Democrat John Lewis Says He's The 'Work Horse' Candidate
John Lewis’ decision to run for Congress was born of frustration.
It came to a head last year after a Republican-controlled House insisted there could be no budget deal unless Senate Democrats agreed to defund the 2010 federal health care law known as Obamacare. The Senate refused.
As he watched the resulting 16-day shutdown of the federal government, Lewis said, he felt compelled to do something about the partisan gridlock.
“I came to the conclusion that the U.S. House is basically keeping this country from moving forward,” said the 36-year-old Democrat who faces Republican Ryan Zinke in the Nov. 4 election.
“We’ve got one seat in the House,” he added. “There are 435 members and we’ve got one seat and one voice there, and I’m concerned about the future of this country.”
By then, the fourth-generation Montanan and father of two was something of a professional Congress watcher.
For 12 years, he had been aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, first in Washington, D.C. as a legislative assistant and then as a Montana-based state director of Baucus’ efforts to solve problems for individuals, business and local governments.
That work took him to all 56 Montana counties. It included helping older Montanans get their Social Security checks and helping veterans get benefits. He helped organize Baucus’ economic development summits and directed efforts in 2011 to help central Montana flood victims get federal disaster help.
Much of Lewis’ life has been spent in Montana. Born in Billings, he is one of six children in a blended family. His mother was an educator, a Forest Service employee and small-business woman. His father was a land planner and his stepdad a smokejumper.
Lewis graduated from Missoula’s Sentinel High School, and in 2001 he earned a bachelor’s in political science from Western Washington University. Returning to Montana shortly thereafter, he began working on political campaigns, going door to door. It was that work that eventually led him to Baucus’ staff.
He was in Helena when U.S. Rep. Steve Daines decided to seek Baucus’s Senate seat and put his House seat up for grabs. Though he had never run for elected office before, Lewis took the plunge.
He won easily over rival Democrat John Driscoll, who offered a token challenge in the primary. From there, the campaign would get much rougher.
Both candidates struggled after the primary to distinguish themselves with the independent voters who will likely decide the election.
But the fight was on when Zinke began to run ads comparing his combat and leadership experience as a U.S. Navy Seal with Lewis’ youth and his work “helping to write the disastrous Obamacare legislation.”
Lewis, who was back in Montana when the law was drafted, has said he had no role in writing Obamacare. But he told a statewide TV audience recently that he supports its efforts to provide health coverage for working families, including tens of thousands who have benefited.
The law needs fixing, Lewis said, adding that it needs more flexibility, less paperwork and more competition from private insurers. But it shouldn’t be abandoned like a sinking ship, as Zinke has suggested.
“When I hear ‘abandon ship’ it’s ‘jump ship’ with no plan to get people to shore,” Lewis said.
Lewis also draws a line between his stance on energy and Zinke’s. Both candidates support the Keystone XL pipeline and an energy policy that calls for development of oil, gas and coal and renewable energy, but Lewis said his plan focuses more on renewables and the need to battle climate change.
The two also differ on abortion, with Lewis saying he would fight for a woman’s right to choose. Zink is pro-life, but says he’ll abide the U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring abortion legal.
Lewis has also criticized Zinke’s support for legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan to balance the federal budget in 10 years. It includes proposals to privatize Medicare and Social Security and cut Pell Grants.
Zinke has said he opposes such tactics but likes the Ryan budget as “a framework,” a statement Lewis calls contradictory. Ryan’s goal of balancing the budget falls apart without such savings, Lewis said.
As voters look for differences between the candidates they should look at who’s supporting them, said Lewis, who notes proudly that more than 70 percent of the donors to his campaign were Montanans. By contrast, most of Zinke’s donors are from California, Texas and Florida, Lewis told a statewide TV audience recently.
Among Lewis’ backers is former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, the last Democrat to win election to Congress in Montana’s single at-large district.
“John is cooperative instead of confrontational,” said Williams, who served in Congress from 1979 to 1997. “He’s a very good listener. He’s uniquely qualified to have the seat.”
He said Congress is full of politicians like Zinke, and that’s not what Montana, or the country needs, he said.
“There are too many chest-thumpers in there who want to do it their own way,” Williams said.
Lewis’ Washington experience would help him get legislation through Congress if he’s elected, Williams added.
It’s a point that Lewis makes himself.
“When I see Congress going from crisis to crisis, which is what led to the government shutdown last fall, it concerns me,” Lewis said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to change that, but I am somebody that’s willing to work with both sides. I’m solution-oriented and I put myself out there.”
In a recent TV debate, Lewis urged voters to keep that in mind as the campaign rhetoric heats up.
“If you want a show horse in this race, then Mr. Zinke is your guy,” he said. “If you want a work horse, then I’m your guy.”
--By BJORN BERGESON
UM School of Journalism