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2022 candidate interview: Tom Winter for U.S. House District 01

Tom Winter poses for a photo outside Montana Public Radio on Wednesday, April 6.
Freddy Monares
/
Tom Winter poses for a photo outside Montana Public Radio on Wednesday, April 6.

Tom Winter is running in the Democratic primary for U.S. House District 01. Winter is a former state legislator from Missoula. Listen to his interview with MTPR's Shaylee Ragar.

Shaylee Ragar Tom, thanks so much for being here today.

Tom Winter It's a pleasure. Thank you.

Shaylee Ragar To begin with, I want you to give me your elevator pitch for Montanans who don't know you.

Tom Winter I would say that the thing is, you're voting for a campaign. You're voting for a set of values. So it's more for people who don't know the campaign yet. And I'd ask you these questions. Do you think you deserve childcare that won't bankrupt you and your family? Do you think your grandparents deserve dentures or hearing aids? Do you think you deserve a job that pays a dignified wage? Do you think the government should do things to ensure that our towns don't burn down in wildfires? I do, and I know you do, too. And that's what we're fighting for in this campaign.

Shaylee Ragar You know, Montana hasn't sent a woman to Congress since Jeanette Rankin's last term in the '40s. Montana Democratic Party platform is to promote gender parity in political representation. I do wonder if that gives you any pause in your challenge of two women in this particular primary.

Tom Winter I appreciate that question, actually. So there's two things to this I would say. And I, for one, the world has heard enough from white men for a long time now. And so I want to approach any time, I think any, you know, seeking the approval or the votes of people that I very much acknowledge that. However, at the same time, our campaign represents something different than is being offered. And ideas like, honestly, like I was speaking about before, well, we know we deserve as Americans, Montanans, if that's not represented, I think we're, the public square loses. And our campaign is about that. I looked at the campaign prior to, of course, before announcing, and would never want to step, I'd say on the, how do I say this, I would never want to preclude anyone from being involved in the process. My entire point of being involved is so more people can be involved in the process, and you've seen that from our campaign. But at the same time, we can't allow that to be the stumbling block to having meaningful policy change.

Shaylee Ragar So what makes you the best candidate?

Tom Winter I mean, it's like what I said before. We're listening and we are speaking to Montanans, hearing what they say, and we will represent them faithfully. And when I say we, it's not the royal we. It's this idea that campaigns, politics, congressional offices, they're made up of groups of people who follow certain ideals. And I think they're Montana ideals like I was speaking about. So that's what makes me the best for this, would make me the best member of Congress, in this case.

In the state Legislature, I represented a district as a progressive Democrat that had elected Donald Trump and had voted for him plus 11 points, was held by a Republican. I didn't demonize my opponent in running for office against him in the state Legislature. However, I did draw a contrast to what was there and what was failed leadership, honestly. Failed leadership on issues that the people needed to have addressed. And in doing so, we were able to flip that district for the Democrats, but also, I think, for sanity and reason and for the morals that I think we all share as Montanans in this case. So my history of doing that, and I think, well, writing 24 bills in the Legislature, which was a lot of work as a freshman, I can tell you that. And passing four was was meaningful. And I think it does matter that you have done this before and been successful, and not only speaking to Democrats and Republicans, but also to people who have been otherwise disenchanted with the process. I really do view part of my job as a public servant to bring that trust back, and it needs to be earned.

Shaylee Ragar I'm glad you brought up that prior race in the district that you represented because you did flip that district, you beat an incumbent Republican and then you left the seat, and that, it's flipped back to Republican control. I mean, do you have regrets about leaving that seat? And I wonder if that will be indicative of how you approach a U.S. House seat. Will you guarantee to stay in that House seat longer?

Tom Winter Oh, I definitely plan to run for president seconds after being elected to the United States Congress. That's a joke, everybody. Politicians can also be sarcastic.

