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About the Montanan
by Lynn Solomon
Photos by Frank Shone
UM sophomore Jesse Laslovich takes the Montana House by storm.
While they may not go that far, legislators and others at the session clearly are taken with Laslovich's maturity and sharp wit. His colleagues have called him a rising star and titles like "governor" and "senator" are often bandied about. "He's done just an unbelievable job here in a very short time," says House Minority Leader Kim Gillan. "He has gained the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle."
The way his mother tells it, this is nothing new for the oldest of her five children. "Jesse's always been a straight shooter," says Kathy Laslovich, a teacher in Anaconda. "He's always wanted to make the right choices. He's been pretty easy to raise."
Laslovich was a popular high school student in Anaconda, active in student government and passionate about politics. It's clearly in the blood. His uncle, Mike Laslovich, is an associate professor of political science at UM.
Laslovich and his high school government teacher Angela McLean were working on Mike Cooney's gubernatorial campaign Cooney, the former Montana secretary of state, was elected to the Legislature when he was twenty-two when the subject of William "Red" Menahan's House seat came up. Term limits kept Menahan from running again, after some thirty years in the legislature.
McLean considered running for the seat but decided against it, and Laslovich barely thought about it until Christmas break of his freshman year. He mentioned it during lunch while helping his father, Tony, a construction worker, build a house. "He stopped chewing his sandwich and looked at me," Laslovich says. "Then he said, 'You're running.'"
After campaigning on weekends and school breaks, Laslovich comfortably won the Democratic primary in June, a few months before his twentieth birthday. He was unopposed in the fall general election in heavily Democratic Anaconda.
Now Laslovich is in the thick of a session notable for its new faces, with fifty freshmen in the hundred-member House. He's serving on the House taxation and local government committees while earning ten credits toward his degree by writing monthly papers assessing and critiquing the process.
The reality of his age is unavoidable. There are jokes about colleagues buying cocktails for him at Helena watering holes, and more than once he's been mistaken for a page a job he had in the 1999 session. Whether he intended to or not, Laslovich has become a "voice" on the floor.
"He's brought...to the House Democrats as well as the whole Legislature, a perspective that we didn't have," Gillan says, "from a person who's younger...on the upward part of his career. The message he normally leaves on the floor is something people will remember for days."
He vows he won't get cynical. "I can't do that, just be the loyal opposition," he says. "If there's something I think's right, I want to advocate that."
"He's just an individual with convictions," says high school teacher McLean. "It's very rare to see such a young person with a great belief and understanding of what he wants to do with his life."
Laslovich figures he's asked "200 times a day" about what he wants to do with his life, long term. It's a fair question. If Laslovich were to successfully run for re-election to the seat he now holds, term limits would kick him out of the House before his thirtieth birthday. It's one of the few questions this mature, articulate college student doesn't answer readily.
"I always want to go to the next level," he says.
"The next level" is another reality that's never far from the surface, and it's one Laslovich clearly relishes. He mentions a run for a spot in the Montana Senate, perhaps in 2004. Along the way, he'll finish his degree and then go to law school.
Recently, while the House was in general session, a colleague stood to recognize Laslovich and mistakenly called him "Senator."
"Pardon me, Representative Laslovich," said the colleague, correcting himself.
"You can call me Governor Laslovich if you want," Laslovich answered, rising to speak on the House floor while his fellow lawmakers laughed.
Those autographed pictures might be worth holding on to.
PHOTO CAPTION: Montana Rep. Jesse Laslovich is attracting attention beyond state borders. Laslovich is the youngest of about twenty young legislators identified nationally by the Oregon secretary of state office. He's been unofficially pegged by officials of that office as a "poster child" for lowering the eligible age for holding office to eighteen from twenty-one.
Lynn Solomon is a freelance writer living in Helena.
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