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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

D and R Montana House Candidates Debate Health Care, Guns, Wilderness

Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Kathleen Williams debated on Montana PBS Saturday, October 6
Montana PBS
Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Kathleen Williams debated on Montana PBS Saturday, October 6

Two of Montana’s congressional candidates squared off Saturday night for their final debate before November’s election.

Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte and Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams’ debate took place on a closed MontanaPBS set in Bozeman.

A fact check of the candidates' cliams by the University of Montana Journalism Schools Community News Service is available here.

Some of the evening’s most pointed moments centered on health care.

Gianforte repeatedly declared his opposition to a government-run, single payer health care system. He accuses Williams of supporting so-called ‘Medicare for All,' "which ultimately will steal dollars from seniors," Gianforte said. "It will ultimately be ‘Medicare for none’. Economists say that if we actually went there, it would cost $32-trillion and every American would have their income tax rates doubled.”

That analysis is apparently of a plan forwarded by Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders,by a university-based libertarian policy center. Gianforte supports expanding access to health savings accounts and association health care plans. Association plans allow small businesses to band together by geography or industry to obtain healthcare coverage as if they were a single large employer.

Kathleen Williams, who supports Medicare buy-in programs, brushes off Gianforte’s approaches as, "Little piecemeal, window dressing, ‘I support this, I support that;' but actions speak louder than words, Congressman.”

Williams then mentioned Giandforte’s support for the failed Graham-Cassidy health care amendment which would have repealed Obamacare, returned control of the Medicaid program to the states and capped the program’s funding.

Williams asserts Graham-Cassidy would have increased health care costs for seniors and scaled back Montana’s expanded Medicaid rolls.

“Congressman, you did express support for Graham-Cassidy, didn’t you?” Williams asked twice and, after getting no response said, "I think that’s a ‘yes.'”

On public lands, Gianforte defended his proposals to end wilderness designations for over two dozen areas in Montana that for decades have been considered for wilderness protection, but never attained that status.

Looking at the camera he said, “I got my marching orders from you at home.

“That’s why when the state Legislature adopted a resolution asking the federal delegation to return these lands that have been designated unsuitable for wilderness back to Forest Service and BLM inventory, and also letters from the county commissioners representing their public input," Gianforte continued. "I knew I had to act.”

Williams wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

“Just because the Legislature passes a resolution on partisan votes, doesn’t mean that it’s a grand mandate from the Montana public," she said. "Also, the time to take public input is not after you release the protections, it’s before.” 

Moderator Anna Rau asked a direct question of both candidates: “Do you believe there should be any restrictions on ownership of any type of gun or ammunition?”

Williams got first crack at that.

She said Gianforte has regularly lied about her position on firearms and declared herself a supporter of the Second Amendment. She says she’s not afraid to have discussions about how to keep students safe in school, adding she’s, "not cowed by any type of special interest when it comes to the safety of children."

A few minutes later, she offered a more specific response, “I would never advocate for limitations on semi-automatic weapons. I own two of them actually. Both my shotguns are auto-loaders and so that makes them semi-automatic.”

Greg Gianforte, as he has throughout the campaign, mentioned his ‘A’ rating by the National Rifle Association.

“I think our Second Amendment is very clear. It says we have the right to own and bear arms and that right shall not be infringed," he said. "To answer your question directly, I do not think restrictions on gun ownership are constitutional.”

Both wasted no opportunity to take what are by now familiar digs at one another. Gianforte continues to suggest Williams is too liberal to represent Montana.

"This upcoming election ultimately is about who do you want to represent you back there," he said. "Do you want someone who’s going to work with President Trump and deliver results, or someone who’s going to work with Nancy Pelosi and join the resistance?”

Williams says she would not support Nancy Pelosi in a leadership position.

Gianforte Saturday frequently mentioned his statewide tours and accessibility to his constituents.

Kathleen Williams didn’t buy it.

“So many people that I’ve talked to just either don’t know where he is, can’t reach him or can’t get a response or service from his office," she said. "I am so committed to doing that when I get to Congress.”

Libertarian candidate Elinor Swanson was not invited to participate in Saturday night’s debate because her polling numbers do not meet MontanaPBS’s threshold, a policy Swanson says is unfair.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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