I remember sitting at my great-grandma’s apartment building, previously used as a motel, in Fairfield when I was very little and listening to her tell stories about my great-grandpa and his dedication to public service. I was four or five years old when politics became a major part of my life. My great-grandpa had passed away a few years earlier, but my family loved to reminisce about his days in Montana politics. One day my grandma showed me the photo albums of my great-grandpa, Rex Manuel. I got to see him working the original family farm, chairing the House Appropriations Committee alongside Francis Bardanouve, and sitting alongside Governor Ted Schwinden as the Speaker Pro Tempore of the Montana House of Representatives. In his time he also served as the Mayor of Fairfield, on the Public Service Commission, and the Montana Board of Crime Control.
I remember hearing about the people my grandpa represented, the bills that he carried, and the stories of political maneuvers to pass critical legislation. I became fascinated, not only by what my grandpa did, but by the process, and the people the process stands to protect. From a young age, I was enamored with statesmanship and public service.
From that point on I began to study politics, watch the news, and debate current events with my family and teachers. For Christmas and birthdays, I would ask for biographies of the presidents, famous senators and representatives. When I was little, I would even play politics for fun.
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Most people have a very negative connotation of the word politics, but my love of politics has only grown over the years. I certainly see the same increasingly divisive and tense political world that everyone else sees, but I also see a world that increasingly has room to grow and unite. A hope for a better world has always motivated me to make a difference and commit myself to public service.
In 2014, when I was 16 years old, I began working on my first political campaign. One day I was working at my local grocery store when a state senator was checking out. Recognizing him as Greg Jergeson, a Hi-Line legend, I asked him if I could help him out with his groceries. Greg likes to joke that he was not very feeble, but let me take his groceries out anyway.
On our way out, I asked Greg about his political career and mentioned that I was an aspiring student of politics. As we were chatting I mentioned that my great grandpa was Rex Manuel and Greg had an interesting story for me. In the 1980’s my mom paged for Mr. Jergeson because my Grandpa Rex had asked Greg if she could page for him since my grandpa’s page spots were already filled. From there, Greg invited me to help at his reelection fundraiser. I began working on his campaign, and my love of politics was solidified.
After working on Greg’s campaign in 2014, I was elected Vice-Chair of the Hill County Democratic Party in 2015. I won at 17 years old. I was mostly welcomed, but there were certainly some who patronized my age. I had to prove myself to some people who questioned my abilities to contribute at such a young age. This was challenging and tested my resolve. My first elected office and I felt like I was already fighting for my political future and the futures of other young people in politics. It was then I asked people to stand with me as I decided to run for House District 28 in the Montana House of Representatives when no one else would take on the Republican incumbent.
I was so young when I filed to run for the legislature that I went down the halls of my high school in search of an 18-year-old friend to open a bank account with me. As a 17-year-old, I needed someone to co-sign on my political future as I knew that I had what it took to win. However, those who questioned my abilities then decided to recruit a primary opponent to run against me.
The internal politics of the central committee were more heated than ever. Friends who supported my youth before were backing my primary opponent because they did not think an 18-year-old would win in November. Most of the people from the committee who sided with my primary opponent were wonderful people with legitimate concerns. Most of them did not doubt my ability to campaign, or represent our community, but were concerned that independent voters may hesitate to vote for a high school senior over an incumbent.
My friend Daniel (who opened a bank account with me) and I knew that we could win the primary, but that it would be hard work. Every day after school we would stuff campaign envelopes, make fundraising calls, knock doors, and share stories with voters. We traveled to campaign workshops and refined our campaign skills until June.
Less than a month after we graduated high school, we won the primary by 8 points. We had knocked through nearly every door in the city twice by the time people went to the polls. Reflecting back on the primary election, I have some interesting memories.
The first time I knocked through the city, people asked about my age. The second time I knocked through the city people asked about issues and commented about how hard of a work ethic I had since people always saw me out pounding the pavement and earning voters trust by listening and asking them their concerns.
On the day of the primary, I was calm. We began taking down yard signs and setting up for a party. I made stops at the homes of volunteers and supporters to thank them for their work and encouragement. Finally, I went to cast my ballot. As I left the polls, I felt like things would be close, but knew that if I lost I would still have a future in Montana politics.
I spent election night with my family, friends, and close volunteers. We watched precinct after precinct come in for us, but I could not accept that we won until all precincts were counted. Primary night was emotional for me. I saw my dreams coming to life, but what really sunk in was how much people fought for me to get me there–my family, friends, and volunteers. I felt so humbled to have such a wonderful support group.
Our general election campaign was a natural extension of our primary campaign. We knocked more doors, made more phone calls, and raised more money. We now had an office and worked with statewide coordinated campaigns. One of my favorite memories was campaigning with Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney at our local senior center. On another occasion, we had a giant rally at our campaign headquarters with all of the statewide candidates. I remember Gov. Bullock walking into our campaign office chanting, “JDB Represents Me!” (My campaign slogan)
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We had a lot of fun campaigning, but it was a lot of hard work. Some days involved walking dirt roads in the dry 100-degree summer heat of the Hi-Line. Once we hit “Get Out the Vote” about a month before the election, things once again intensified. I had to quit my job of three years to campaign full time.
