Daines tours Missoula brewing facility; some frustrated by lack of access to senator

Two dozen Missoula residents gathered inside and outside Big Sky Brewing Co. on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, believing Sen. Steve Daines intended to meet with them, as a press release suggested. However, Daines only met with a handful of brewery employees and bypassed the gathering by slipping out the back door. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Sen. Steve Daines stopped in Missoula for a quick tour of the Big Sky Brewing facility on Wednesday, where he declined to meet with the two-dozen people who had gathered to participate in what the senator’s office had billed as a meeting with “local officials, community leaders and constituents.”

Daines arrived early and privately toured the brewing plant before leaving through the back door, bypassing those who believed the senator would be meeting with them in an open forum.

“I was under the impression we were going to get to meet with him today, per the press release he sent out inviting conversation with his constituents,” said Missoula City Council member Julie Merritt. “That’s obviously being declined. I just saw him get in the car and drive away as he sneaked out the back door.”

Many of those who’d come to meet with the senator were told by an employee at the brewing facility that Daines had no intention of meeting with them. No member of Daines’ staff appeared to explain why.

“We feel like he’s dodged our request to meet with us for over a year now, and this is just another attempt to deflect,” said a frustrated Tiffany Williams. “I think he’s reluctant to be accountable to Montanans for the decisions that he makes that aren’t a reflection of our actual concerns. He’s just part of the group over there in Washington that’s doing what the lobbyists want.”

Those who came to meet with the senator included Missoula student Rowan Hopkins-Doherty, who left school to see Daines in person. While she wasn’t sure what she would ask him, she said she was looking forward to the visit.

Others came with more specific questions, some related to the national concern about gun violence. Just 30 minutes after Daines left the plant, hundreds of Missoula high school students walked out of class demanding accountability from the state’s congressional delegation.

“I came to ask him what he was going to do about the gun violence epidemic that’s plaguing our country and make sure he knows students, right now, are walking out of our schools all across Missoula asking their officials to do more,” said Pam Owen. “We thought this was our first chance to ask him direct questions, and he didn’t show up, again. I don’t know why you’d do that as an elected official.”

After leaving Missoula, Daines tweeted, “Great tour of @BigSkyBrewing where with savings from tax cuts they are investing in new equipment and bonuses for employees.”

Julie Doyle, Daines’ press assistant, said the event was never scheduled as a town hall. She added that he planned to leave directly after touring the plant to provide extra travel time for bad weather.

“Today we ran ahead of schedule. We try to avoid being late and having folks wait,” said Doyle. “With that being said, the Senator held an event today in Missoula with constituents. He is making stops in 17 counties this week and will be meeting with constituents in all of them.”

Those who’d come to meet the senator were left to speculate on what the senator meant by “constituents.”

“I would say this was promoted as a lie,” said Glenn Hladek. “The press release doesn’t say town hall meeting, but certainly it says meeting with constituents. I think the implication is broader than just the people who work at the brewery.”

Daines has declined to meet in person with voters for more than two years now, opting instead for so-called “tele-town-halls.” But some have panned such forums as a sham that protects Daines from having to answer difficult questions.

Merritt, who represents Ward 6 on the Missoula City Council, intended to ask the senator in Wednesday’s scheduled forum about his efforts to prevent the City Council from adopting a citizen-initiated ordinance calling for background checks on gun sales and purchases.

“As you may or may not recall, the city of Missoula was working to adopt an ordinance requiring background checks for all gun sales within the city limits,” Merritt said, reading her question outside the brewery.

“You sent a letter to the council requesting that we not hold a public hearing on the ordinance. Can you explain to me why you felt it was appropriate to stop public dialogue about an issue that was important to the people of our community?”