Troubling phone calls reported in City Council race

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Billings will have a City Council primary election this year, the first time since 2003 in a non-mayoral-election year.

At least two people running for seats on the Billings City Council said they received harassing phone calls from a former council candidate, and one of the current candidates said the caller told him he was wasting his time and should drop out of the race.

The caller, Brian Kenat, said he is active in Republican and Tea Party politics and was only trying to find out where the candidates stood on various issues, and he denied advising anyone to end his candidacy.

Even without those fireworks, this is shaping up to be an unusually lively City Council election. At the close of filing on Friday, 19 candidates were running for five seats on the 11-person council, triggering what will be the first city primary in a non-mayoral-race year since 2003. (Look for details at the end of this story.)

Kenat

Brian Kenat

The candidate who said he was advised to end his run for office is Kevin Hamilton, who is running in Ward 3 against incumbent Becky Bird and challengers Chris Friedel and Karen Moses. Kenat ran against Bird in 2011, losing by nearly 20 percentage points.

“He (Kenat) told me basically I was too poor to run and can’t raise any money” and was “too underqualified,” Hamilton said. “He read off 15 positions he said I should run for.”

The other candidate is Nathan Schmitz, running in Ward 4, a seat left open this year because Jani McCall, the incumbent, is term-limited out. Other candidates in that ward are Ryan Sullivan, Francis DeVries and Bill Brown.

Schmitz said Kenat called him on July 1 and told him he was “just a citizen of Billings” who wanted to ask him some questions.

“He just launched into a barrage of questions that basically amounted to badgering and bullying me on a variety of topics,” Schmitz said.

Hamilton is the safety, health and environmental manager for Bay Ltd., a Texas-based company whose plant in Billings fabricates steel structures for use in the Canadian tar sands. He said he works with welders, riggers and pipefitters, and “these guys, they know how to intimidate you.”

Hamilton

Kevin Hamilton

“I work with alpha males, so I didn’t find it threatening,” he said of Kenat’s phone call. However, he added, “He was clearly trying to tell me to get out of the race.” Hamilton said Kenat told him “his organization” was helping candidate Friedel, and he mentioned being aligned with the Republican Party and Tea Party.

He said Kenat asked him where he stood on the NDO, or nondiscrimination ordinance, that the City Council narrowly voted down last year. It would have extended basic civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and there has been talk of bringing the issue back before the council.

“I’m really firm” on supporting the NDO, Hamilton said he told Kenat. “Nobody is going to talk me out of that. Discrimination is wrong regardless.”

Kenat told Last Best News that he was calling candidates on his own behalf and only mentioned the Tea Party and the Republican Party—he is the treasurer for the Yellowstone County GOP Central Committee—to make it clear where his sympathies lie.

He said he is politically active, so a lot of people have been asking him what he knows about the council candidates. He said he has been doing various kinds of research, checking out candidates on Facebook and Google and in some cases calling the candidates directly.

He said he is not serving in an “official capacity” on Friedel’s campaign but is supporting his candidacy.

Friedel said Kenat is not affiliated with his campaign. In fact, he said, Kenat also called him to sound him out on the issues, and when he called, Friedel was aware that Kenat was on the county GOP Central Committee. He was one of four or five people who called to see where he stood on the issues, Friedel said.

Friedel owns a company that does drug and alcohol monitoring for the courts, as well as process-serving and private investigation. He said he is making his first run for elective office because “we need to have better ways to work on our budget.”

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Kenat said he wanted to get involved in this election primarily because of the NDO. After the council spent time at 18 different meetings talking about and voting on the NDO last year, he said, “I see those people coming up and trying to take over the council again.” Also, he said, “The Democrats are trying to put people in right and left.”

Asked how he knew the Democratic Party was involved, Kenat said, “I can tell from the research I’ve been able to do.” Also, the fact that so many candidates registered within the final two days before the Friday deadline, he said, shows “there had to be some coordination.”

Bret Rutherford, elections administrator for Yellowstone County, said he had heard that Joe Splinter, a campaign organizer who works for Hilltop Public Solutions, had been encouraging people to run for City Council this year.

Splinter said that was true, though in several cases potential candidates, including Hamilton, didn’t know him but called for advice. He also said that while he is a second alternate to the executive board of the Yellowstone County Democratic Party, he was not representing the party when he spoke with potential council candidates.

“I’ve been volunteering on my personal time to help recruit good candidates who want good-paying jobs, quality schools, and a safe livable community,” he said

Kenat, for his part, said that after gathering information on the candidates, “I’m mostly giving it to friends and political people I know.” He added, “I also know several conservative pastors here in Billings.”