On election day, we started off at 3:00 AM. We had a mission of doing a citywide campaign literature drop. We dropped off campaign literature reminding people to vote with information of where polls were, and contact information of people to organize rides and all the details of voting.
We campaigned through the polls closing on election night. We wanted to make sure that every voter voted and that we would have no regrets if we lost. All of our hard work paid off, but election night still felt gloomy. As the Hill County Democrats watched election results come in, you could see the light drain from people’s eyes as President Trump won critical states, and eventually the election. I was ecstatic that all of our hard work paid off, but I too felt anxious on election night.
I watched as all of the statewide Democrats lost, except Gov. Bullock. However, I watched as Gov. Bullock and Rep. Gianforte went back and forth all night. I could not sleep until I knew who the Governor of Montana would be during my first term. Finally, around 3:00 AM I could go to bed knowing that Governor Bullock won re-election.
After winning the election, and before I moved to Helena, I tried very hard to be as public and accessible as possible. I would show up to every public meeting that I could manage into my already busy schedule.
One night, I showed up to speak at a public hearing on campus race relations. Havre sits in between two reservations and our campus has a high Native American population. Things had become tense on campus after a political speech by a club promoting Native American outreach was suppressed.
As I stood in line to speak as a newly elected public official, plainclothes police officers arrested a Native American audience member after he shouted at the Student Senate to get off of their phones. While the police officers were arresting the student, the room separated into two groups of people shouting at each other. While the room of about 100 people turned into chaos, the Student Senate adjourned and filed out of the back door.
At this point, I stood up on a chair (with my knees shaking) and demanded the attention of the room. I reminded people that we were still in a public space and could meet orderly without the Student Senate. We went around the room and both sides shared their feelings, including myself. I expressed that the treatment of the club and the arrest were examples of racism and asked campus administrators what they planned on doing to address campus relations. In all honesty, I have never felt so terrified in my life. My dad was a dean at MSU-Northern, and I was publicly lecturing his bosses. In the end, I knew I was doing the right thing.
My first term in the Montana Legislature was quite an experience. I was fortunate to have great mentors during the session. I was proud to carry some legislation and I tried to be involved in the more important conversations. Having great mentors allowed me to be a part of those larger conversations and serve on the committees that I felt I would bring value to the conversation.
Most of the session, my age did not seem to be an issue. I often was one of the first legislators to show up to the capitol in the mornings, I had a very solid attendance record and sought to be an active listener. I feel other legislators respected my dedication.
On the rare occasion that I felt I was being patronized, it usually seemed to be because I was a freshman legislator rather than an 18-year-old legislator. A bill prohibiting minors from using tanning beds was being debated on the House floor. A legislator got up and said, “With all due respect to my colleague across the aisle, and his brain not being fully developed, minors should not be allowed to make those kind of decisions.” To which I replied, “Mr. Chairman, I just want to go on record that this teenager with a non-fully developed brain beat a professor and an incumbent. Thank you.”
Despite a couple of slightly irritating comments, I really enjoyed the legislature. I got to preside over the House floor three times, setting the record as the youngest legislator in the history of Montana to preside over floor session. I spoke to college students about leadership as they lobbied for higher education funding in the Old Montana Supreme Court Chambers. I spoke with at least one high school class a week about encouraging more young people to run for office. In committee I got to fight for clean and fair elections, protecting pensions, public education, and agriculture.
In Helena, outside of the legislature, I made new friends at Carroll College who I know will remain friends for the rest of my life. I fell in love with the community of Helena, too. Many people make fun of me for saying this, but I love the food and coffee shops in Helena. Additionally, I found the quiet beauty of nature around Helena to be relaxing.
Nonetheless, I was happy to return back to home. I missed my family, friends, and community. I was fortunate to be appointed to the Education Interim Committee. Being appointed to an interim committee allowed me to have the best of Havre and Helena. However, being appointed to the Education Interim Committee also meant that I could continue to play an important role in my favorite committee from home.
Now that I am back in Havre, I am continuing my education at MSU-Northern in the education program. Additionally, I now serve as the Chair of the Hill County Democratic Party and am blessed to work with a wonderful slate of officers. We are incredibly diverse in gender, race, age and continue to grow. At MSU-Northern, I have recently started a Young Democrats of America.
Beyond the Democratic Party, I serve on several local boards and volunteer. During my time campaigning, I learned about how great of a need we have to help people with mental illness. I have since joined the local National Alliance on the Mentally Ill board and am considering a future in psychology. I also serve on the Northern Montana Hospital Corporate Board and the board for the Havre Day Activity Center.
Sometimes it can be hard to live a normal life, but in the end, I feel that I am lucky. People share their stories with me every day. I get to take the stories of my community with me to work and watch as legislation improves the lives of people in my community. I feel so fortunate and humbled to represent the people of House District 28. I also manage to spend time with my family and friends. Occasionally, I even find time to enjoy simple pleasures like fishing, hiking, skiing, and skateboarding.