Zinke, Juneau trade barbs in Montana’s first congressional debate

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U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.

By Martin Kidston

Montana’s incumbent Republican congressman Ryan Zinke and his challenger, Democrat Denise Juneau, squared off in a one-hour debate on Monday night, taking questions on everything from refugees to the economic status of Montana’s Native American reservations.

Throughout the debate, Juneau charged Zinke for conspiring with a known hate group while challenging him on his allegiance to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Zinke, who reiterated his military background numerous times, accused Juneau of speaking mistruths “like Hillary Clinton.”

Both agreed U.S. debt was too high.

The opening question pertained to GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte’s recent comments pertaining to the economic issues slowing growth on Montana’s Indian reservations.

In mid-August, Gianforte said reservations lack a consistent rule of law, respect for property rights, and the ability of a worker to keep the fruits of his or her labor.

Juneau said she disagreed with Gianforte’s statements.

“My opponent (Zinke) has also made denigrative comments along with Trump around Native people and Native lands,” Juneau said. “I stand with tribal government and tribal economic sovereignty. We don’t need our politicians and candidates for elected office denigrating American Indian communities.”

Zinke countered, saying Juneau had the “same problem Hillary (Clinton) does” in speaking the truth. He said he worked hard passing the Blackfeet Water Compact, adding that he stood up to recognize the Little Shell Tribe.

“The truth is, I support tribes – I support sovereignty,” said Zinke. “If we’re going to have a debate, let’s talk about truth. I mean what I say and I say what I mean.”

The candidates were also asked if they would support the resettlement of refugee women and children in Montana. Missoula recently began receiving refugees and has joined the national Welcoming Cities campaign to help those fleeing violence and war.

Juneau said the U.S. military was the best trained force in the world, and American troops deserve the care they need when they returned home. At the same time, she said, refugees entering Montana and elsewhere have been vetted by several federal agencies.

Those that pass the process should be welcomed, she said.

“The framework really should be about making sure American safety is first and foremost,” Juneau said. “We also need to remember that we have a humanitarian side. There is a process in place for vetting refugees to get into this country, done by multiple agencies.”

Zinke said he didn’t have an issue with refugees. Rather, his issue stood with the vetting process. Just because refugees have been waiting in line for two years, he said, doesn’t mean it’s safe to let them in.

Zinke said he posed the question to the director of the FBI, who said there was no safety guarantee. Zinke said he introduced the SAFE Act to suspend the program until the agencies come up with a better vetting process.

“I’m also horrified by what I’ve seen in war,” Zinke said. “If I can say children and women weren’t threats, it would be a wonderful world. Four out of five attacks by Boko Horam are conducted by children. I’ve had to engage children with weapons. It’s unvetted refugees we have to worry about.”

Both candidates agreed that U.S. debt was too high, though they disagreed on solutions when asked what they would cut.

Juneau said corporations in the U.S. have a free pass on paying taxes. By cutting corporate loopholes, Juneau said, more than $600 billion would return to U.S. coffers.

While Juneau didn’t mention raising taxes, Zinke accused her of citing a tax and spend policy.

“The only way to get out of this, we have to grow the economy,” Zinke said. “You can’t cut enough to balance the budget. The only way to grow the economy is to get the government out of the way.”

Zinke was also asked why he didn’t publicly criticize Donald Trump for belittling the parents of slain U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim soldier who died in a car bombing in Iraq.

Zinke said while Trump was wrong with his words, he was still a better choice than Clinton.

“I don’t agree with Mr. Trump on a lot of things he says, but to me, it’s about (Clinton),” Zinke said. “(Clinton) is personal with me. I had two friends who died in Benghazi who were Seals, and she lied. She lied to the American public on emails.”

Juneau accused Zinke of siding with a known hate group and for supporting Trump even as most other Republicans have abandoned the nominee.

“He (Zinke) has sided with a guy who has denigrated Gold Star families, and he has not asked him to apologize,” Juneau said. “The guy he’s standing behind (Trump) has been called out by 50 national security experts as not being qualified to be commander in chief.

“Congressman Zinke,” Juneau added, “it must be a very lonely place to be the last man standing behind Trump.”

Monday’s debate marked the first of two events focused on the state’s U.S. congressional race. Both are to be held in eastern Montana. Montana Public Radio hosted and broadcast Monday’s event on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The second and last debate happens Thursday in Billings.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com