The recent death of state Sen. Dale Berry has left a void that the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee must fill, but the party says it will go slow to give potential candidates time to emerge.
Berry, who was 62, was elected to a second four-year term in the state Senate last November. He died last week of a pulmonary embolism. He would have served in the 2003 Legislature, and now the party must find someone to take his place.
Ron Heppner, chairman of the Ravalli County Republican Party, says any interested Republican may submit his or her name to the Central Committee for consideration. Ravalli County’s 36 Republican precinct committee members will then cast their votes, and the names of three top vote-getters will be submitted to the Board of County Commissioners for their final selection.
It was by this same process that Berry himself found his way to the Senate. Berry had been elected to the House in 1996, representing the south Bitterroot Valley, at the same time that Sen. Steve Benedict had been reelected to the Senate. But Benedict resigned the following day, citing business conflicts, and Berry was appointed to replace him.
While that process is beginning again to fill Berry’s seat, the final selection may not be made any time soon. For one thing, Heppner says, party leaders want to pay their respects to a colleague they admired greatly. But for another, potential candidates may wish to give some time and thought to putting their names in the hat.
After all, filling Berry’s seat will be a challenging job. Berry was Senate majority whip, and served on three committees: business and labor, education and cultural resources, and rule. Heppner says at this point no one is sure whether the appointee will serve on those same committees, or whether the new senator will arrive in the 2003 Legislature as a freshman. He says the Senate will probably appoint a new majority whip.
Heppner says Berry had stature in the Montana Legislature and “tremendous respect from both sides of the aisle. It will be difficult to replace Dale, not just the position.”
It will be the Central Committee’s task, he says, to separate candidates who can win in the 2004 election from those “who simply like the title ‘senator.’”
So far, Heppner says, no names have surfaced. “The process hasn’t even started yet out of respect for what’s going on,” he says.