In the years that John Heenan worked as a consumer protection lawyer, he fought cases involving medical bankruptcies and dark-money efforts to funnel cash into Montana’s political system, staving off quiet efforts to buy a preferred outcome.
But it wasn’t until freshman Rep. Greg Gianforte was facing charges of assault in Bozeman and resisted an order by the court to submit fingerprints and a mugshot that Heenan decided to challenge the sitting congressman for his seat.
Heenan, a political newcomer, is taking aim at this potential GOP rival as his campaign gears up for the primary next year and, if successful, the 2018 General Election. And while his opponent in the Democratic primary, Grant Kier of Missoula, withheld criticism of Gianforte in his interview with the Missoula Current, Heenen didn’t mince words.
“There was the assault on the reporter, but then on top of it and beyond it, (Gianforte) lied to us about it,” Heenan said. “The behavior of showing us that he thought he was above the law was troubling. As a lawyer, I’m hard-wired that no one is above the law, no matter how rich and powerful you are.”
Heenan, a father of four who lives in Billings, is one of two Montana Democrats looking to win the seat currently occupied by Gianforte. He and his wife, Meagan, are both University of Montana graduates and their children attend public schools.
For the past eight years, Heenan said, his children have crossed the street to attend class. Given their age, the practice will continue for eight more years. Maintaining the quality of their education in public schools remains central to Heenan’s campaign, as does the debt incurred by today’s university students.
“I’m very concerned about public education, both K-12 and the university system,” Heenan said. “I look at what kids are coming out of school with these days with student loans. It’s a yoke around their neck. We need to make sure kids come out of school with an education and can get a good job and get ahead and that we don’t lose them.”
Heenan’s young campaign is rooted in what he describes as fairness and equality, one that caters to Montana’s working class. He believes the nation’s political system is rigged and the billionaire class is the only class with representation in Washington, D.C.
The latest efforts to scuttle the Affordable Care Act and the new GOP tax plan are cases in point, Heenan said. He suggests that Gianforte, whose net worth is estimated north of $200 million by several news sources, would benefit from the new Republican tax proposal to the detriment of working Montanans.
“It’s a huge issue given Gianforte’s wealth and personal stake in this,” said Heenan. “Coming out and pushing for things like repealing the estate tax – he stands to benefit from that personally. Imposing a double tax on Montanans through the elimination of state and local tax deductions – those aren’t Montana values.”
Heenan would also take a different approach to Washington on health care, another issue that sets him apart from Gianforte, who has advocated for repealing the Affordable Care Act.
In contrast, Heenan said he would push for a single payer, Medicare-for-all system, saying all Montanans are entitled to quality health care.
“I’ve done a lot of medical bankruptcy cases with people and see firsthand the fallout for those who come in,” Heenan said. “They’re paying their taxes, they’re contributing to the local economy, and then a medical emergency happens. They can’t work, can’t pay their bills and they have to file for bankruptcy. Every politician should be on the side of filling holes in the net, not making new holes.”
Heenan also has a position on public lands. The issue played a key role in last year’s congressional race between Gianforte and Democratic challenger Rob Quist.
While Quist often questioned Gianforte’s commitment to public lands, he ultimately lost the election by 6 percentage points. But Heenan’s platform may be wider than his Democratic predecessor, and his work as a lawyer has often dealt with issues related to public access to public lands
It was Heenan who prosecuted former state Sen. Art Wittich, who in 2009 filed a lawsuit on behalf of Gianforte to block public access to a public easement that crossed Gianforte’s property in Bozeman.
“I’ve walked the walk on that issue and I donated my time as a lawyer on that case,” Heenan said. “I also donated my time prosecuting the Montana Growth Network, a dark-money group that was funneling money into our Supreme Court race so that it could influence the court’s stream access decision. I’m aware of the effort of these people to turn our public lands into private lands and sell them on the cheap.”
The issue of dark money and corrupt politics also ranks high on Heenan’s platform. In 2012, Montana voters adopted I-166 by a 75 percent margin, establishing a state policy that corporations aren’t entitled to constitutional rights because they aren’t people.
In passing the initiative, voters also directed Montana’s congressional delegation to propose a resolution in Congress amending the U.S. Constitution to state that corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech.
While Sen. Jon Tester has introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, Gianforte has not, though he hasn’t been in office yet for two years. That, Heenan believes, runs contrary to the direction Montana voters gave their elected officials.
“My biggest issues are issues that unite us as Montanans and things people really are concerned about, like overturning Citizens United and getting all this dark money out of politics,” Heenan said. “We voted on that issue a couple years ago, and by a 70-30 margin, we directed our politicians to take action and overturn Citizens United.
“But folks like Gianforte are doing nothing to follow the will of Montana voters. All the other junk we see stems from the corrupt influence of money in Washington.”