Classroom at Senior High

Kelly McCarthy, a Democrat representing Billings in the Montana House, speaks to students Tuesday at Senior High.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

It's not particularly unusual for politicians to visit a classroom. But the questions that Kelly McCarthy fielded last week were well beyond "How does a bill become a law?"

Students at Senior High were more interested in the whys behind that process. McCarthy, a Democrat representing Billings in the Montana House, visited teacher Sue Nord's dual-enrollment government class, where students can earn college credit.

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Students in Sue Nord's class

Senior High students listen to guest speaker McCarthy in Sue Nord's advanced government class Tuesday. The students can earn college credit for taking the dual-enrollment class.

The class means more work for students, but a bigger payoff, and Montana State University Billings waives the usual $151.50 tuition fee. None of the students were planning on pursuing political careers, but they were still interested in an advanced government course. 

"It kind of helps you to think independently," said senior Kayla Murray. 

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Senior High students

Students at Senior High receive a civics lesson Tuesday.

McCarthy told students that being in the minority party means he has to take a bipartisan approach.

"You cannot get a bill passed unless you have friends on the other side of the aisle," he said.

McCarthy was slated to speak with Rep. Don Jones, a Billings Republican who was unable to attend.

"He's truly one of my closest legislative colleagues," McCarthy said. "I like him a lot."

Students also asked about campaigning for office.

He talked about using databases to identify likely Democratic or Republican voters, "so you don't waste a whole lot of time on people who aren't going to vote for you."

His campaign manager started him off with a slate of Democrat doors to knock during his first run in 2012.

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Kelly McCarthy

A Democrat in the Montana Legislature, Kelly McCarthy talks to Senior High students about the importance of reaching across the aisle to get bills passed in Helena.

"Every door I hit, they were just in love with me," he said. "(But later) she said, 'now you've got to go knock this guy's door, he's not going to like you as much.'"

Students also asked how McCarthy balances his personal beliefs with feedback from his constituents — and what happens if those two clash.

McCarthy said there's usually not much disagreement, but also used a potential gas tax as an example of a tough situation. He said he tends to view a gas tax as regressive — hitting lower- and middle-class people harder than upper-class people. Plus, most people aren't fans of a new tax.

But that tax could pay for projects and programs McCarthy supports.

"(Voters) prefer not to pay it, but they do like driving on roads," McCarthy said.

He also addressed term limits, which he believes leads to a less "professional" legislature.

"We're over there for four months, and then we leave town for 20," he said. Combined with capped terms, that can make it tougher for legislators to keep up to speed with the underlying issues facing the state.

He also offered students a bit of a twist — pre-2004, he usually voted Republican. But a speech from then-Senator and later President Barack Obama swung him toward Democrats.

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Senior High teacher Sue Nord

Sue Nord teaches a dual-enrollment class at Senior High on Tuesday.

"He talked about an America that I wanted to see," McCarthy said.

For students, a known teacher like Nord helped sell them on taking the dual enrollment class. 

"I think that you don't really know what you're going to get in college," senior Kayla Kitzmann said. "When you're at Senior High, you already know the teachers."

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