The day after Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he was retiring, an audience of 150-some energized people listened to six Democratic congressional primary candidates sound off Thursday night at the Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings.
The biggest bursts of applause came in response to predictions of the electoral defeat of U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the first-term Republican whom the candidates are competing to run against, and of possibly wresting control of the House from the GOP.
The 90-minute event was billed as a debate, but moderator Chuck Tooley, a former Billings mayor, more accurately characterized it as a forum, since each candidate spoke in turn without directly addressing any of the other candidates. The forum was sponsored by the MSU Billings College Democrats and Billings West High School Democrats, in partnership with the Yellowstone County Democratic Central Committee.
John Heenan, a Billings trial lawyer making his first run for public office, appeared to be the crowd favorite, beginning with the notably louder clapping and cheering that accompanied his introduction.
Heenan also took the lead in going on the offensive against Gianforte, attacking him directly more than any of the other candidates. In his opening remarks, Heenan said bipartisanship had its limits.
“I don’t want to collaborate with people who want to destroy the things I hold dear,” he said.
That line was in reference to the words spoken a little earlier by the only other candidate from Billings, former state Sen. Lynda Moss, who told the audience, “I’m not a street fighter … I’m a collaborator.”
Moss came across as calm, quiet and thoughtful. She may have scored her best points in answer to a question about foreign-policy priorities, when she focused on the issue of climate change, saying it was something that made every other foreign-policy challenge more fraught.
She said people need to be brought together “to make the United States a world leader” in fighting climate change.
Grant Kier, who left his job as executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula to enter the congressional race, cast himself as someone willing to work with people in both parties, but he didn’t hold back in his criticism of Gianforte and President Donald Trump.
He called Trump’s trade war initiatives “a disaster for Montana” and he said ending the nuclear deal with Iran would seriously undermine hopes of reaching a nuclear-arms agreement with North Korea.
Kathleen Williams, a former state representative from Bozeman, made much of her policy expertise inside and outside of the Legislature. She said the Montana Legislature, before term limits were enacted, was an institution that worked.
Now, she said, the Legislature is broken and dysfunctional, just like Congress. She said she has the background to go to Washington and help make it work again. She pointed out that it has been 101 years since Montana sent the first woman to the U.S. House, and that it has not done so since then.
“It’s time Jeannette Rankin had a successor,” she said.
The most enthusiastic candidate was surely Jared Pettinato, who fairly leapt from his chair to answer each question, booming out his ideas and slogans so vehemently that a microphone seemed superfluous.
Pettinato, a lawyer from Whitefish now living Bozeman, kept coming back to the two themes printed on his business card — wind and trees, the wind he would harness for renewable energy and clean jobs, and the trees he would selectively thin to reduce the danger of fire and create new jobs.
He billed himself as the only native Montanan in the race and directly attacked Gianforte on the issue of public lands, saying, “We need to take our public lands back from that guy.”
The sixth candidate, John Meyer of Bozeman, and the last to join the race, was low-key almost to the point of parody, speaking slowly and softly and reading from notes that he was scribbling during each round of questioning.
A public lands lawyer who represented the Northern Plains Resource Council on a lawsuit that invalidated the construction permit for the $550 million Tongue River Railroad, Meyer was unfailingly demure — until he suddenly let loose with the most startling quote of the evening.
Asked whether agencies charged with protecting and maintaining public lands are adequately funded, Dewey answered in general terms before adding, “There’s no way I would ever let any of these fuckers take over our public land.”
For just a moment, the other candidates looked like the Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential primary debates, exchanging looks of alarm and bewilderment as Trump made his latest assault on traditional rules of decorum.
That aside, the candidates said nothing startlingly new, having honed their debating skills after months of barnstorming across the state — the biggest House district in the nation by population, and the second-largest by area.
On the issue of health care, Pettinato had two suggested fixes: reduce the cost of drugs by capping charges at the lowest rate charged elsewhere in the developed world, and pay people a $200 bonus for joining health-care exchanges.
Meyer suggested having all health-care companies converting from for-profit to nonprofit entities, so that the $40 million bonuses to CEOs could be spent instead on reducing costs of care.
Heenan kept it even simpler, advocating “Medicare for all” — and sending someone to Congress with “no strings attached,” in terms of campaign contributions from health-careproviders.
Williams said she would encourage the movement toward a single-payer system by allowing anyone 55 or older to buy into Medicare, and she would ensure adequate funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and for rural health care.
Kier vowed to protect every remaining component of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, and said that ultimately universal coverage “is our responsibility.”
Moss was somewhat more circumspect, saying that “universal health care is an aspirational goal,” and then lauding what Billings is already doing — creating a pipeline of medical students-cum-doctors through RiverStone Health, and health-care innovation throughout Billings’ expansive health-care sector.
The candidates had an easy time critiquing, and condemning, Trump’s erratic moves on trade sanctions and protective tariffs. After Heenan said he “respectfully” disagreed with Trump’s actions, Williams said, in reference to the president, “What an idiot, right?”
The questions were solicited over a period of two weeks by the MSU Billings College Democrats, Tooley said, and as such they came “from young adults and those who care about them.” Which would seem to suggest that people of all ages are concerned about the same issues.
The primary is June 5. Whoever wins the Democratic primary will run against Gianforte in the Nov. 6 General Election.
The forum was livestreamed on Facebook and can be viewed on the college Democrats’ Facebook page.