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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Candidate Profile: Kathleen Williams

Kathleen Williams is the 2020 Democratic candidate for Montana's lone U.S. House seat.
Olga Kreimer
Montana Public Radio
Kathleen Williams is the Democratic candidate for Montana's lone U.S. House seat.

We’re going on the road with Kathleen Williams, the Democratic candidate for Montana’s single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, currently held by Republican Greg Gianforte.

Her campaign rig is a hybrid Ford C-Max, which she can charge with the rooftop solar panels back at her home in Bozeman. It hit 30,000 miles on this mid-July stump over to Great Falls and Missoula.

Williams’s campaign scheduler, Blake Thompson, is driving. In the front passenger seat Williams tells me she was initially thinking about running for a fourth term in the state Legislature this fall.

"I would drive around this district that I was thinking about," she says. "Then I would come home and turn on the news and I'd just get so fired up about how Congress is broken and our democracy is at risk and how we’re not getting good service. Then I thought, you know, it's the federal level that is calling to me, not the state, at this point,” Williams says.

Kathleen Williams, her campaign scheduler Blake Thompson, and dog Danni on the way to Great Falls on the campaign trail.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Kathleen Williams, her campaign scheduler Blake Thompson, and dog Danni on the way to Great Falls on the campaign trail.

Williams's first stop on this two-day stump is the Great Falls Senior Center. It’s lunchtime. The place is full and Williams gets to chatting and handing out campaign material that’s got her picture on it along with a few lines written about her personal and professional history. Nowhere does it say she’s a Democrat.

It says she’s an independent thinker, a three-term Montana legislator, and a daughter who learned at a very early age how hard it is to take care of a family member with a difficult healthcare condition.

Dana Cameron is sitting at one of the tables Williams talks to.

“A lot of these senior people would not survive if they didn't have social security or Medicare," Cameron says. "And so that's a big deal, and just the fact that the whole political ballgame right now is so negative and I think people are feeling really stressed out of what's really going to happen in our world.”

One woman I speak with doesn’t want to talk on tape but says she’s tired of voting for the lesser of two evils, which is how she describes the 2016 presidential election. She says candidates don’t often stop by the Senior Center, so Williams’ visit means a lot.

Williams leaves just as afternoon bingo is about to start.

After another meeting to talk over policy with an advocacy group for people with disabilities Williams plays with her dog, Danni, at riverside park along the Missouri.

Danni, who I share the back seat with as we ride, goes just about everywhere with the candidate.

Williams spends the afternoon at the Democratic party field office in downtown Great Falls making calls to donors. On this day she’s making her way through potential bankrollers whose names start with the letter “F."

Kathleen Williams walks to a campaign meeting in Great Falls.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Kathleen Williams walks to a campaign meeting in Great Falls.

A group of young Democratic volunteers is about to knock doors for the cause. Williams gives them a brief pep talk, and then takes a question from 19-year-old Brandyn Ulrich, a local kid who’s home for the summer between stints studying at Harvard.

“How do you approach hard questions or awkward questions, like if it is something like abortion and they are very passionate about it, how do you defuse the situation or handle the situation so it is diplomatic?" Ulrich asks.

“Yeah, so, I’m happy to pass out some of these position statements," Williams says. "But what I talk about is that I am pro-choice, personally. But what I think we need to do is make sure there are as few unplanned pregnancies as possible, and talk about how we need to move forward on that, a lot of education and availability, a lot of work with youth on opportunities to build self esteem and confidence, and ensure that they know 'no means no.' I talk about choice as important thing but also talk about my priorities. Sometimes I reference a line that Bill Clinton used to use, which is: 'Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.'"

In the Democratic primary, Williams talked more than her opponents about another heated political issue: gun control. Back in the campaign car, I ask her if she felt she needed to change her messaging on this now that she’s running against a Republican in a state that is staunchly pro-gun.

