The Democrat and Republican vying to be Montana’s next governor traded salvos during a debate hosted by MontanaPBS Tuesday night.
The debate highlighted deep contrasts between Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte on the COVID-19 pandemic, education funding and concealed carry permits in Montana.
The most contentious back and forth came during a discussion about access to abortion.
Gianforte said he is anti-abortion.
"I will be very clear, and I’ve always made this very clear, I am pro-life. I think life is precious and it needs to be protected."
Cooney said he supports abortion rights.
"Let me make my position very clear. I believe that a woman should have the right to make the most personal health care decisions in her life and government has no business being involved."
In rebuttal, Gianforte brought up the Montana Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, a bill that passed the Legislature along party lines in 2019, but was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.
Gianforte said the bill would have required that babies be cared for if they’re born during a "botched abortion." He said he would have signed the bill into law.
In Bullock’s veto letter, the governor said the bill had little to do with health care for babies, but was a reflection of a divisive national conversation. He said it sought to address a medical practice that does not exist. Bullock also wrote that federal law already protects and provides for care of infants.
Gianforte criticized Cooney harshly for being part of the administration that vetoed the bill.
"He is not only pro-abortion, apparently he is pro-infanticide, as well."
Cooney pushed back against the suggestion that infants would be deprived of medical care without the policy.
"You know that is a bald-faced lie. I resent you saying that."
Cooney said he’s not in favor of abortion, but is in favor of allowing a woman to make a choice about having an abortion. Gianforte said he’s more concerned about the baby.
The candidates also clashed over allowing concealed carry of guns without a permit.
Cooney said he would not support legislation that allows for concealed carry without a permit, saying it would let people carry guns in banks and schools. He said the largest union for law enforcement doesn’t support such a bill either.
"It just isn’t the way we keep our communities safe."
Cooney said he respects the right to bear arms and supports people owning guns to hunt and for personal protection.
Gianforte said there’s a clear delineation between himself and Cooney on this issue.
"I have an A rating from the NRA, I’m a life member. I’m endorsed by the NRA, I’m endorsed by the Montana Shooting Sports Association and Gun Owners of America. My opponent has a D rating."
Gianforte said he would sign a bill allowing for concealed carry without a permit as governor.
On education, the candidates discussed whether the state should allow for the creation of charter schools, which are semi-autonomous schools that receive public funds.
Gianforte has long been an advocate for school choice policies that create tax credit programs that benefit private schools. But he said these kinds of policies don’t necessarily work well in rural areas where public schools work best.
"But I trust parents to make the best decisions for their kids in our larger communities and I think more options produce a better result."
Gianforte went on to say that Montana ranks among the worst states in the country for starting teacher wages and he wants to change that. He said funding for teachers salaries has been caught up in red tape, but didn’t specify how.
Cooney said he would not support the creation of charter schools in Montana.
"I do not support taking money away from public education and putting it into private education, charter schools, whatever. We need to continue to invest in our public education so that our kids are given the greatest opportunity."
Cooney also said that he’d push for the creation of a statewide public preschool program. Bullock has been pushing the policy for some time, but it has yet to cross the finish line.
In talking about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, both candidates agreed that Montana needs to get its economy going again.
Gianforte blamed the Bullock administration for the economic fallout the state is experiencing after businesses were temporarily required to close in the spring. He said the rise in COVID-19 cases is concerning, but that a vaccine could be ready by January.
Gianforte said schools need to open and people need to get back to work. He said as governor he would focus on protecting vulnerable populations, "But we need to also go on with our lives."
Cooney said Montana can’t have a healthy economy unless people are healthy. He said the state needs to make sure people wear masks, socially-distance and avoid crowds to make that happen.
Cooney also said protecting the Affordable Care Act and access to Medicaid expansion would be a key part of his response to the pandemic.
"Cutting health care in the middle of a pandemic is just not what is right for Montana in order to get this economy going."
Election Day is Nov. 3. Mail and absentee ballots go out on October 09.