You know, one of the things, like I said, it's about public service. And, you know, I never want to disagree with the questioner here, but I do think there's some unfairness to the question, and I've been asked it before. I'm a young person who's involved in politics. I sold my house and moved into my sister's basement to win that election. When I got to the Legislature, you probably saw me running between different bill hearings being voted, you know, like, for instance, progressive taxation to lower taxation for any house under $500,000 in the state. Legislation that I wrote was some of the first in the country to do so. I got votes against that by Democrats and Republicans. It was a bipartisan idea to ensure that rich people stay rich. And I don't necessarily think that the state house in Helena is the answer to try and change the conversation around this. My ultimate fealty is to the voters and to my state, and I have to do and go where I believe and where I've been told that my efforts can do the most good.

Shaylee Ragar If you are elected to Congress, though, you'll be a freshman, a freshman representative in a state that only has two representatives in, you know, a much, much larger Congress. So how could you be more effective there than the Montana State House?

Tom Winter You know, that goes to I think what I was saying before, right? Congress is also a bully pulpit. You know, the congressional seat is more than just a place to sit there and try to pass laws. It's also a place, I think, to bring people into the process, and like I said at the beginning, inspire more confidence in government.

Shaylee Ragar Something about an added congressional seat that is beneficial to Montana is that the state's delegation as a whole can work together and can push for policies. So, I do wonder that if Representative Rosendale, the incumbent in the Eastern District, wins, could you find common ground with him and, where, where would that be?

Tom Winter Honestly, it's tough to find common ground with someone who votes against the people of Ukraine. I'm not going to lie, it would be tough. Having said that, if Representative Rosendale should want to work on lowering taxes for working people, making sure that people have a dignified wage, ensuring that they can be protected from climate-induced wildfires, if they can get child care.

Shaylee Ragar I want to go back to housing. That is a big issue on Montanans minds. I'd like to give you a chance to talk about some reporting that The Missoulian did on your venture into real estate in Missoula and how that you can reconcile that between policies and your personal work.

Tom Winter What venture are you speaking of?

Shaylee Ragar Like, a real estate development that you've been working on. You submitted plans for that.

Tom Winter No. This was four years ago I purchased my home and it was uninhabitable. So I had to sell it.

Shaylee Ragar Okay. So the Missoulian article is ...

Tom Winter The Missoulian article was from four years ago or five years ago, and the reporting on it was such that I was, I was interested because I called them. And it was one of those things where they said, like you're trying to do, you're building luxury apartments or whatever. And honestly, I had like a lot of Missoulians, I panicked, and I'd bought a house that I could afford, and it was a wreck and the sewer line didn't work. And so I was trying to figure out, it was a big lot, and so I tried to figure out what to do so that I could either get out of it, because it was, I couldn't afford to keep or do something. But in the end, I, you know, we were working on that downtown and I got into the Legislature and had to sell it. Like, I had to move.

Shaylee Ragar The Missoulian article was in 2019. And it does say that you had planned to develop, you know, multiple units of housing. So we just want to clarify, is that, that project is no longer moving forward?

Tom Winter I am not a developer. I do not own this land. So, it's not really a live issue, I would say.

Shaylee Ragar So it's, like, no longer, you don't own the building anymore?

Tom Winter As should be clear because I've spoken on this many times: No, I don't.

Shaylee Ragar What, in your mind right now, is the biggest issue facing Congress?

Tom Winter A crisis of confidence in the institution. We can't get anything done. Look, I mean, you know, I am Democrat. I support President Biden and I think I'm an American, so I support the president. But our inability to pass the Build Back Better Act is is one of the signal failures right now of, I say, this political generation. We have to do something. The idea that we are facing what, like I was saying at the beginning, your grandparents, you know, right now, I say grandparents because I'm speaking from my perspective. But if you're elderly as an American, you're not guaranteed teeth to chew or hearing aids to hear. As a family, you're not guaranteed child care. Those things were in Build Back Better. There was a concept and an attempt to also put in pieces of the Pro Act to ensure that workers were treated well and had, you know, I think the benefits that they deserve, as is shown clearly in Montana's labor history. You know, there was also stuff there, I think there's $550 billion to build a smart grid, which would have brought billions of dollars to Montana specifically. That didn't pass. Overwhelming Republican, overwhelming Republican opposition. I just, the ability to get some of it through our Congress, bring it to the Senate, what are we supposed to do if our legislative body cannot bring tangible benefits to the people? It shows that the system is broken itself. It's not political polarization. It's that the system is not serving us. And we need people, I think, who understand that.

