The Havre Herald, September 27, 2018
“I’m still young enough to care about stuff, yet old enough to know I don’t have all the answers.” Now is the perfect time, Paul Tuss says, to run for public office. The opportunity to win a seat in the state Senate seems like a natural fit to him.
Politics have been part of life for as long as he remembers. In college he switched degrees from journalism to political science. As an adult, the itch for public service has lingered in the background, waiting to be acknowledged and engaged. In 2000, he scratched a little and unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state.
Paul believes the timing to run for office couldn’t get any better. The pieces in his life, the ones that have fallen away and the ones still standing have formed a path to, hopefully, the Senate.
Paul is running for the state Senate District 14 seat. He will try to unseat Russ Tempel of Liberty County, an Army veteran, former farmer, and former Liberty County commissioner who served three terms. In November, voters of SD 14 will decide if Tuss or Russ will represent them.
Campaigning is constant, exhausting work, he’s discovered. On Saturday, Paul walked in the Festival Days parade, with a bag of candy in tow to give to kids clamoring for sweets. During a sit-down with The Havre Herald on Sept. 18, Paul said his campaign has knocked on 5,000 doors, an air of gleeful accomplishment accompanying the news.
But campaigning is not just physical work. Even when all is quiet and the day is nearly over, he’s still on the trail, working in a different capacity. “If you’re not doing something about the campaign, you’re thinking about it.”
But he believes it’s worth it. Because it’s fun. Because this is what he wants to do. Because hard work is enjoyable when there is purpose.
The first thing one might notice about Paul is that he smiles a lot. It seems to come very naturally. He also enjoys telling anecdotes.
One of the stories he told was about the time he and the governor snuck out for a beer. The story was prompted by the governor’s visit to Havre, which happened the day of the interview. Gov. Steve Bullock stopped in Havre to talk about agricultural development and health care. The governor is a longtime friend of Paul’s, going back to when they were teenagers. The two have hunted together and Bullock, Paul said, gesturing toward the couch the reporter was sitting on, has used that exact couch as a bed more than once.
Sometime during his second year as governor, Paul said, Bullock came up to Havre and stayed at the Tuss house. After his security detail left, Paul snuck the governor to Triple Dog Brewing Co., for beer and conversation.
“We felt like teenagers,” Paul said, almost giggling.
Unsurprisingly, the patrons drinking at the popular Havre brewery made them. The governor was in the house, people recognized.
Bullock made it back safely that night.
A New Weird Reality
Since Nov. 1, 2000, Paul has been the executive director for Bear Paw Development Corp. in Havre. Originally from Anaconda, he came to Havre –but not before he stopped in a few other Montana places along the way –for that job.
When he moved to Havre, Paul not only took over the former executive director of Bear Paw Development’s position, but he took his old house. The old director had already moved out and moved on. The Tusses, new to town, needed a home. So, at first the new executive director stayed in the former executive director’s house, sleeping on a blowup mattress, thinking his stay there would be temporary. Eventually, concluding there was no other house in Havre they liked better, Paul and his family moved in.
A lot has changed since Paul first moved to Havre. The house is once again empty. But not like it was during those first days. The furniture and knick knacks and pictures and all the inanimate items are still there. So is the couch on which Bullock sleeps. But the Tuss children are gone. His daughter, who left for college a month ago, was the last to go, leaving Paul alone in the house to confront the new “surreal” reality of an empty nest.
“It’s super weird,” he says.
Two years ago, Paul’s wife of 27 years, Pam Hilery died. The anniversary of her death was last Friday.
Paul and Pam met at University of Montana, she from Virginia, he a catholic Montanan born to and raised by blue collar parents of five. They married in 1989 and then had two children.
Paul and Pam agreed that public life was important. Pam served two four-year terms on Havre City Council, and after she came down with ALS, she was appointed to fill a council vacancy. Over the years, she was active in a host of youth, educational, cultural, musical and political activities in Havre. Pam publicly shared her battle with the deteriorating disease on Facebook, in newspaper columns and at community lectures. Even as her death neared, she was a strong advocate of the proposal to spend millions of dollars to rehabilitate Havre’s crumbling streets.
