Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Debby Barrett. I am a 64 year old rancher from the southwestern corner of the state. The ranch I live on is old, not big, was established by my husband’s family in the 1860’s, and has been my home for over 44 years. It is where our daughter was born and raised. It is where I have lived my entire adult life. Today, my husband, his brother, and I can handle most of the cattle work. The Barrett ranch is located on the Lewis & Clark Trail at the base of the Continental Divide between Idaho and Montana. This is where the expedition buried their boats and continued on foot to the Pacific Ocean. The ranch is also located smack dab between where wolves were reintroduced in the 1990’s in Yellowstone National Park and in a wilderness area in Idaho. During Grandpa Barrett’s time, wolves were eradicated for two reasons. One, wolves are selective killers and were killing the horses the ranchers in Horse Prairie depended on for their very existence. And two, there was no big game in the area to speak of. Even the American Indians that Lewis & Clark encountered here were starving because of the lack of game animals.
I am not a native of Montana. My parents came to Montana from Kansas when I was 5. For eighteen years I thought I was a jaywalker; then found out that folks born in Kansas are named after a bird. I am a jayhawker. My parents came to Montana so my father could hunt & fish. He took a job in Libby at the Grace Vermiculite mine. But first he built a laying house that held one thousand laying hens for my mother to manage. He even built her a small feed store to run in her spare time! Needless to say, my older sister, my younger brother, and I were raised with a very strong work ethic and an abiding love of Montana’s great out doors. As kids we were fly fishing on Libby Creek every night of the summer. We were experts at fly fishing decades before the sport became so widely popular!
Not enough women aspire to public office. Tell us about your 16 years as a Montana Legislator, including your time as the first female Senate President in state history.
It is also that ingrained work ethic that led me to file for public office in 2000. Voter enacted term limits had removed my State Representative from office. I have always been conservative and had been active in the Beaverhead County Republican Party for years. There was a vacancy, work to be done, and I knew that I could do the job and fill that vacancy. Due to term limits I was appointed the Vice Chair of a Standing Committee as a freshman Legislator, and my next term I served as the Chairman of that same Standing Committee. My 3rd & 4th terms in the Montana House I ran for Leadership and served one Session as a Majority Whip, then finished my last term as the Speaker Pro Tempore. Then, I too was term limited out of the House and filed for an open Senate seat. Again, I was appointed the Chairman of Standing Committees for two Legislative Sessions then served in Leadership positions my last two Sessions. In the 2013 Legislative Session I was elected, by my Caucus as the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and in the 2015 Session, I was elected by all members of the Senate as the President of the Montana State Senate.
I do not believe I was elected the President of the Senate because I am a woman. I was elected President, by my fellow Senators because I had worked with many of them for over a decade. They knew I was someone they could trust. They also knew and approved of my common sense approach to the issues. I have always considered myself an elected official and not a politician. Many Legislators become so desperate to see their bills enacted into law that they begin making despicable deals and start trading their votes. That is how and why we end up with some rather “poor” policy at times. That is also why the voters consider some politicians “sleazy”. I made the decision not to trade my vote or to work questionable deals. To me a piece of legislation had to stand on its own merit. It had to not only be good for my constituents in southwestern Montana; but it also had to be constitutional, affordable, and good for Montanans in general. For 16 years I voted my conscience, my constituents, and my party—in that order, knowing full well that with every single vote I cast there were winners and losers. Being a lawmaker is not for the weak or faint of heart. It takes courage, commitment, and fortitude. Politics is not glamorous or pleasant. No one should enter that realm unless they are very passionate about doing so; and fully intend to make that endeavor their sole priority while in office.
I believe our lives are a series of phases. I have led a blessed life with numerous phases. For the past 16 years I have indeed had the best of two very different worlds. I could go home to the ranch and do hard physical work in one of the most beautiful settings in the entire state thus keeping my life, sanity, and duties all in balance. And, it was equally an honor to be elected by the good people in southwestern Montana to represent them for so many years. Now, it is time to move on. My newest phase will be shared between being a full time rancher once again, and the grandmother of a perfect little girl named Daisy! The grand essentials that have kept me happy in my life are something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for. I fully intend to just keep on keeping on……..
Do you have a favorite quote?
I have two. The first is very lengthy and from a Theodore Roosevelt speech:
“It is not the critic who counts; nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because, there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….”
The second is from Mark Twain: “Always do the right thing, it will gratify thousands and astound the rest of mankind.”
Tell us about a woman you admire.
That would be my daughter, Barbara. No doubt, she got her intelligence from her father; but I have no idea where she got her vivid imagination, her artistic talent, and her endless enthusiasm to follow the great passions in her life. She is so foreign to me; it is almost as if she is from another planet—She amazes me daily!
Describe one of your happiest memories.
That would be a branding time gone by. We used to be surrounded by friends, neighbors & family all working hard and having a great time together. It was both a social event and rewarding work. Then we would all enjoy a huge delicious meal prepared with love! Each branding had it’s own special moments turned into treasured memories. Today, we are surrounded, at best, by strangers, paid to show up for a good time and a day away from their city life. They know nothing about us, the ranch, or the cattle. The calves always get branded—but it is no longer anything I relish or look forward to. It is not special or memorable. I miss the old days and cherish all of the times we spent with our family and our friends.
What are some words your friends and family would use to describe you.
Funny, humorous, and joking; but sometimes not so funny when I am being brutally honest. Sincere, caring, kind, and generous. Always focused on the task at hand; and it is always work before pleasure. At times I am too intense for some folks.
What is one piece of advice you’d give your 20 year old self.
It is okay to just say NO. Life is much much better if you do not try to do everything and be everything for everyone all the time! I was in my late 30’s or early 40’s the first time I ever told someone no, I do not want to do that. And, it was okay. The world did not come to an end!
Coffee or tea?
Coffee to the extreme!
Introvert or extrovert?
Chocolate or vanilla?
Rural or urban?
Dress up or dress down?
Both—there is a time and a place for everything!
Cats or dogs?
Sunrise or sunset?
Love every one of them– and try to experience as many of each as possible!
Detailed or abstract?
Abstract. I can get from point A to point D as fast as anyone! Let others deal with the details.
Classic or modern?
Call or text?
A time and a place for both!
Fiction or non-fiction?
Salty or Sweet?
What do you love most about Montana?
The absolute splendor! I have seen some wonderful sights and witnessed awesome phenomenal happenings in nature working out doors for the past 44 years. I have often thought that if some of the inner-city children could have seen and experienced just a small part of what I have been so fortunate to see and do—there would be fewer problems in the country today.
What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Losing Grandpa Barrett to cancer. Being right there, by his side every day, and not being able to do one thing to help him.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
I thank God every day that I live in the greatest country on earth, for the love of my life, Mike Barrett, that our daughter, Barbara is happy & healthy, and so is her daughter, Daisy. I can ask for no more.
4 thoughts on “Debby Barrett”
A truly remarkable woman-I am proud to call her ‘friend!’
Yep, she is the real deal. Not a politician, but a strong, no nonsense states woman. It was a pleasure to serve with her in the Montana Senate.
What a wonderful interview. Thank you.
What an awesome article Deb! I really enjoyed reading it, and honestly, they couldn’t have picked a more worthy person to feature. We love you over here in the VA contingent!