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Candidates set for open Montana State Auditor's race

Montana State Auditor's Office
Posted at 6:22 PM, Mar 25, 2024

HELENA — This year, there’s one statewide executive office in Montana where the incumbent could have run for reelection but decided not to seek another term: the state auditor’s office.

Many Montanans may not be familiar with what the auditor does. Commonly called the commissioner of securities and insurance, they’re responsible for regulating those two industries and serving as an advocate for Montana consumers.

Incument State Auditor Troy Downing, a Republican, was elected in 2020. This year, instead of running for a second term, he’s running for U.S. House in Montana’s eastern congressional district.

James Brown

Two Republicans are running in the primary to replace Downing. The first is James Brown, an attorney from Dillon and the president of the Montana Public Service Commission. Brown will be familiar to voters after he ran a prominent campaign for Montana Supreme Court in 2022.

Brown filed for auditor in January. He told MTN he feels he’s leaving the PSC in a better place than when he won his seat in 2020, and he sees parallels between that position and the auditor’s job – both regulate industries and both have a duty to serve the public interest.

“I took a look at that office and looked at my skill set, and I believe I'm a good match and fit to serve in the role of auditor, to play a public protection role and a role to enhance business in Montana,” he said.

Brown says he holds an insurance provider’s license, and that he got it to better educate himself about issues that came up frequently in his law practice. He says that means he’d knowledge of the insurance industry, but he wouldn’t have any appearance of conflict of interest because he hasn’t actively worked in it.

John Jay Willoughby

The other Republican candidate is John Jay Willoughby, owner of Willoughby Insurance and former owner of Bad Boy Bail Bonds, both located in Helena. He got into the insurance business about 25 years ago, when he moved to Montana after a career in law enforcement in North Dakota.

Willoughby says the current situation for the insurance industry is unlike anything he’s seen before, particularly with the rate increases they’re asking for. He believes the auditor’s office needs to be taking a hard look at what companies are doing, and walking a fine line of protecting consumers and providers.

Willoughby filed for auditor on the last day of the filing period. He says the job has too often been held by politicians who don’t have experience with the industry.

“They've all come from other walks of life,” he said. “Now, I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I'm saying I think, with 25 years of insurance experience, I understand both the companies’ side of it from the insurance carriers, and I definitely understand the consumer side of it.”

Willoughby told MTN he doesn’t believe he would have a conflict of interest if elected, because he plans to sell his business.

Originally, two other Republican candidates filed for auditor, but the Montana Secretary of State’s list of candidates shows they were removed from the ballot, after they didn’t submit a required campaign finance document to the Commissioner of Political Practices. They were state Rep. Steve Gunderson of Libby and Keith Brownfield of Miles City.

John Repke

The lone Democrat running for auditor is John Repke, who announced his candidacy at the state party’s Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner March 2. He’s a retired finance executive who lives in Whitefish. In 2022, he was a Democratic candidate for Public Service Commission in the state’s 5th District.

Repke says he spent his career working for big organizations, including as chief financial officer. He says he’s had experience working with and pushing back on insurance companies, and that he has a personal reaction to these types of cases as he once testified in a federal case against his former bosses at Waste Management, as that company went through a major accounting scandal.

Repke says he’s running on experience and serving the public, and that he won’t be a “culture warrior” in the auditor’s office.

“You know, I hear people say, ‘We've got too many regulations’ and that kind of thing,” he said. “Well, my experience is that those regulations not only protect the consumers, but they protect the good, honest businessmen.”