Shaylee Ragar Talking about the Build Back Better plan. Right, we're seeing it in this kind of deadlock right now. It won't pass. Biden says he wants to, President Joe Biden would like to push for it again. But how, then, do you tackle as a Congress that disconnect to pass something? Like, what, what specifically do you do?

Tom Winter We have to take it to the people. We have to be the best advocates for our policies that we believe and that our constituents, I think, believe broadly, because these are broadly popular programs. How do we get them popular and in front of the people? We talk about them.

Shaylee Ragar So, current Democrats in Congress maybe haven't done a good enough job selling it?

Tom Winter Some of them do such a good job. I really do believe we have really, I think we have really effective messengers, I'd say, and representation. But sometimes also, you know, I understand why the broad electorate is also going to take everything a politician says with a grain of salt. The last 40 years have served no one but the wealthy. If you're not one of those people, why do you think anything I'm saying as a politician, why would you believe me? Everyone else has lied to you since before I was born. And I understand people's reticence. And it's actually, and I don't think it's a lack of sophistication, they are doing what they think is right. I believe that, like I was saying earlier, and I think some people in Congress also understand it, it is my job to cut through that as much as we can and to show that we can bring tangible benefit to their lives and that we won't screw them over when we're elected.

Shaylee Ragar I want to dive into some other current events happening right now. So President Joe Biden has said that no troops will enter Ukraine. But to what extent do you think the U.S. should offer support to the country?

Tom Winter Oh, I mean, I think we all saw what happened, what is happening in the suburbs of Kiev right now. They're shooting people in the streets. I, when I began this process, I should say, too, you know, I approach, especially, foreign policy with as much humility as I can. I have not served in the military. I have been abroad, but that's meaningless in this case. However, Congress has broad powers when it comes to war and where to put our money when it comes to these things in votes. I have, not only do I have to have an opinion, I need an informed opinion. In this case it's very clear that Vladimir Putin is a tyrant who is against democratic institutions. Ukraine is a democratic country. We are a democratic country. Those are, we share the same ideals. Aside, and it's insane to even say this, aside from the obvious atrocities that are going on, which I don't want to minimize. But we have a responsibility to assist another people who share our ideals and values. America used to do these things. We used to, we were, we were, I would say - how would I say this? At one point, we were radical because we were a democracy. Democracy is fundamentally radical. It empowers individuals. It leads to broad social change. I mean, look what has happened in this country in the last hundred years. It's all radical. We were radically in favor of a system that empowers every individual to make their own choices in their government. The idea that we'd abandon that right now just because it's difficult, that's not, that's not right. And so I hesitate to say, you know, specifically what we should do, because honestly, in deference to the people who know what they're doing. That's why they have hearings. That's why you have generals. But, you were asking about how much support we should give, I believe. I mean, as much as we possibly can without endangering our own lives and our own security.

Shaylee Ragar I want to also talk about inflation. So we're seeing prices rise, gas prices, groceries. I think it's on a lot of Montanans minds.

Tom Winter Mine as well.

Shaylee Ragar What what could Congress do, or should Congress address these, these, skyrocketing prices?

Tom Winter You know, I'm a Democrat and I believe also in the free market, despite how many people might call us all socialists. So one thing I would say is it's, it's not necessarily the place for us to be legislating the price of goods. However, and as I've spoken to before, people who got millions of dollars, people who have been able to utilize the, cheat the, tax code. It doesn't really matter what gas cost to them. They might even have a driver who fills the gas for them. It doesn't matter what bread costs or milk, to the really, really wealthy who've profited off of our work for 40 years. What we need is broad, broadly shared prosperity in our communities. And we're not seeing that. And the reason - this is not to skirt around the issue of inflation. We must do everything we can to ensure that the goods necessary to live your life fully and equitably in America are available to all, regardless of what's happening with inflation. But one of the ways you fix this is by enriching communities who have otherwise been, I think, taken advantage of by the people in the last forty years, like I've been saying. And that's that's a broad-scale economic package that includes tax cuts for people who are working, and, yes, increasing taxes on billionaires and multi-multimillionaires.

Shaylee Ragar Another issue in front of Congress right now is an investigation into the January 6th attack that happened last year. Are you supportive of that investigation? What do you think Congress should do?

