Democratic Candidate Forum Gets Personal, Goes Beyond Policy
The five Democrats running to be their party’s candidate in the race for Montana’s U.S. House seat had a chance to do something a little different in Missoula last night.
Organizers of a candidate event asked them to present five minute slideshows about themselves before participating in a more typical question and answer forum.
The more than 800 people who spilled out of the UC Theatre at the University of Montana were shown lots of family photos, and plenty of scenic Montana beauty. Only two candidates did not include pictures of themselves with fishing poles.
The slideshows gave the candidates a chance to portray themselves beyond just their policy positions to voters who are still just getting to know them, with Montana’s primary election more than three months away.
Former two-term State Senator Lynda Moss of Billings gave the softest sell.
"So I’m here tonight to share a little story," Moss began.
Moss said her story was about leadership that’s inspired her, including that of Blackfeet activist Elouise Cobell. Moss cited experiences working with young people from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations. She talked about the importance of bringing people together to work for the common good.
"What I wanted to share with you with this story is that we have an opportunity to do good work," she said. "Students, families, friends, neighbors, policy makers can come together and really achieve remarkable projects."
Moss’s style was in sharp contrast to Billings Attorney John Heenan’s.
"We’re at this fork in the road, and it’s scary, it’s so scary to me," Heenan said. "The path that we’re going down, the decisions that are being made, I think we’re in a dark time in our country, really dark."
Heenan said he’s spent his career standing up to bullies like insurance companies, big banks and politicians who take illegal campaign contributions. He said he’s tired of Democrats losing, and that he’s bucking the party establishment to give voters a clear choice in November.
"We’re gonna win by standing for the things that we hold dear," he said. "We’re gonna win by giving voters real choices. And I’m going to be the candidate that proudly stands for funding public education, fighting for a living wage, implementing Medicare for all, right now, not later."
Heenan leads the Democratic candidates in terms of money raised. The only other candidate close to his more than half-million dollar total is Grant Kier of Missoula.
Kier’s slideshow focused a lot on his family and his work with Five Valleys Land Trust, which he said avoided confrontation in favor of patient compromise.
When the candidates were asked if they’d join the Congressional Progressive Caucus with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Kier answered, "I am running for this race to represent Montanans, plain and simple, not to join a certain club or belong to a group."
Bernie Sanders won Montana’s Democratic primary in 2016, so standing apart from him may be risky for candidates here this year. But Donald Trump won the general election in Montana by 20 points - so any Democratic candidate who wants to win a Congressional seat is going to need Republican crossover votes, too.
Kier asked party members to reach out.
"What you need to do is talk to your neighbors," he said. "Talk to the people who disagree with you. Talk to each other. Start building the bridges we need to make our country stronger, to make our democracy stronger, to really change the trajectory of our country today."
The only candidate with a slideshow that included a picture of them with a gun was Kathleen Williams of Bozeman. Like all the other candidates last night, Williams says she does not favor expanded background checks for gun purchases. All the candidates said they favor stronger enforcement of existing gun laws instead.
Williams served three terms in the Montana House, and says her current job as associate director of the Western Landowners Alliance gives her close ties to rural and agricultural interests. She says she feels a kinship with the only Montana woman to ever represent Montana in Congress, Jeannette Rankin.
"The path to victory against Greg Gianforte is clear," Williams said. "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. And let’s give Jeannette Rankin her long overdue successor."
Whitefish Attorney Jared Pettinato’s slideshow was arguably the most policy focused. It was the only one with bullet point statements, diagrams and graphs. He spent less time talking about his Montana roots than in previous forums and more touting his experience at the U.S. Department of Justice.
"If you want someone who is going to problem solve the public lands issues that we have here in Montana, I'm the one who can do that the best," Pettinato said. "I spent nine years defending public lands, and I have ideas for moving Montana forward. Ideas that'll bring jobs, that'll bring money to Montana, that'll move us forward."
Pettinato’s policy prescription is for aggressive development of wind energy, and intensive timber management which he says will prevent catastrophic wildfires.
Last night’s Democratic Candidate forum will be re-broadcast and streamed online by Missoula Community Access Television on February 15 and 17.