The two Democratic primary candidates for the 2020 governor’s race each argue they’re the best candidate to defend the party’s decade-and-a -half hold of the office from Republicans. Current Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Willams faced off in their first forum Wednesday night. Candidates fielded questions on topics including public safety, women’s health care and access to public land.
The MSU-B College Democrats and Yellowstone County Democrats co-hosted the event on the Montana State University-Billings campus.
Around 200 people arrived to hear Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams. Several attendees told YPR before the event they wanted to learn more about the candidates and didn’t have their minds made up on who they support.
A few, like Democrat Virginia Court, said they weren’t familiar with Williams before she launched her campaign.
“I am completely unacquainted with Whitney Williams, so I’m anxiously looking forward to see what she’s like, how she comes across, what her policy is, and I know Mike Cooney fairly well, and I want to see what the differences are between the two of them,” she said.
Williams has never held public office but has deep political ties in the state. Williams’ parents are former congressman Pat Williams and former Senate Majority Leader, Carol Williams, the first woman to hold the position in the state. Whitney Williams has also worked on multiple campaigns for Hillary Clinton.
Cooney meanwhile is a more recognizable face in recent state Democratic politics. He took over as Lt. Gov. in 2016, and before that served as Secretary of State and in both chambers of the Montana legislature.
Retired public-lands worker, Democrat Mike Penfold had the Republican competition on his mind Wednesday night. Penfold said he considers the current Republican-majority legislature dangerous.
“We better have a governor in there that, if we don’t get a legislature that’s got more Democrats on it, we better have a good, strong governor who can stop some of this stuff that these guys put forward,” he said.
Democrats have held the governor’s seat for around 15 years, and it’s been a top goal of Montana’s Republican party to change that trend. The GOP has held a majority in both the state House and Senate for nearly a decade.
During the forum, Williams and Cooney attacked Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, who’s raised the most money in Montana's Republican party primary race for governor.
Cooney and Williams both tried to portray themselves as the best candidate to take on perceived threats from a Republican-controlled government on issues like access to abortion services, health care for people with low incomes, and access to public lands.
Cooney fashioned himself as an experienced hand in Montana politics and someone who will protect public education, health care for low-income people, and women’s rights.
“I’m not going to let Greg Gianforte become governor. He’s not gonna to be making those decisions. I’m gonna to be making those decisions for the people of Montana,” said Cooney. “And I will stand strong and firm, making sure that women do not need to worry about losing their right to their control over their own body and their health decisions.”
Although the two candidates agreed on most issues during the forum, including preserving funding for public schools and Medicaid expansion, each tried to set themselves apart from the other.
Williams strove to distinguish herself as a new voice for Montana Democrats who will be able to apply her business background, for instance, to the issue of sex trafficking. She said that would be a top priority for her as governor.
“I’ll say that my company, as a businesswoman, has worked very closely with communities working on stopping sex trafficking of young girls by bringing together law enforcement and technology companies to help law enforcement find victims more quickly,” said Williams.
Williams runs the company williamsworks, a consulting company that focuses on public policy, advocacy and philanthropy.
Some people hung back to mingle after the forum wrapped up.
Michael Nelson, who works with political youth-engagement group, Forward Montana, was at the event in a personal capacity. He said he found it refreshing that each candidate brought a different perspective to the table.
“Cooney very much relying on his experience and his administrative chops and his long career of fighting for the issues that many of us care about, and Williams really asking us to broaden our perspective and think of new ways to tackle these challenges,” he said.
The three Republican candidates in the GOP primary - U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte, State Attorney General Tim Fox and State Senator Al Olszewski held their first debate in Billings on January 28. The primary election is June 2.