Tom Winter I am supportive of not only the investigation into what occurred in January 6th, which was an attempted coup, idiotically as it may have been attempted. But I'm also, I'm of the belief that not doing everything we can to investigate what occurred there will not only be a stain on our democracy, on our generation, because we didn't try and defend it, but also will just lead to another attack.

Shaylee Ragar If you're elected in November, what do you hope to tell voters about your record in Congress a year from your swearing in? Can you give me some, like, specific, you know, achievements that you hope to be able to share?

Tom Winter Oh, God. I'm smiling broadly because this would be so fun. So, after a year of being in Congress, it's like, it's going to be a difficult session. It's broadly predicted that the Democrats, my party, might actually be lose the chamber. Right? so we'll be working to articulate values of Montanans and bring them to bear on a shrinking Democratic caucus and a growing Republican one. I don't think the party ID matters so much, as I've seen in the Legislature. What matters is you need to find people who can have common ground with you and concern for the same things your constituents do. And so I think one of the things that I'd be most proud to say is we have built bridges to other districts across the country. We have identified common goals with, who knows where they might be; People in Connecticut might have the same concerns about water quality as Montanans do. We need to find those things. We need to ensure that we're building bridges across the country so that our, so that our goals can be met and so that we can work hand-in-hand with others, rather than just being the constant voice in the wilderness that Montana always is. It's also, I think, articulating Montana values on the national stage. Those are things people will flock to. And I think that we can bring people along in our goals and our values to make them national issues.

Having said that as well, I mean, I think the biggest thing after a year, I want to bring home federal projects to the state of Montana. I want federal investment here. And I, you know, many, many people have said that earmarks are a bad idea. They're gone, and now they're back, alright. My caucus brought them back. I mean, the Democrats brought them back. I want to go to D.C. and I want to bring back projects that enrich Montanans. We don't have good enough infrastructure. We don't have good enough anything. I believe we deserve more. And I'm going to bring that and do what I can to boldly fight for Montana and our seat at the table and our seat at the budgetary table.

After a year, if we had any climate package whatsoever, I mean, you'd see me jumping up and down.

Shaylee Ragar Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up. My next question is going to be about climate change. I mean, can you pick out one proposal you've heard or one that you've thought of specifically that that you think could be really impactful there?

Tom Winter The thing that we must do is pass a portion of Build Back Better that allows us to have the Pacific interties, allows us to bring Montana power to the West Coast cities. It's not to serve the West Coast. It's to get them to pay us for what we have. Look, the unexploited Montana clean energy, which is wind potential and hydro and solar, is one of the greatest national security strategic assets that has yet been unexploited. We have the ability to make our country more secure and enrich ourselves in the process. We won't have to be paying money to Exxon, which does business with Vladimir Putin. We don't have to pay money to Saudi Arabia for oil. We could do it here. And it's not pie in the sky. The technology is there. The political will does not exist. And I want to be a champion as much as I can to bringing those billions of dollars of federal money home so we can exploit the things we have here and enrich our own communities as we did in prior generations.

Shaylee Ragar OK Tom, I think that's it for today. Is there anything else you want to add?

Tom Winter Well, for one, to listeners: thank you for taking the time. If I'm in your headphones, I apologize.

Running for public office, serving in the Legislature and this campaign, I don't, you know, doing it for your own satisfaction, that'd be impossible. None of this is all that fun. But I'd say that being involved in public service in the first place has been one of the privileges and pleasures of my life. And I want other people to understand that and want to be involved as well. So as we run our campaign, as we speak to people, including in your headphones or in your car or wherever, I think it's important to say and plea that what you've heard, you might disagree or you might not. You might think great, but know that it comes from a person who's earnestly trying to do the right thing by our community. And the right thing, I learned that from our community values in the first place. This place made me who I am. And I hope that, especially if you disagree, but if you agree as well, you think about getting involved. Run for Legislature, city council, even Congress. Just don't run against me right now, please. It's important that people who can translate their concern or their agreements into action. And I want to be a resource for everyone and make sure that people know that they can get involved.

Shaylee Ragar Thanks so much for taking the time, Tom.

Tom Winter Of course. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.