Reporter’s notebook: Voters shortchanged at Democratic, GOP candidate forums in Missoula

Unless you live in a cave without television, radio, an iPhone, Galaxy, tablet or general access to the Internet, you probably know that the 2018 political season has arrived.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it started, though it’s fair to say it began last year as the first candidates filed for office. Political ads are already running on television, and the candidates from both parties are sharpening their swords, preparing to make their move.

While Missoula was largely overlooked during the 2016 general election, this year looks to offer a different narrative, and it’s good to see. The Democratic candidates vying to unseat freshman Rep. Greg Gianforte and the Republican candidates with an eye on Sen. Jon Tester have both held events in Missoula.

The Democrats did so in February and the Republicans followed suit this week. But both venues were equally flawed.

The Democrats drew a large crowd to the University Center theater at the University of Montana campus – an appropriate place to hold a forum given its ability to seat several hundred people, its acoustics and ease of access.

However, the forum’s blasé, tell-us-about-yourself-style failed the voters. The candidates took to the podium one at a time, talking about their life, their background and history. As interesting as it was, it gave little time to the issues that voters will consider in June – and again in November.

Likewise, the Republican forum was held Wednesday night in the boardroom of a real estate office, which was ill-equipped for such an event. The forum was moderated by members of the Republican Central Committee – primarily sitting legislators who offered the candidates loaded, expected and occasionally puff-ball questions.

“Do you believe that keeping firearms out of the hands of law-abiding citizens will reduce gun crime?” one moderator asked.

“The VA runs a single-payer health care system that has been an epic failure,” another moderator suggested before opening his question on veterans care.

While the media was given no opportunity to pose questions of its own, a few questions from the audience were posed to the panel – few being key, and even these were hand-picked. What’s more, any potential rabble-rousers were cautioned to keep a low profile.

“I don’t imagine we’ll have any disruptions tonight, but just to be perfectly clear, we’re a private organization and this is a private event, and we do reserve the right to kick anyone out,” the timekeeper said.

Any candidate running to represent Montana in the U.S. Senate should not be sheltered from voters by the guise of privacy.

Several of Montana’s congressional representatives who currently hold office have already made a bad habit of holding private gatherings, then boasting in a press release that they’ve “traveled the state” and “heard” from constituents.

This mindset has worked its way into legislation, such as Sen. Steve Daines and Gianforte’s bill to withdraw nearly 700,000 acres of public land from study as potential wilderness. No legitimate public hearings were held on the issue before the bill was announced, and by then its sponsors had already built a coalition of supporters who were handpicked in what one can imagine was the dark of night.

The rest of you never had a voice in the matter, mainly because you didn’t know about it.

Whether that particular bill is good or bad for Montana is up to voters to decide, but wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we should all expect a chance to participate in the lawmaking process. And we should all expect access to our senators, representatives and, especially now, our political candidates.

Missing an opportunity to ask real questions in person, or to threaten the expulsion of an animated voter for the sake of privacy, doesn’t do the voters of Montana any good.

If this keeps up, whichever Democrat and Republican candidate survives the primary will be in for a rude awakening when he or she is forced to face the reality – and sometimes the terseness – of inquiring voters; voters who deserve honest answers.