“This country regulated sawed off shotguns and machine guns back in the '30s because of their mass lethality, in part" she says. "And now technology has created the opportunity for, firearms that have incredible mass lethality. And so, I am staying consistent. It may be that it is the high capacity magazines that are the linchpin, no pun intended, on how we address reducing the massacres,”

When Williams gets into her stump speeches its clear the top issue for her is healthcare. What to do about it divides Democrats. Progressives and populists like Bernie Sanders, and Williams’s opponent in the primary, John Heenan, are demanding a single-payer system that guarantees coverage for everyone. But Williams says it’s not politically realistic.

She explained her position at a stop on this trip, sitting on the porch of a guy who runs a river guiding business in Missoula.

“Stabilizing the the individual market is a short term, immediate, kind of thing." Williams says. "We can’t wipe it out and start all over again, but what I also want to do is start moving over to a better system for everyone. Which we would start doing it by allowing people 55 and older to buy into Medicare, and then use that to create a national grassroots demand for everyone to move over. And Congress often considers themselves leaders, but in many cases there has to be a national, vocal, demand for change. And I think that's what we need to foster. And I think we can get to some kind of single-payer system faster if we invoke a change like that and let Americans tell us, meaning Congress, what they want. And that's gonna be something better than we’ve got.”

Williams is in Missoula to attend a meeting with the Montana Trial Lawyers Association. They’ve scheduled a sit-down with the candidate that I’m not invited to, but they say I’m free to attend their cocktail hour beforehand.

Among those sipping wine and cocktails in a small courtyard behind the University of Montana law school is John Heenan, the Billings attorney who some political analysts picked as the favorite in the Democratic primary. Williams beat him by two points.

“I’ve been telling all my friends that they need to become Kathleen’s friends," Heenan says. "And really, I mean, there was nuances in the primary but the reality is now the contrasts could not be starker. We get one representative. I think everybody understands the stakes and knows how high the stakes are and knows that Kathleen Williams is going to get in there and fight for them in a way that Greg Gianforte hasn’t.”

The U.S.House seat that Williams is trying to win hasn’t been held by a Democrat in more than 20 years. She won her party’s primary by being more moderate than Heenan, but isn’t really branding herself as a mainstream Democrat.

Kathleen Williams on the campaign trail.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Kathleen Williams on the campaign trail.

During one of her recent calls with a potential donor Kathleen Williams said she’d considered running as an Independent candidate for U.S. Congress, instead of as a Democrat.

The same week she took that call, her campaign dropped a new TV ad.

“Democrats also need a fresh start," the ad said. "That’s why I won’t be voting for Nancy Pelosi for leader. Instead, I’ll push to find a new leadership team that ensures that Congress works for all of us. Montanans deserve nothing less.”

Williams has dismissed labeling her candidacy as progressive or moderate. She said she is both. That being said, she tells me she didn’t see running as an Independent as an option.

“So in the case of potentially running as an Independent, there would likely be a Democrat on the ticket, and a Republican," she says. "And if I ran as an Independent, then probably I and a Democrat would split a bunch of votes and the Republican would win. So my approach is to run as a Democrat and work to reduce the hyper-partisanship. And to ensure that I put people over party, and policy over politics. And to me that’s the problem. It’s not the parties. It’s the hyper partisanship.” 

My conversation with Williams is interrupted as one of her campaign staffers gets back to the campaign hatchback after picking up a sandwich with steak fries to eat on the road between stops.

When Williams rallies her troops or makes donor calls she often says that her opponent, Gianforte, is vulnerable.

But if she’s going to beat him, she’ll likely have to tap into the voting base that gave Donald Trump a 20-point win here in 2016. Gianforte is standing firmly with Trump and Republicans won every statewide seat but one in the 2016 election.

At the start of July, Gianforte had over $1.3 million in his campaign war chest. Williams had close to half a million, although her fundraising has surged since the June 5th primary.

Williams won the Democratic Party primary while being outspent by more than 3-1 by her opponents.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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