Five Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination and the chance to challenge freshman Rep. Greg Gianforte this November took turns at the podium on Thursday night, introducing themselves to a packed house at the University of Montana.
The lighthearted format gave each candidate equal time at the podium to address voters. Some took the opportunity to discuss policy issues while others detailed the path that led them to enter the race.
With several hundred people in attendance, few of the candidates mentioned their potential Republican opponent by name, though nearly all pointed to a dysfunctional Congress, which they contend has lost touch with Montana voters and the issues back home.
Congressional candidate Grant Kier presented himself as a problem solver, willing to work through differences to find solutions for Montana – a place where the people have an “extraordinary ability” to get things done.
Kier said the country needs those values in Congress and not those of Gianforte, a New Jersey Republican who uses “division and hate” as a form of leadership.
“Working across the urban-rural divide, we have extraordinary abilities in Montana to get things done,” Kier said. “Over and over again, we accomplish things we didn’t think were possible. Our country needs that from us right now. We have so much to teach this country.”
Kier entered the race last year after leaving his job as executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, a position that required him to find solutions between stakeholders representing different backgrounds.
A scientist by trade, Kier said he knows the definition of hard work and has seen firsthand Washington’s failure to invest in the nation’s future, its people and its infrastructure.”
“There’s more that unites us than divides us across the urban-rural divide,” Kier said. “We don’t have a congressman that understands that unity. He uses division and hate as his form of leadership. If he were listening to Montanans right now, he would hear what I’m hearing.”
Like the other candidates, Kier applied a personal touch to his pitch, saying he was raised by a single mother who was often forced to chose between buying groceries and paying rent.
Kier was one of just two candidates to reference health care and job. He did so by describing the business owners he’d met in his travels across the state.
“I heard the same story from an entrepreneur in the Fathead Valley, and I’ve heard from our rural communities that a tax on Medicaid expansion and public service programs that fund our rural hospitals is threatening to close those rural hospitals and, along with it, destroy the integrity of our rural communities,” he said.
John Heenan portrayed himself as an outside candidate who wasn’t selected by the Democratic Party establishment in Helena – a fact he accepts as a token of pride.
Heenan said he’s forgone the party’s playbook and its insistence that he spend his time on the telephone calling wealthy donors, asking them to float his campaign.
“I’m not the establishment candidate in this race,” Heenan said. “No one from Helena selected me to run. I’m proud of that. We’re trying a new playbook.”
Heenan didn’t mention his potential Republican opponent by name, though he referenced Gianforte as the state’s “only representative in Congress.” Heenan said he’s dealt with “guys like this all day long” in his line of work as an attorney.
“Arrogant executives, greedy CEOs and people that bend the rules or think they’re not accountable because of power and money,” Heenan said. “I hold them accountable, and that’s why I’m running.”
Heenan opened his six-minute presentation detailing several cases he’s worked over the years representing clients he referred to as underdogs. They were families wrongfully foreclosed upon by powerful banks and women who lost their husbands to impaired drivers, only to see their insurance company shut the doors when it came time to pay the claim.
In each case, Heenan said, the clients were wronged by powerful corporations, banks and insurance companies – institutions that pray on Montanans who don’t have the means to fight back.
Heenan said he’s also fought similar battles against state Republicans, including Art Wittich, who was found guilty of violating Montana’s campaign laws.
“It’s an issue that’s of paramount concern to me – dark money in politics,” Heenan said. “My background is different. I’ve fought for working Montanans my entire career.”
Lynda Moss, a former state senator from Billings, evoked the spirit of Sen. Mike Mansfield, his blue-color background and his rise to the U.S. Senate. She also noted Elouise Cobell, Joe Medicine Crow and other groundbreaking Native Americans.
Crow, she said, was one of the last Crow chiefs who told stories of counting coups as a soldier in a World War.
“These stories are stories of leadership and success,” said Moss, who spoke little of policy and current affairs but rather, her perception of unity. “There have been convenings across the country in Montana, in Seattle, in Minneapolis, to bring together communities in our region – communities from Indian County, leaders of Native nonprofit organizations to work on remarkable projects.”
Through such meetings and convenings, Moss said, great ideas “bubbled up.” Contrasted with the “dysfunctional nature” of Washington, D.C., she asked the audience to remember the remarkable things happening in Montana and the world.
A few years ago, Moss added, she traveled with a group of Cheyenne students to New York and Argentina, forming friendships that spanned cultures and countries.
The students served as ambassadors, she said.
“We are brothers and sisters and we can came together,” Moss said. “We can do remarkable work together.”
Moss said she also served as a private adviser at the United Nations when the Declaration of Indigenous Rights was read to the assembly. It was, she concluded, a powerful moment.
“We have an opportunity to do good work,” she said. “Students, families, friends, neighbors and policy makers can come together to achieve remarkable projects.”
Describing herself as the daughter of a World War II veteran, former state representative Kathleen Williams outlined her journey from her home in Oklahoma to the U.S. Navy and, eventually, Montana.
Along the way, she she also drove home a message of powerful women, including Montana’s own Jeannette Rankin, the first American female ever elected to federal office.
“Let’s give Jeannette Rankin her long overdue successor,” Williams said. “The path against Greg Gianforte is clear. Let’s nominate the candidate with the strongest progressive record, who can also work across the aisle, roll up her sleeves and get things done for Montana.”
Williams traced her own path to public office, going back to her mother who lost her memory and passed away when Williams was a child. She would later focus her studies on resource economics before landing a job in Montana, a place she described as home.
Williams served several terms in the state Legislature, though she and her husband chose to take time off. Shortly after making that decision, her husband passed away in a skiing accident.
Recounting the story, Williams highlighted her own legislative record, saying she was the right choice for the Montana Democratic Party’s nomination and its looming campaign against Gianforte.
“I spent three years in the state Legislature where I worked to improve health care access and affordability, protect our lands and water, and create opportunities for Montana’s working families,” Williams said. “We expanded Medicaid, fought for women’s rights, and non-discrimination.”
Stanford Law School graduate and former U.S. Department of Justice employee Jared Pettinato detailed his goals for the office, highlighting opportunities found in the state’s wind and timber resources.
Hearkening images of Montana’s outdoor economy, Pettinato described a vision he dubbed “the wind an the trees,” each capable of creating jobs and energy.
“To me, this race isn’t about us – this race is about you all,” he said. “It’s about Montana and moving Montana forward. I have ideas about moving Montana forward and bringing good jobs into Montana, expanding the infrastructure and bringing Montana into the future.”
To do so, Pettinato pointed to the state’s wind resources. Washington and Oregon both have renewable energy targets and Montana’s wind could serve as the “next treasure the Treasure State has to offer,” he said.
“We can bring that money to rural Montana and create good-paying industrial jobs that will help lift up rural Montana,” he said. “There’s new technology that allows us to move energy. That will help Montana wind farms and wind energy compete with energy sources in Washington and Oregon.”
Tapping the state’s wind potential would go far in growing the state’s economy, putting money into Main Street businesses, Pettinato believes. He also noted the state’s forest economy, though he admitted it was more complicated.
“We can use the money that grows on trees to manage the forests to reduce high severity wildfires,” he said, citing the 2017 fire season and recent statistics. “It grows jobs, cleans up the forest, makes the forest healthier for the trees, the wildlife and the people who want to use them. We can do this all without spending taxpayer dollars.”