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Democratic House Hopefuls Tease-Out Differences At Columbia Falls Forum

Moderator Mark Holston pitches a question to Democratic Congressional hopeful Kathleen Williams as, L to R, John Heenan, Grant Kier, John Meyer and Jared Pettinato look on in Columbia Falls on April 28
Nicky Ouellet
Moderator Mark Holston pitches a question to Democratic Congressional hopeful Kathleen Williams as, L to R, John Heenan, Grant Kier, John Meyer and Jared Pettinato look on in Columbia Falls on April 28

With just more than a month before the June 5 primary, the five Democrats vying for their party’s nomination to take on Republican incumbent Congressman Greg Gianforte are still gently teasing out what sets them apart from the rest of the field.

The candidates generally repeated their main stumping points at a two-hour forum on Saturday at Columbia Falls High School, organized by the Flathead County Democrats.

As nuances in their stances on gun control, health care and addressing student debt emerged, the five House hopefuls also sought to prove their ability to unseat Gianforte in November. 

Here’s Bozeman attorney Jared Pettinato, who formerly worked for the U.S. Department of Justice.

"So I've got the best contrast with Greg Gianforte. Department of Justice. Confessed criminal," Pettinato said.

Forum moderator Mark Holston read selected questions from students at Columbia Falls High School and local groups like the climate change-minded Glacier350, the progressive advocacy group Big Sky Rising and Libby Democrats. The candidates were limited to 60-second answers.

Kathleen Williams is now the only woman in the race after Billings attorney Lynda Moss dropped out in mid-April. She’s also the only candidate with legislative experience, having served three terms as a state representative from Bozeman.

"I'll say that being a policy-maker, there is no training like it," Williams said. "When you are in a hyper-partisan, divisive, minority, inexperienced Legislature, that's perfect training for Congress."

Billings consumer protection attorney John Heenan continued to position himself as the only candidate who supports a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health insurance system. The others support variations of funding the Affordable Care Act and expanding Medicare.

Heenan also calls himself the only fighter in the group.

"These are all good people and I'm proud to share a stage with them, I'm proud to be friends with them," Heenan said. "At the end of the day though, my background is very different from everyone who I'm sharing the stage with. My background is, I'm a street fighter. I stick up for people against bullies."

Grant Kier, former director of the Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula, stood out on gun control. While all other candidates support some form of strengthened regulations, like banning bump stocks and assault-style guns for civilians, Kier says he can’t support a policy that would limit people’s rights without evidence that it will make people safer.

"I'm a scientist, and I need data to make a good decision,"Kier said. "Right now, because of the NRA we've refused to fund research in gun violence for over 20 years. That was just repealed. I'm calling on full funding of the CDC to do that research right now. If you look at gun violence in America, I think right now there are things we can do to make us safer faster than trying to ban assault-style weapons."

Kier ran out of time before he could explain what those measures are.

Jared Pettinato, a former lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, said as the only candidate born in Montana, he has special insight to how policies in Washington, D.C. will impact public lands and economies in Big Sky Country. Pettinato especially prickled at a bill Gianforte introduced earlier this year that would release nearly 700,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana.

"The courts use my interpretation of the Montana Wilderness Study Act because I was there and I defended it," Pettinato said. "And now these guys want to take that back, and they want to undermine those protections? That feels personal to me. I'm going to fight tooth and nail to make sure we retain our protections of public land now and into the future."

Like Pettinato, John Meyer, a Bozeman environmental attorney who entered the race just before the filing deadline in March, also sees public lands and natural resource issues as his top priorities. Meyer says he can leverage his background working for the U.S. Forest Service with his personal interests to bridge political barriers.

"I'm a hunter, so we want to talk about public lands and hunting, I can talk to both sides," Meyer said. "Talk about outdoor recreation, now the number one driver of Montana's economy. I'm a mountain biker, a skier, a hiker, a photographer, a fun hog."

About 80 people showed up for the Columbia Falls forum. Absentee ballots for the June 5 primary will be mailed out May 11. The candidates face off again Thursday, May 3 in Helena at a debate moderated by journalists. Montana Public Radio plans to air that debate live at 7 p.m. 

Editor's note: Elinor Swanson, a Libertarian candidate for the U.S. House, is the only other woman of the 16 candidates running for federal office in the November midterm elections.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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