Democrats in Montana’s U.S. House race made their case at a debate Thursday night for why they’re the best person to challenge Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte this fall, arguing their respective strengths on everything from persona to politics.
“A lot of people ask me, `Are you a progressive or a moderate?’” said former state Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman. “And my response is always `Yes.’ That’s what we need.”
The five Democrats also gave voters a preview of how they might campaign this fall, saying while President Trump may have won Montana in 2016 with his Populist appeal, he hasn’t delivered on that promise.
“We need someone who can work with the president when appropriate and hold the president accountable to his campaign promises, which were a trillion dollars of infrastructure that hasn’t materialized, a better health-care system, which hasn’t materialized,” said Billings attorney John Heenan.
Williams, Heenan, Bozeman attorneys John Meyer and Jared Pettinato and former land-trust director Grant Kier of Missoula appeared together for their only full-fledged debate before the June 5 primary.
The Greater Montana Foundation sponsored the debate, which was held at the Montana Historical Society in Helena and streamed statewide on MTN stations’ networks and numerous radio stations. The candidates answered questions for 90 minutes from a panel of journalists.
None of the candidates is well-known by the public; Williams is the only one who has held public office before. Kier, Heenan and Williams are the fundraising leaders in the race and have the most extensive campaign operations.
Williams often touted her electoral experience and compared herself to Montana’s two top statewide Democrats, Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, whom she called moderates that can work with Republicans to get things done.
“I think we need someone who’s both a fighter, but also a fixer that has a record of finding long-term solutions to thorny issues,” she said.
Kier said people are looking for new faces in politics, and that he has spent a career working with landowners and communities of all political stripes, to accomplish conservation and public-access goals.
He said Gianforte “bought this seat” and flies back and forth to Washington, D.C., on his own private jet, and “doesn’t listen to a word Montanans say – he doesn’t show up and hear from people.”
Heenan noted that he’s from Yellowstone County, where Democrats must do well to have a chance of winning statewide, and said his reputation as an attorney who has fought corporate interests and “dark money” in politics is a strong message for the fall.
“We need to get dark money out of politics so we can have representatives in politics who return to representing us, not just wealthy insiders, not just corporate lobbyists,” he said.
The candidates also tackled questions on issues such as gun violence, the Republican federal tax-cut bill and forest policy.
All five candidates blasted the GOP tax-cut bill, saying it primarily benefited large corporations and the wealthy and will explode the national debt.
“Trickle-down economics doesn’t work,” said Pettinato. “We keep trying it, and it hasn’t worked yet.”
“We gave corporations an enormous tax break when they had record access to capital, record profits,” Kier said. “This was not a tax plan, this was a tax scam.”
Williams said she believes that AR-15 weapons and other so-called “assault rifles” should be regulated as machine guns, allowing their use only at controlled environments.
“I think it’s time that we had an adult conversation about drawing a bright line between legitimate hunting firearms … and weapons for killing,” she said.
Meyer, an attorney who has challenged forest plans on environmental grounds, said the right to petition courts to question public forest-management decisions should not be restricted – but that collaborative efforts can be used to create more logging opportunities.
Yet much of the evening was spent on who would fare the best in the general election, against Gianforte, and against attacks that Democrats know are coming.
“Regardless of who we pick, we’re going to hear the word `socialist’ and `liberal’ over and over again,” said Pettinato. “And the question is, which candidates are those going to stick to? A couple of people up here, it’s going to stick to them pretty well.”