, especially her support for the transfer of federal lands to state control. She has served as CEO of the American Lands Council, which advocates for handing more control of federal lands to local governments.
In 2018, she joined Cliven Bundy in Paradise, Montana, in encouraging local control of state lands. Bundy led a 2014 standoff against federal authorities in Nevada over his refusal to pay federal grazing fees. Bundy’s son Ammon, led a 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.
Fielder made news again this summer with a widely shared Facebook post warning an “antifa caravan” was planning to infiltrate anti-racists protests in Idaho and Montana. The post, which was shared by militia and anti-government Facebook groups, was debunked by local law enforcement, news media and the Montana Human Rights Network.
When it comes to the issues that the PSC regulates, however, the two said they would work to ensure that utilities provide Montanans with stable sources of energy at reasonable prices.
Both said they avoid the personal conflicts that marred PSC meetings in the past, including accusations that one PSC member spied on another’s email.
Tranel said the PSC needs to act more transparently than it has, a reference to its slowness in announcing a rate decision this year. She suggested making recordings of PSC meetings easily accessible to the public.
Fielder said that not only should the PSC have easily accessible recordings of their meetings, but they should also refuse to have any meetings directly with industry representatives to make sure that cases coming before the PSC haven’t been decided before the hearing.
Fielder also said as a Republican, she would be more likely to influence the other members on the commission, all of whom were Republicans since 2014.
Tranel has been endorsed by several organizations including both the Montana Federation of Public Employees, and the Montana State AFL-CIO. She is also endorsed by the Montana Conservation Voters. Notable donors include former governor Brian Schweitzer and attorney general candidate Raph Graybill.
Fielder does not list her endorsements, but according to state campaign finance has received donations from Congressman Greg Gianforte, the party’s nominee for governor, and his running mate, Kristen Juras.
As of mid-August, neither candidate has any large money interests behind them, but both have received mostly small-dollar donations. Fiedler has loaned her campaign much of its money.