As GOP Lawmakers Drift Further Right, Custer Holds To Being 'A Reagan Republican'
Montana 67th Legislative Session
April 1, 2021
Republican Rep. Geraldine Custer is not one to mince words.
When a bill came up in February that would make it harder to vote by absentee ballot, the former Rosebud County clerk and recorder spoke up, and firmly.
“This bill is probably the worst bill I’ve seen all session, and if you want the truth of the matter, it just needs to die,” Custer told her fellow committee members. The panel killed the bill the next day.
Last week, she broke with her party to vote against a bill that would eliminate the decades-old local-option gas tax.
“This is a state government telling local government what they can do and this is total overreach,” she said. The bill passed the House 68-31.
That same day, the fourth-term Republican lawmaker from Forsyth also stood up in the full House of Representatives to oppose an amendment to a bill seeking a sweeping crackdown on voter identification.
“Putting this wording back in requiring the college students to have two forms of ID is discriminatory, and it’s going to go right to court,” Custer said. “I think this flies in the face of conservative, Republican principles that we’re going to spend hard-earned, Montana taxpayer dollars to line the pockets of attorneys.”
Despite her resistance, a Republican majority approved the amendment, then voted 66-34 to advance SB 169 back to the Senate. Custer was the only Republican to oppose the bill.
“I’m so disappointed our taxpayers will have to pay money to litigate stupidity on the part of the Secretary of State,” Custer said in an email following the vote.
The shockwaves of the 2020 election are echoing in the 67th Montana Legislature in more ways than one. Not only did Republicans sweep most statewide races and oust many party moderates from their House and Senate seats, but doubt over election “security” has sparked a surge of legislation seeking to clamp down on the times and ways Montanans can cast their ballots, despite there being no credible evidence of election fraud.
As party leadership rallies around what they call “election integrity” bills, Geraldine Custer continues to stand in dissent, forging her own path based on decades experience as the Rosebud County clerk and recorder. The firebrand lawmaker says her straight-shooting attitude was forged by a career of public service and a promise to “just do what’s right” for her voters -- no matter the political cost.
Rosebud County Roots
Geraldine Custer was born in the winter of 1955 in Miles City, Mont. She says she’s been told it was a fierce winter with squalls of snow and frigid temperatures, only made better by rural Rosebud County -- where she would live most of her life -- gaining electricity for the first time.
Custer, 66, witnessed Rosebud County grow and change through the decades, both politically and physically. She said it seemed like it rained a great deal during the summers, which always turned the dirt road she lived on into “gumbo,” trapping her family in place. Only later when the coal mines and Colstrip power plant moved in did the county generate enough revenue to improve the roads.
Custer’s introduction to public service came after the Rosebud County clerk and recorder unexpectedly passed away. At the time, Custer had been working for a title company, a job that regularly took her to the courthouse. Familiar with Custer, the county commissioners made a suggestion: why not run for the open seat?
“That just hit me like a ton of bricks,” Custer said. After consulting with friends, Custer decided to give it a shot. Despite running as a Republican in a county that, at the time, leaned Democrat, Custer won in 1978, and proceeded to win another eight times, serving for a total of 36 years. All told, Custer wasn’t just the first woman to serve as clerk and recorder in Rosebud County history, but also one of the longest-serving county officials in Montana history.
Custer said she stayed in the role for the variety of work it presented, and because she was directly helping people. When the time came for her to move on, in her eyes, a logical next step was the Legislature, where she could flex her experience in local government. Custer won her seat in House District 39 in 2014 and was reelected three more times, growing into a powerful role as chair of the House Local Government committee in 2019 and 2021.
However, after all her years of public service, Custer calls this session “the worst” she’s ever been in, pointing to a Republican party shifting ever-farther to the right and a deluge of “bad bills” killed many times in the past.
Against the Tide
Custer openly admits she’s cut from the cloth of old-school Republicans, owing her loyalty to three basic tenets: less government, fewer taxes and free enterprise.
“I try to listen to my people and do what’s right for them,” Custer said. “I just don’t vote with the party -- the party platform has gotten out of hand. It’s gotten very far right, and it’s not the Republican party that I know and I am.”
