Brandon Ler is a rancher and a businessman.
He wants the people of Richland County to know this about him. He takes the business of owning and operating a ranch seriously. To describe Ler as one dimensional, however, would be a mistake.
Ler, 34, is running to represent Richland County for House District 35. He’s a Republican who has locked tusks with another Republican: Joel Krautter, a first-term incumbent and the area’s current HD-35 representative.
Although he currently serves on the Savage school board, this is Ler’s first campaign for a high-profile office.
There has been significant mudslinging in this campaign. Although the young Savage rancher refrained from speaking ill of Krautter, Ler made clear in an interview with the Sidney Herald he thinks his opponent lacks the conservative credentials necessary to represent the constituents of Richland County.
Ler said Krautter has a propensity to raise taxes and increase licensing fees. He said Krautter lacks legit ag creds — the experience necessary to represent a community where farming and ranching are the vocations of many voters. Mostly, Ler takes issue with Krautter’s Helena voting record after he was elected to serve the people of HD-35. Some conservatives have openly and vociferously challenged Krautter’s vote in favor of reauthorizing House Bill 658.
Ler claims HB-658 — touted as a Medicaid reform law — uses taxpayer money to fund abortions. Technically, he’s right — some might say, extremely right.
Ler made clear that President Donald Trump is almost too moderate for his political views.
That isn’t to imply Ler is not a Trump supporter. He is.
Mostly, Ler is a conservative rancher who believes strongly that every level of government should play a limited role in how people live their lives, educate their kids and raise their families.
The federal government, Ler said, should allow states to take care of matters unique to their regions, while states should trust local governments to make decisions without too many directives from the state capital. In turn, local governments should not interfere with individuals, families or businesses, which know best how to handle their own problems.
It’s a simplified view of government. It seems like a throwback to the days when government was simple. Yet, a lot of voters in Richland County appear to share Ler’s perspective. To imply Ler is anti-government is a mistake, however, at least according to Ler.
“I’m anti-government control,” he said. “We know what’s best for Sidney and I believe Helena knows what’s best for Montana. I just think the federal government has their fingers in way too many things...so does the state.”
It’s a curious position for someone who opposes a woman’s right to choose. Clearly, Ler doesn’t see abortion in those terms. Whether one favors a woman’s right to choose or not, Ler takes issue with using taxes to fund abortions.
“I’m a pro-life candidate,” Ler said. “I believe that everything south of medically necessary abortions is wrong. I do not believe the taxpayers should be funding any of that.”
Ler contends the vast majority of voters in Richland County agree with him. He said his opponent voted against his district’s wishes when he supported HB-658.
“I believe that Richland County [was] not accurately represented in the last session,” Ler said. “Sixty-seven percent of Richland County voted against HB-658, the Medicaid expansion bill, and my opponent voted for it.”
Aside from the moral implications of a law that supports abortions in cases of insest or rape, or medical emergencies when a woman’s life is in danger — as Krautter contends — Ler opposes using taxpayer money to fund abortions.
It’s a theme he returns to with other issues — from an aviation tax that places a heavier burden on flying, to energy taxes that raise household utility bills. In short, Ler opposes passing costs onto consumers in the form of taxes.
As a rancher who also installs fences, Ler attributes his frugal mindset to running a business. Because many voters in Richland County are involved in agriculture and ranching, Ler said he’s better qualified to represent their interests in the state capital.
“We need to make it easier for small farms and ranchers to serve their customers directly,” Ler said, referring to his commitment to local meat-packing companies and distributors.
One of his top priorities, Ler said, is to ease regulations on local companies that currently compete with four to six conglomerates, which he estimates control 87 percent of cattle being sold to U.S. grocery stores today.
“If we cut the regulations to where we didn’t need a full-time FDA inspector,” it would help reduce burdens on local ranchers in Richland County, Ler said. This, in turn, would reduce transportation and distribution costs and make it easier for meat producers to compete.
As a small-business owner, Ler said he would also like to see “workman’s compensation rates lowered.”
Ler made clear he is running for the Richland County house seat to represent small-business owners; specifically, ranchers and farmers.
“I’ve been involved in ag my whole life,” Ler said. “I have the experience in agriculture.”
Ler is candid about reducing spending and not compromising with “liberals.”
“You’ve gotta make the tough decisions,” he said, noting the COVID-19 crises is costing Montana money. “The state is not gonna have the revenue that it’s had in the past.”
Ler also pointed to the oil-and-gas slump that has hurt the economy of Richland County.
“There’s nobody flying, there’s nobody driving, there’s nobody doing anything,” he said about the impact of COVID-19, not only on the local economy but globally. “They aren’t buying fuel. There’s no demand for it right now.”
If that sounds dire, it isn’t intended to be. Ler’s a pragmatist. He believes decreasing regulations, limiting workers’ comp claims and lowering business taxes will help spur economic growth.
“My biggest issue is we need to get spending under control,” he said. “I’m not willing to compromise on raising revenue to get something done.”
Asked how he plans to manage running a ranch and a fence-installation business while raising a family and ensuring his young children are properly educated, while also serving as a state legislator, Ler pointed out Montana lawmakers do not serve year-round.
“My busy season is from April first to December,” said Ler, who also serves as a volunteer fireman for Savage. “This fits right into my schedule — from January to April, when the sessions run.”
Asked if he would be running for office if he believed his GOP opponent were a staunch conservative, Ler paused to consider the question.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he replied. “I believe this opportunity has presented itself to me.... If I felt that the candidate that was in this position was accountable to the residents of Richland County, I don’t know if I would be doing this.”
Returning to the theme of lower taxes and fewer regulations, Ler sounded the alarm of a modern conservative who is tired of government interference.
“I believe our commissioners in Richland County ought to have more say than a representative in Helena or Washington D.C.,” Ler declared. “But the state ought to have more control than the federal legislators. I believe our local school board should say exactly how to run our schools, because we’re duly elected into that position by our local residents.”
Does he think he can make a difference if he’s elected to replace a Republican whom he perceives to be too moderate for Richland County?
Ler didn’t mince his words: “I believe we need more boots and bluejeans in Helena and less business suits and penny loafers. I just believe that we need more common people there.”
In the next issue of the Sidney Herald we’ll feature a sit-down interview with Joel Krautter.