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No Carrots or Sticks, Just Relationships: The Challenge of Being Montana Speaker

With chamber rules giving him less direct control than his counterparts in other states enjoy, Matt Regier relies on building connections.

By Taylor Huhn and Marco Savarin  |  March 5, 2024

First-term Montana House Speaker Matt Regier had zero interest in a leadership position when he first joined the Legislature in 2017. “I remember coming as a freshman and seeing all the junk that our speaker at the time had to go through,” he says. “I noticed there were times when most legislators are just sitting around, but leadership is running their tails off.”

Now that Regier’s in charge, he took a moment out of his own nonstop schedule to talk with NCSL about his approach to leadership in this fiercely independent state.

What made you decide to pursue a leadership role in the Legislature?

Some trusted veteran legislators mentioned that I should look into it, and obviously, I listened to them. I think the reason that I was interested is tied to the reason that we all run for office in the first place. We want to have tools to change things for our constituents. I saw leadership as an opportunity to be more influential and shape the government in a positive direction.

How did becoming speaker live up to or not live up to your expectations?

I knew that there would be stress and constant conflict that comes with being in leadership. There is no decision that you can make where there isn’t one—or two, or a group of people—who are adamantly against you, while at the same time others are clapping. A leader tries to create a vision and pursue it, bringing people together and listening to ideas, but at the same time, there’s always someone cussing you out. It took me a little while to get used to that. It’s a change from normal life for sure.

“It’s important to let your principles and your vision drive you but still leave the door open to new possibilities, new directions.”

—Matt Regier, Montana House speaker

How is the Montana speaker’s role different from the same role in other states?

The people here in Montana are very independent, and I love that about them. Our rules say a majority on the floor can control almost everything the speaker does. That’s different from a lot of other states. When I talk to speakers in other states, they’ll talk about how they can assign bills to different committees and bury them if they want. And I can’t do that; our rules dictate which bills go to each committee, and every bill has to have a hearing. I like that it’s very independent, but in another sense, it does take away from leadership the ability to set the sails of which direction you go.

So, as the speaker, you are not left with much direct power. They always talk about the carrot and the stick, right? In my case, there’s really not much stick. And even the carrot is quite diminished. You can’t promise anything because every bill gets heard in committee, and all the committees are going to vote the way they want to vote. It boils down to relationships, which is fine and is good. I’m not complaining about that, but I have (fewer) tools compared with what other leaders have across the nation.

What words of advice would you give other new leaders?

It’s important to let your principles and your vision drive you but still leave the door open to new possibilities, new directions, to be able to shift gears and listen. Those don’t seem to go together, but they do. Nobody respects somebody who is a spineless flag that flaps in the political wind. No one respects a leader who is just playing the game. But at the same time, nobody respects somebody who’s just blindly dogmatic and is not going to listen to anyone else. My goal is to find that middle line and maintain both my principles and my flexibility. I think there’s an art to that. But I think that’s what people really look for in a leader. That’s been a constant growing and learning experience for me during my speakership.

Is there someone you know personally or a figure from history whom you consider a role model?

Right now, I’m really into (Winston) Churchill; I’ve been thinking about him a lot during my time as speaker. He led during such an intense time, obviously stakes were so high, and yet he was able to keep his sense of humor and wit through it all. I didn’t initially realize how much of a leadership trait that is.

Is there something that would surprise people to learn about you?

I love scuba diving. I petted an eel at the bottom of the Andaman Sea.

Do eels like to be petted?

Our diving guide told us in advance that we were going to see Emma. He had named it. There was just a hole in the ocean floor, and when the guide tapped the back of his tank, the eel came out. She knew this was the whole gig, that she was going to get petted whenever scuba divers came by.

What books have had an impact on you?

I just finished up a book by Erwin Lutzer, “When a Nation Forgets God.” It was an interesting book about the 1930s and ’40s, and how a Christian nation like Germany can go in such a dark direction. It brought up a lot of questions and was a very interesting philosophical read. I’m also excited to read “We Shall Not Fail” about Winston Churchill, which I just recently started.

Taylor Huhn is a program manager in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program; Marco Savarin is an intern in the program. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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