Billings lawyer John Heenan has announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., in the 2018 election.
Heenan, 40, is the first Democrat to file as a candidate for Montana’s only House seat. Heenan, who registered his campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission on Saturday, said he began thinking of running against Gianforte “after the special election and Gianforte’s assault on the reporter.”
Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks in a May 25 special election called after President Trump appointed U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke to head the Interior Department. The day before the election, Gianforte bodily attacked a reporter for The Guardian newspaper and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in the case.
Gianforte founded RightNow Technologies in 1997 and sold it to Oracle Corp. for $1.5 billion in 2011. Under Gianforte’s leadership, RightNow Technologies employed about 500 people at its headquarters in Bozeman and more than 1,000 people in all.
Heenan said he had “truly never been interested” in running for office before.
“I have been concerned about Gianforte since he started spending gobs of money when he ran for governor, and then continued spending gobs of money when he ran for Congress,” Heenan said. “I see a new Copper King, using his wealth to buy power.”
Heenan made several references to the Copper Kings who dominated turn-of-the-last century politics and society in Montana, and he called himself a successor to the Montanans who stood up to the Copper Kings by passing campaign-finance reform legislation.
He decried the influence of the Koch Brothers, the wealthy financiers of numerous right-wing causes, and the Wilks Brothers, who are “trying to turn Montana into their private hunting preserve, one ranch at a time. Those are the people Greg Gianforte is supported by and who he works for.”
Travis Hall, a spokesman for Gianforte, asked to comment on Heenan’s candidacy, said only, “Greg remains focused on being a strong voice for Montana and Montanans’ way of life.”
Heenan is a native of Pennsylvania who came West “sight unseen” to attend the University of Montana. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1999, and his wife, Meagen, a native of Havre who was raised in Billings, got married a week later.
Heenan said he worked as an over-the-road truck driver for a year and then as a forklift operator for another year, before his wife encouraged him to go back to school. He did, earning a law degree from UM in 2003.
He came to Billings that same year to work for U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, and after two years went to work for the Edwards Law Firm, where he also spent two years. In 2007 he opened his own practice, specializing in consumer law.
Five years ago, he said, he merged his practice with three other lawyers. One of them, Gene Jarussi, is now retired, but Heenan is still with Bishop, Heenan and Davis.
Heenan said he is prepared to be attacked for being a “trial lawyer,” but said he is proud of having represented people against banks, insurance companies, payday lenders and debt collectors.
Of particular concern to him, he said, are the many people forced into bankruptcy as a result of medical emergencies, either because they had no insurance or couldn’t afford high deductibles. He said he has represented dozens of people in those situations.
“I really feel strongly that we just shouldn’t be a country where people have to file for bankruptcy, or worse, because they have a medical emergency,” Heenan said.
“Medicare for all makes sense,” he continued. “It ought not be treated as pie in the sky. It makes sense for regular people and it makes sense for businesses that compete in the international economy” against companies that don’t have to provide their workers with private insurance.
Heenan said he is also keenly interested in dark-money and campaign finance reform, having served, with Jarussi, as special state prosecutors in the dark-money case in 2016 involving former state Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman.
“I feel like I’ve seen how these groups operate behind the scenes,” he said. “What matters to them is power and control, and that’s scary. We ought to be ready to stand up to them before it’s too late.”
Heenan and his wife have four children between the ages of 5 and 14, all of them attending public schools. Besides being a co-owner of the law firm, Heenan is a founding partner in a West End restaurant, Local Kitchen and Bar.