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Dems running for Montana's western U.S. House district debate in Bozeman

Graphic: 2022 Montana elections

Democratic candidates vying for their party’s nomination in the race for Montana’s U.S. House western district debated Friday.

Issues like access to health care, child care and transparency in cattle pricing revealed differences in opinion.

The three candidates – Monica Tranel, Cora Neumann and Tom Winter – met on stage in Bozeman for the debate hosted by Montana Farmers Union.

The discussion focused on how the candidates would help Montana’s rural and agricultural communities if elected to office.

Tranel, a longtime attorney specializing in energy and agriculture, highlighted her experience growing up in a small town in eastern Montana.

“The Montana that I grew up in and love is slipping away. I am running because, we in the middle, the majority of us in the middle, need to get back to being able to get things done,” Tranel said.

Winter, a former state lawmaker who works in broadband, looked to separate himself as a progressive who flipped a Republican-held legislative district in 2018.

“The things that I’m fighting for, we’re not supposed to do this on this stage. We’re not supposed to be here in Montana arguing for universal health care, for the right to an abortion, for right for you to make as much money as a white man,” Winter said.

Neumann, a public health expert who has spent most of her career in the nonprofit sector, explained what led to her career in policy.

“We lost my father from a lumber mill accident when I was a baby. And if we had been closer to good care, he may have survived. I was motivated by that to go on and help ensure that rural communities have access to the services and health care that they need.”

All three candidates agreed that Congress should reinstate country of origin labeling for beef and pork products and to require manufacturers to provide directions and software for farmers to repair their own equipment. They also agreed that teachers need higher pay.

The candidates had different takes on the lack of available and affordable child care in Montana.

Neumann, a mother of two, noted that state lawmakers have attempted to pass public pre-k programs in the past, but have not been successful.

“In Congress, there are opportunities at the federal level to unleash and to partner with states on funding for early childhood education.”

Tranel, a mom of three, said the challenge young families face to find child care persists in both rural and urban places.

“One thing that can specifically be done is reinstate the child tax credit, which lifted millions and millions of kids out of poverty immediately,” Tranel said.

The federal expanded child tax credit provided monthly payments to millions of families for six months in 2021. Congress has not renewed the program, but Democrats are pushing to do so.

Winter agreed the issue transcends the urban-rural divide in Montana, and said it’s a failure of policy making.

“We can directly subsidize child care for working families across the state. A community that cannot actually take care of its children – I’m sorry, it’s not a functioning community,” he said.

The candidates disagreed on how best to address skyrocketing beef prices and declining returns for ranchers.

Neumann said she fully supports the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act, a bipartisan bill that was co-introduced by Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

“From Congress I will do whatever I can to make sure there’s transparency, a contract library, and the ability for the public and our ranching community to have transparency into those pricing so that we can hold packers accountable.”

Tranel, however, said that proposal is not the right approach, arguing it creates more red tape for producers.

“The way to solve the problem is to make sure that we’re enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act so that when we get our cattle to market, we know the price is going to be competitive.”

Winter agreed with Tranel, but said the stockyards act needs revision. He also said Congress needs to make a push to break up the four companies that hold a monopoly on the meatpacking industry..

“They do not serve the American consumer. They don’t serve the American rancher. I’m not so certain who they serve other than private equity shareholders. The price of beef is more expensive because of them,” said Winter.

Winter set himself apart during the debate by advocating to fund universal health care coverage to address mental health care in rural places and a high suicide rate in Montana.

“I believe it is a Montana value to take care of one another and to not ration badly needed mental health care simply because your community does not have the ability to afford a psychiatrist.”

Tranel said farmers and ranchers need to be able to find health insurance that is affordable and providers that are local, or through telehealth.

“Getting health insurance when you’re a farmer or rancher or you have a small business is sometimes cost prohibitive.”

Neumann said expanding access to telehealth care is a good first step, but that it’s also important to address the root causes of poor mental health in rural places, like slim profit margins for ranchers.

“The stress, the mental health crisis that that brings forward is one of the reasons, a driving reason, that we’re losing so many of our farmers and ranchers here in Montana to suicide.”

Primary ballots will be mailed out on Friday. Voters will decide which candidate will advance to the general election on June 7.