Had Pam not died, Paul says he doesn’t know if he would be running for office. But public life is certainly something they had discussed. Paul says Pam would have been encouraging in his run.
“I can honestly say I can feel the gentle push of Pam at my back to do this,” he said. “If she was here, she’d be in the thick of things.”
Pam’s death activated enormous changes to his life, no question about it. Life was altered forever. Running for office is Paul filling a void.
“When Pam passed, I knew there’d be a new chapter for me. I knew that something would be different,” he said. “I knew that something would come along to fill the void.”
When it comes to issues, reasons he wants to represent people as a legislator, Paul has a list he’s passionate about.
“The umbrella that all those issues fit under is the utility of rural Montana.”
As someone who has been involved in rural development for so long, it’s in his DNA to care about the issues, he says. It all ties together into why he’s running for office. “All those things are part of who I am and part of why I ran, making sure rural Montana has a seat at the table.”
Infrastructure, one of the issues dear to his heart, is the “foundation of our economy,” and without proper investments in bridges, roads, water and sewer systems, and broadband, among others, a community cannot thrive, he begins.
“For us to grow, we need to be serious about investing in infrastructure,” Paul said.
One of the subtopics of the infrastructure conversation is bonding, a topic the two major parties don’t usually agree on, he said. One way or another, roads and bridges will need money for upkeep and repairs, projects that would serve their purpose for many years. Bonding is a way for those types of projects to be paid for over a long period of time using state and local resources. Bonding would also defer some of the cost from local taxpayers. And to combat the argument that bonding would just create more debt, Paul said that if repairs aren’t made via bonding, the entire cost of an urgent project would end up in the laps of local taxpayers, when a great deal could have been absorbed by the state.
“It’s affordable. You get it done. You’re improving your communities, and you’re creating jobs.”
He is also an ardent advocate for Medicaid expansion. Without it, there would be 90,000 Montanans without health care, he says. If Medicaid expansion goes away, “we’ll go back to the old way,” he adds, to the days when people without insurance walked into the emergency room, received care, and ended up with a very large bill that may or may not be paid.
Without Medicaid expansion, Paul says, rural hospitals are the ones most in danger of closing. And when a hospital goes, schools follow. And once that happens, the domino effect of a disintegrating community begins, Paul says.
There are more issues: Public lands access, taxes, funding for Montana State University-Northern – all those are topics he’d like to discuss at length.
Paul used those issues to segue into another problem he sees when it comes to politics: How legislators are, or aren’t, working together on Montanan’s concerns.
There are issues that shouldn’t be partisan. Yet, that’s exactly what has happened, Paul believes.
There’s a problem in the political realm. It’s become more about the parties. Legislators want more to make sure the opposing party looks bad than they want to address people’s concerns. This is something he says he hears often when talking to people on the campaign trail. People want government to do their job.
“People want the crazy dysfunction to end,” he excitedly says.
And that’s where he comes in. A man in his professional position has had to learn how to work with people of differing political persuasions. Among the evidence, he mentions former Havre mayor Bob Rice, a Republican, who’s written a public letter of endorsement of Paul. And Mr. Rice is not the only one, Paul continues, tacking more local names onto the list.
“At the end of the day, we’re Montanans before we’re Republicans or Democrats.[KM5]
“People want government to function.”
As a Montanan, Paul participates in some quintessential Big Sky traditions.
Paul owns firearms and he is an avid hunter. He likes to say he has more firearms than he needs but not more than he wants. He has a group of friends he hunts with, many of whom come from the western part of the state to bag some of the best venison around.
The thing about deer in the western part of the state is they eat sage, twigs, grass, bark. Their diet is inferior to what Hi-Line deer eat, Paul says. Deer in north-central Montana eat grain, good northern Montana prairie grain, the kind that is world renowned. So, no wonder those on the Rocky Mountain front come to the Hi-Line to hunt.
And that is why venison, it turns out, is the exclusive meat of the Tuss household.
“That’s all we eat.”
Like a hunter stalking his prey, this November Paul hopes to get the Senate District 14 seat. He’s studied the task before him, he’s placed himself in the field, and he’s putting in the work. In November, Paul may catch himself more than good, grain-fed, Hi-Line deer.