Sullivan won House District 89 during the November election.
From The Missoulian
Katie Sullivan (Salpointe Class of 2001) is many things: an intellectual property attorney, a business co-owner, a data privacy advocate, a former neuroscience research assistant, a millennial, a traveler, a skier, a foodie and a mom to two cats. She’s also a newly elected member of the Montana Legislature, having won a hard-fought Democratic primary and the subsequent general election in November to Missoula’s traditionally liberal House District 89.
She won the old-fashioned way, by knocking on what she estimates to be 4,000 doors in her University District neighborhood and listening to people’s concerns.
“I heard a ton on health care,” she said. “People have their own personal stories about health care costs. They may have an aunt or mom or sister who had health issues, or they say their kids’ insurance is really expensive or they’re retiring and in-between joining Medicare. I also heard a lot about property taxes, public lands and the environment. People are concerned about climate change, saying ‘Why aren’t we doing anything?’ People do like discussing local issues, too.”
Several different factors spuured the decision to run for public office for the first time, at age 35, she said.
“It was a perfect storm of many things,” she said. “The big one was my husband [Phil Stempin] was diagnosed with a chronic health condition in 2016, and for five days in the hospital it cost $150,000 in medical bills. We had purchased an Obamacare policy, so we were really glad we could keep our car and our savings and our house and all of our stuff. It makes you learn the health care system really quickly.”
Sullivan said she and her husband had otherwise been a healthy young couple who didn’t know much about America’s health care system. But now she knows the ins and outs of insurance billing, drug prices, out-of-network doctors and in-network hospitals, paying the maximum out of pocket versus a deductible and everything in between.
“I learned the system is not working as well as it could and it makes me pretty angry,” she said. “One of the reasons I ran was because people just don’t have health coverage. If this had happened to them, where would they be? A lot of people have health problems. It’s a normal experience to have health problems, and to think it’s abnormal or rare would be wrong. So I thought, what can I do to help in that space?”
Sullivan has lived in the University District for 16 years and served on the neighborhood council leadership team. Her friends and neighbors nudged her toward running for office when Rep. Nate McConnell ran for the Senate and vacated his seat in the House.
Sullivan also went to law school at the University of Montana with Rep. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat representing House District 95 in Missoula. Both are technically millennials (anyone born between 1981 and 1996, according to the Pew Research Center).
"She's a well-rounded person, a good person," Morigeau said. "She's great. She goes after it, she's passionate about things she believes in, and I look forward to serving with her."
Morigeau actually originally convinced one of Sullivan's primary opponents, Patrick Weasel Head, to run for the seat.
"It was really tough for me when I found out she was running against one of my mentors," Morigeau said. "But I told Patrick, if Katie wins this primary that district is in very good hands. She's someone who truly takes the position seriously and understands what a representative does."
Morigeau said he's especially impressed with her listening ability.
"She's not one of those people that I've ever felt like is in it for the attention of the position," he said.
Sullivan is busy as an attorney who helps small business owners and entrepreneurs with patents and trademarks, and she’s also the co-owner of a cold weather products business with her family. But running for public office seemed like something she could add to her already full plate.
“It felt like a reasonable thing to do,” Sullivan said. “I also have a lot of very supportive friends in life, so I got a lot of positive pushing.”
Sullivan said while she believes the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, has minor flaws, it is otherwise keeping many people from disaster.
“Dismantling it would not be the right thing to do right now,” she said.
“One thing I’m interested in is price gouging for prescription drugs,” she continued. “I’m looking at what other states are doing, to see what proposals they are doing, to shine a light on that. Prescription drug price transparency is the law in other states and I’m looking to bring that to Montana. Rising drug prices are one of the biggest contributors to the rising cost of health care.”
Sullivan said she’s “fairly introverted” so playing politics isn’t necessarily her favorite thing to do.
“It was kind of scary to knock on all those doors,” she said. “But it’s the best way to contact and hear concerns and meet your neighbors. It was pretty fulfilling.”
As a Democrat, Sullivan knows she’ll have to work across the aisle in the Republican-dominated Montana legislature. She’s been named to committees that deal with business, labor, federal relations, energy, telecommunications, agriculture and rules.
“I have some bipartisan issues I want to work on, like data privacy legislation,” she said. “No one cares a whole lot about it, but I have a big issue with where people’s data is being used and where it’s being sold. I’ve met many of the other legislators from all over the state and I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to work with all of them.”