Custer gave the example of a series of anti-transgender youth bills that debuted early in the session, all of which she voted against. One measure advanced by the House seeks to ban transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports, while another initially killed by the House, then resurrected by a Republican lawmaker would ban gender-affirming surgery for transgender children.
Custer vocally opposed the bills on the House floor after researching the subject and finding no evidence to support the changes the bills proposed, despite widespread approval from the rest of her party.
“It’s probably bad for me getting reelected, as some of the campaign people have said,” Custer, who intends to run for an open Senate seat in 2022, acknowledged. “But I’m a Christian -- my church likes everybody. I can’t see that we’re not all equal.”
Based purely on years of experience alone, no one in the Montana Legislature knows elections quite like Custer, so the flood of bills moving through the body seeking to preserve the state’s election “integrity” strikes a nerve with her.
“I’m mad every time I hear the word ‘integrity,’” Custer said. “That sounds like there’s something wrong with our elections, but we’ve never had a case [of voter fraud].”
Custer also voted against House Bill 176, which would close voter registration at noon the day before an election, ending same-day registration in Montana. The vote was a change of heart for Custer, who said she worked with former state lawmaker Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, to draft a 2014 ballot initiative to end same-day voter registration. Montana voters killed the initiative by a 15-point margin.
“206,000 people told us we were wrong, so that’s why I voted against [HB 176],” Custer said.
Custer pins the reason for this session’s flood of election bills on a narrative of “voter fraud” propagated by conservative national media outlets in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and said she’s frustrated state lawmakers from her party see Montana’s elections as compromised. Based on her 36 years running elections, they’re not, she says.
“I want the Legislature to go down to the county offices and see how things are going,” Custer said. “I know they want the best for our elections, and we do too, but they’re not understanding the process on the ground.”
Despite her resistance to more than a handful of controversial conservative bills, Custer is still voting with the party on other, more typically Republican issues, like a suite of tax reform bills from Gov. Greg Gianforte and a package of bills seeking increased restrictions on abortion access.
While Custer may believe the measures she calls “bad bills” are a result of the state Republican platform shifting too far right, House leadership disagrees. House Majority spokesperson Dylan Klapmeier said in an email that the Montana Republican Party “continues to be a conservative party and that hasn’t shifted.”
“We have a large caucus with independent views on certain policies but we have been more united this session than in any other time in recent history,” Klapmeier wrote. “Election integrity and voter ID have long been a priority to Montana Republicans.”
Custer said her habit of voting her conscience put her at odds with party leadership early on in her Legislative career. During her first session, she said Republican “whips” -- lawmakers in charge of rallying the party on key votes -- attempted to get her in line. She said they didn’t have much luck.
“I don’t get anything anymore because I’ve been this way so long that they don’t even bother,” Custer said.
She added that the general tone and conduct she’s seen this session have been particularly bad, with the usual side chatter and closed-door conversations dialed up to 10.
“You’ll hear them say, ‘Custer’s gonna be a no on that,’ and it’s like, ‘Yes I am.’ You’ll hear them talking about you just like junior high behind your back,” Custer said. “It doesn't bother me because I’ve been elected this many times -- I’m tough enough to handle it.”
Custer acknowledges she’ll need that toughness to win her Senate race next year. Already gearing up to oppose her in the primary is Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican representing parts of Musselshell and Yellowstone County. Usher is notably more conservative than Custer, voting with his party in support of the anti-transgender and election crackdown bills.
Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, is term-limited and vacating the seat next session. He said Custer would do great in the Senate, but says she has “a bloody primary ahead of her.”
“She’s really the only choice,” Ankney said. “She’s a bit brash, but so am I.”
Custer said she’s not afraid to lose the election if her constituents aren’t happy with her brand of Republicanism or the way she votes. Until then, she says she’ll keep listening to her voters and working to bridge divides in the Legislature.
“Either side of the party that’s really right or really left is not getting anywhere,” Custer said. “The principles of leadership are: you sit down at the table, you listen to everybody, and not everybody gets what they want, but it’s a better product.”
Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.