This week we're publishing profiles for the candidates running for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat. Today, we look at Kathleen Williams, a Democrat taking her second run at this office. MTPR's Shaylee Ragar spent some time on the road with Williams earlier this month.
In Women’s Park downtown Helena earlier this month, around 50 people gathered to hear Williams talk about why she wants to be Montana’s next U.S. House Representative.
Williams is the latest Democrat trying to break Republicans 25-year hold on Montana’s representation in the U.S. House.
Williams ran for the position in 2018 and lost to Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte.
Montana’s U.S. House seat is opening as Rep. Gianforte leaves it to run for the governor’s office. Williams' opponent this time is Republican State Auditor Matt Rosendale.
Williams is giving voters a similar sales pitch in her second bid for the job.
"The reason I’m doing this is to be the true, independent voice for Montanans. All of Montana. Not just special interests, not just the wealthy."
Williams has tried to brand herself as an independent rather than standing close to the Democratic Party banner in this race, and the last one. During her 2018 bid for the House, she said she'd considered running as an Independent, but didn't see that as a realistic option to win.
She said bipartisanship is an art and takes discipline, and she wants to lead by example in Congress.
"Apparently, there’s a Democrat and a Republican elevator in the Capitol building. I’m going to ride the Republican one."
Williams says she has plenty of experience working this way from her time in the state Legislature.
A key bill that she worked on in 2013 and 2015 was the Cottage Food Bill, which created standards and cleared up code for producers who make and sell food from home or small-scale kitchens.
Williams was a co-sponsor on that bill with almost a dozen Republican legislators. She said that’s the kind of lawmaking she’d like to see more of Congress.
Williams also points to the Cottage Food Bill in her stump speeches as proof that she’s created economic opportunity in Montana, another key issue of her campaign. Williams said the bill created jobs when Montana was still grappling with the 2008 recession.
"We needed to diversify that economy so that we didn’t take the whole economy down if one sector had some trouble."
Before her time in the Legislature, Williams worked as a nonpartisan staffer in the state capitol. She’s also had a career in natural resource conservation, specifically in water policy, including time at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and as associate director of the Western Landowners Alliance.
Now, Williams says, more than any other job, she wants to work in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"This is the people’s house. It’s a little rough and tumble, but that’s why the terms are so short is because the U.S. House and the Montana state House were set up to be the people’s houses. Where you have to go back and you have to keep talking to your folks and that’s why the terms are so short."
U.S. Representatives are elected for two years. U.S. Senators serve for six.
During William’s campaign, she often circles back to her message pledging to be an independent voice, like in this TV ad:
[Williams]: “The Washington playbook says I shouldn’t tell you I voted for Regan while I’m running as a Democrat. That I can’t be a proud gun owner and support background check on gun sales ..."
Williams supports closing loopholes that don’t require background checks on online and gun show firearm sales.
In other policy proposals on her website, Williams says she wants to do more to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
She suggests the U.S. re-enter the Paris Agreement, which President Donald Trump withdrew the country from. The agreement requires that participating counties regulate their carbon emissions in hopes of slowing climate change.
While pitching herself as a middle-of-the road voice, Williams has avoided picking a side on one of the most politically fraught clashes in Congress this year. In a written response to MTPR, Williams did not directly say if she would have voted to impeach President Trump.
Health care is a key issue of Williams’ campaign. Although it’s an issue both Williams and Republican Matt Rosendale focus on in their race, they have starkly contrasting viewpoints.
At campaign rallies, Williams tells the story of becoming a caretaker at 11-years-old for her mother, who had early onset Alzheimers. She says she knows the importance of needing access to care and supports keeping in place the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. She spoke about it during a recent rally in Havre.
"The Affordable Care Act is what allowed us to expand Medicaid and keep our rural hospitals from closing. If the Affordable Care Act didn’t have that authority in it, we’d be losing our rural hospitals, at least a few. The Affordable Care Act provided the protections for people with pre-existing conditions."
The law creates minimum coverage requirements for many insurance plans and makes it so health insurance companies can’t refuse to cover patients just because they have pre-existing conditions.
The ACA is what pays for most of the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which provides health coverage for more than 86,000 low-income adults in Montana. Another 50,000 Montanans buy health coverage through the ACA marketplace.
Williams’ opponent, Rosendale, advocates for repealing and replacing the ACA, and notes that premiums under its marketplace have increased most years since it was put in place.
Williams supports keeping and building upon the national health care law. Another of Williams' key health care goals is to push forward a policy that could allow people to buy into Medicare at 55 years old.
After the rally in Havre, I talked with Hilary Warren. She works at the Rocky Boy Health Center 30 miles from Havre and brought her one-year-old daughter to the event. She said she’s admired Williams for some time.
"Because I think that she’s like a clean politician, you know, who cares about issues and seems sincere."
Warren said she feels other politicians put on a facade in advertisements or on stage, but aren’t the same in person. She says Williams seems genuine.
At the end of each speech, Williams asks people what questions or concerns they have.
"And careful, I do have a reputation of calling on people."
A man in Great Falls asked Williams if she would push for term limits in Congress, saying that limiting lawmakers to only a few terms could make Congress function better.
Williams answered that she doesn’t support term limits after watching how they impacted the state Legislature.
"Term limits kicked in and we had the same percentage in turnover in seats as before term limits, but it was the institutional knowledge that was getting turned over. We were firing the people that had gotten really good at being policy makers."
If elected to the U.S. House, Williams would be the first woman Montana sends to Congress in more than 100 years.
Jeannette Rankin was the state’s first and last woman elected to federal office in 1916. She was the first woman to ever serve in Congress.
Williams said she admires Rankin and that it would be "wonderful" to follow in her footsteps. We talked about it at a rally in Great Falls.
"As people bring their daughters to these events, they bring them because they want their daughters to see that they can run for Congress someday. And that someone that’s doing it looks like them and is female, so that means a lot to me. And so if I can fulfill that role, it’s really an honor."
However, Williams said, she doesn’t want people to vote for her because of her gender, but for what she brings to the table.
According to the Cook Political Report, the race for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat leans Republican. Rosendale was two percentage points ahead of Williams, well within the margin of error, in the Montana State University Treasure State Poll published last week.
Election Day is Nov. 3.