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Contrasting rallies held in downtown Kalispell

January 20, 2019 GMT

Kwen Shirley and Braxton Shewalter are clearly on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to their politics, but both have sought or want to seek office. On Saturday, they each helped organize contrasting rallies held at Depot Park in downtown Kalispell.

Thirty-one-year-old Shirley, a supervisor at Starbucks in Kalispell, organized the local Women’s March that was supported by Love Lives Here, the Flathead County Democratic Women plus Big Sky Rising and Indivisible Flathead. The event was attended by a few hundred people who gathered at the park to wave signs at passing cars and to listen to speakers.

Organizers said the mission of the rally was “to elevate diverse community voices and unite in defense of women’s rights, democracy and the environment.” The event’s theme was “Be Seen, Be Heard.” A focus of the march was on the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Shewalter, a recent graduate of Columbia Falls High School, is a Republican who supports President Donald Trump. He organized a counter-protest to the local Women’s March “to show the large local support for our president.” About a dozen people attended that rally, which was held across the street from Depot Park.

Shirley is an ardent Democrat who ran against Republican Matt Regier in last fall’s Montana House District 4 election. Regier easily won the seat, garnering 75.8 percent of the vote. She said she hasn’t been discouraged by the defeat in November and continues to be active with a number of local organizations.

“We are here to build the community, we are here for people who don’t have a voice,” Shirley said of Saturday’s Women’s March. “The rally is for causes that we don’t think about enough, that aren’t talked about enough.”

Shirley came to the Flathead in 2013 after she grew tired of dealing with the traffic and hectic nature of life in the Seattle area. She came here to visit Glacier National Park, loved the area and eventually got a transfer through her employer. She has been involved with the Northwest Montana Humane Society, animal rescue efforts and helped found Indivisible Flathead and Big Sky Rising. In politics, she started working with candidate campaigns at 17 and she was on a student council at Western Washington University

“I haven’t regretted it,” Shirley said. “Politicians are allowed to believe that everything is OK, but we need to make them understand things aren’t always OK.”

Shewalter, 18, said he grew up in a Republican household and his interest in politics began in March 2016, six months before Trump was elected.

“I looked at candidates on both sides and I became a big Ben Carson and Marco Rubio fan before Trump was nominated,” Shewalter said.

Shewalter recently finished his first semester at the Flathead Valley Community College. He is interested in studying political science.

Shewalter said his desire to protest the Women’s March was born of seeing pro-Trump and Republican events being protested. He organized a pro-gun rally in April 2018.

“I said ‘let’s have our voice heard.’”

Shewalter said he is planning on running for the Montana House District 3 seat in 2020. Democrat Zac Perry edged Republican Jerry O’Neil by 34 votes in the 2018 election.

“A lot of people said I should run and I probably will,” Shewalter said.

At Saturday’s Women’s March, Columbia Falls resident Barbara Lancaster said she has a number of female friends who voted for Trump.

“They voted for him for good reasons,” Lancaster said. “But I am still embarrassed by [Trump]. I think the stock market is teaching him a lesson now.”

McKenna Flannigan, of Kalispell, said she wasn’t old enough to vote in 2016, but she is very motivated to do so in 2020.

“We have gotten used to school shootings and that’s not the way the world is supposed to be,” she said. “I’m excited to be at my first march and being with and meeting like-minded people. I really feel a kinship here.”

At the rally across the street, Alex Stein, of Whitefish, said he is a friend of Shewalter and he was motivated to come to the counter-protest because of what he termed the “unnecessity of the Women’s March.

“The women’s marches are a constant political anti-Trump bias,” Stein said. “My friend, Braxton, got us to show some spirit and that we find these events unnecessary. We also wanted to show that we have our freedom of speech, too, and without resorting to violence.”

The Kalispell Women’s March corresponded with other women’s marches planned around the nation. The first women’s marches took place in 2017 on the day after President Donald Trump was sworn into office.

Other women’s marches in Montana on Saturday were held in Eureka, Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, Billings and Bozeman. About 250 people convened at Women’s Park in Helena for the annual Women’s Rally for Democracy on Saturday, according to the Helena Independent Record.

An estimated 100,000 protesters converged at Freedom Plaza, just east of the White House, holding a daylong rally in Washington, D.C.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com