He said he did tell Hamilton there were other elective positions he might be interested in, but he denied encouraging him to withdraw from the race.

“He can take it however he wants,” Kenat said, “but I did not tell him to drop out of the race.”

Schmitz

Nathan Schmitz

Schmitz, the Ward 4 candidate who said he got a call from Kenat, has been the principal at Elder Grove School for three years and runs a fireworks stand for a few weeks in the summer. He said he doesn’t “have a drum to beat or an agenda to fulfill,” and it was clear Kenat was trying to determine whether he was an “us or a them.”

He said Kenat spent “probably a majority of the time on the NDO,” and asked whether Schmitz thought it was something the council should have taken up in the first place. Schmitz said he told Kenat the council “was a great place to start” in ending discrimination. Kenat also asked him what he thought of the recent Supreme Court decision affirming the right to same-sex marriage, but “I didn’t give him any fodder on that one,” Schmitz said.

Kenat said he had called six candidates all told, but the only two reached by Last Best News, besides Hamilton and Schmitz, were Francis DeVries, also running in Ward 4, and Frank Ewalt, Ward 2. DeVries said he had never spoken with Kenat before, and they didn’t speak long. He said he told Kenat he was a “Republican conservative” and a Tea Party supporter, so there wasn’t much need for further questioning.

DeVries, who said he is retired from the military and the post office, ran unsuccessfully for the District 2 School Board a few years back and is running for the council mostly because he is “concerned with how they’re spending our tax dollars.”

As an example, he said, “they want to put in golf courses they throw Frisbees at, and they ignore more important issues. They need a more conservative voice.”

Ewalt said he had a similarly short, pleasant conversation with Kenat. Ewalt, who owns a concrete business, said he was mainly concerned about the city budget, and he said he and Kenat also talked about the NDO. Asked where he stood on the NDO, Ewalt answered with two questions:

“Is it right that we pass ordinances for one special interest group? When does it stop?”

Karen Moses, a former school trustee who is also running in Ward 3, Bird’s ward, said she was not called by Kenat, “but I have had people tell me, get ready, he will be calling.” Moses said she has been happy with Bird’s representation on the council and is running because she wants to get people engaged in the political process, and she wants to encourage more people to vote.

Bird said she hadn’t heard about anyone receiving calls from Kenat. Her only concern in this election, she said, “is that we get the right mix of candidates on the council so we can keep moving forward.”

Details on primary election:

A primary election for the Billings City Council race has been set for Sept. 15, with the General Election on Nov. 3. Brett Rutherford, the elections administrator for Yellowstone County, said there were enough candidates in enough wards to trigger the primary.

Given the complexity of state law governing primaries, we’ll take his word for it. Section 13-14-115 of state law says an elections administrator can determine that a primary “need not be held if: the number of candidates for an office exceeds three times the number to be elected to that office in no more than one-half of the offices on the ballot; and (ii) the number of candidates in excess of three times the number to be elected is not more than one for any office on the ballot.”

(Last Best News editor’s note to the Legislature: Is that really the best you could do?)

There is no mayoral race this year, just five open seats on the City Council. Here are the candidates by ward:

Ward 1: Incumbent Brent Cromley, 235 Parkhill Drive; Kerri Seekins-Crowe, 480 Pinon Drive; Angie Buckley, 137 Ave. B.

Ward 2: No incumbent (Denis Pitman term-limited out); Larry Brewster, 1216 Babcock Blvd.; Chris Purcell, 301 Tam O’Shanter Road; Jeremy Rindahl, 1723 Clubhouse Way; Frank Ewalt, 2131 Phoebe Drive; Walt Donges, 941 Constitution Ave.

Ward 3: Incumbent Becky Bird, 117 Ardmore Drive; Chris Friedel, 3304 Second Ave. N.; Kevin Hamilton, 1403 12th St. W.; Karen Moses, 903 Delphinium.

Ward 4: No incumbent (Jani McCall term-limited out); Ryan Sullivan, 3118 Sycamore Lane; Francis DeVries, 2216 Nina Clare Road; Bill Brown, 3025 Ryniker Drive; Nathan Schmitz, 911 Princeton Ave.

Ward 5: Incumbent Ken Crouch, 3440 Granger Ave. S., No. 41; Dennis Ulvestad, 3040 Central Ave., No. D103; Dick Clark, 1207 25th St. W.

Click here for a map showing the city’s five wards.

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