HELENA, Mont. – Motivated by her parents’ oft-quoted mantra to become independent, contributing members of society, 36-year-old Liz Bangerter most likely exceeded their expectations when she became the first Mormon woman to be elected to Montana’s Legislature.
The bi-annual legislative session began this month and continues fast and furious for 90 days. Bangerter’s successful bid last November was based on campaign promises to listen and help constituents know they had a say in the process.
“We felt a lot like Mormon missionaries,” said Bangerter, who spent months with her husband knocking on doors. “We got the door slammed a lot, got bit by a dog, got cursed at — even in front of our kids.”
But the door-knocking experience she will cherish most was meeting a woman who became emotional after hearing her speak.
“She told me, ‘My church has been praying that a good Christian would step up and run for office. You are an answer to my church’s prayers,'" Bangerter said. "Then she asked if I would speak to their women’s group and if they could pray that I would be led to do God’s will. That definitely made up for some of the awful door experiences."
Bangerter challenged herself spiritually during the weeks prior to being sworn into office.
“I teach the adult Sunday School class at church,” she said. “So during the two weeks of Christmas break, I challenged my class and myself to read the entire Book of Mormon. I needed to do it personally as a spiritual goal and in turn, hopefully be worthy of receiving guidance, direction and discernment. I’m still praying for it and hopefully it will come when I need it most.”
As a freshman representative, Bangerter’s first committee assignments are no walk in the park. She sits on the Judiciary Committee, the Health and Human Services Committee, and the Local Government Committee which are facing the three most controversial issues in Montana right now: medical marijuana, DUI laws and physician-assisted suicides.
“They’re all hot, emotional social issues, and they’re all in my committees,” she said. “We have proposals to loosen the current marijuana laws, to tighten them, to regulate, repeal and even return a referendum to the people to vote on."
Making the right decisions and making her family proud aren’t her only challenges. Right after she raised her arm and was sworn into office on Jan. 3, her husband whisked her to the hospital for surgery for reoccurring kidney problems.
“It was my sixth surgery in the past nine months,” she said. “It’s been hard to balance campaigning with surviving.”
Following her surgery, she had a severe reaction that put her in the intensive care unit that night.
“But I went back to work and no one knew I was sick,” she said. “It keeps life interesting.”
While her fellow lawmakers may not be aware of her continuing health problems, they do know her religious affiliation.
“I was in a conversation and people were getting really derogatory toward Mormons while speaking about another Mormon legislator,” she said. “I realized I could either stand there or I could say something. So I said, ‘You know I’m Mormon.’ Chins dropped. There was an awful silence and they backtracked. But after that experience I think they spread the word that I was ‘one of them.'”
Six other Mormons serve with Bangerter among 150 members of Montana’s Senate and House. She represents a 17-mile long district that includes the heart of downtown Helena — Montana’s capitol.
“I don’t know how I could serve if we didn’t live in Helena,” she said. “It’s a big commitment for those 90 days, and it would be hard to balance everything if I had to travel.”
Bangerter is following her own advice and continuing the legacy of public service that her parents exemplified.
“My kids certainly know more about state government than other kids their age,” she said. “Initially they thought my campaign was kinda cool, but after all the work and time spent getting to this point, then they came to observe me on the House floor and were bored silly. They wondered if it was all worth it.
“It is,” she said. “If we can work together to take care of the people of Montana, then it’s definitely worth all the work.”
Stacie Lloyd Duce is a freelance columnist and magazine editor featured regularly in several Montana newspapers and magazines.
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