The first debate between Montana’s major party candidates for its lone seat in the U.S. House was last night. It was colored by both national politics and the very local concerns of the community that hosted it — the tiny town of Frazer on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana.
Yellowstone Public Radio News Director Jackie Yamanaka moderated, but most questions came from two non-journalists, whom Yamanaka introduced.
"Grant Staffney is a council member of the Ft Peck tribal executive board, and a member of the Frazer school board. Sierra Stoneberg-Holt is a biologist and rancher 50 miles south of Hinsdale in southern Valley County," said Yamanaka.
The candidates also took a few questions drawn from the audience at the Frazer school auditorium.
Of the 15 questions asked, five dealt with Native American issues specifically, and five with ranchers’ concerns.
But even the hyper-local questions drew responses from the candidates seeking to pair their opponents with the national campaign for president. Like this one from Juneau on whether it’s possible for tribal economies to thrive.
"My opponent has also made denigrative comments, along with Trump, around Native people and Native land."
Throughout the one-hour debate, Juneau painted Zinke as more of a self-promoter than an actual leader who’s on the side of local people.
Zinke fired back by also comparing this race to the one for president.
"My opponent has the same problem again that Hillary does: The truth doesn’t matter. Yes, I voted for English-only on U.S. government. On U.S. government documents it should be English only. Your native language, your culture is important to me, and I’ve supported it, and I will continue to support it."
The questions from rancher Sierra Stoneberg-Holt were about another top tier issue this campaign season in Montana: Public lands and how they should be managed. They actually drew out a little bit of agreement between Zinke and Juneau.
Like this Stoneberg-Holt question about the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
"Why are we spending money we don’t have to buy land we can’t afford to take care of?"
Both candidates said they like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses tax revenues from off-shore oil and gas drilling to buy land in the states for public use —like for fishing accesses in Montana, or to eliminate checkerboarding of private and public land here.
"Well, actually, I’m a great supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Act," said Zinke.
Juneau said she is, too. She also agreed with Zinke on the issue of presidents using their executive authority under the federal Antiquities Act to designate new national monuments without Congress’ approval.
"I’m not in favor of a land grab. I’m not in favor of the federal government stepping in and just saying that this is the way it’s going to be. We need to work with the people who are on the ground, the landowners, the people that have a stake in what’s going to happen. We need to bring them together and make sure we have that conversation. I do bring a unique perspective as an American Indian. I know what land grabs can do."
Juneau also touted her experience as Montana’s elected Superintendent of Public Schools.
"I have increased graduation rates to historic highs, and that’s boosted our economy by millions. At the same time, we’ve increased academic standards across the board."
Zinke congratulated her for boosting graduation rates, but also said:
"I don’t think a 41 percent proficiency rate in math or science is something to run a victory lap around. That means six out of ten kids are not proficient in our schools."
Zinke, a Navy SEAL, made the case for himself as an advocate for veterans, but Juneau said he’s been ineffective at making positive changes for vets.
Juneau faulted Zinke for continuing to support Donald Trump after Trump made comments critical of the Muslim family of an American soldier killed in combat. Zinke blasted Hillary Clinton for her comments to the family of an American killed in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound at Benghazi, Libya.
Zinke called Obamacare a colossal failure, while Juneau said the Affordable Care Act has made healthcare accessible to 70,000 Montanans who couldn’t get it before.
The last question was from tribal council member Grant Staffney. He asked them what they’d do to combat what he called “the epidemic” of methamphetamine in Indian country and across the U.S. Both candidates called for more resources — more police and more options for drug treatment.
Montana Public Radio will also broadcast live the next debate between Juneau and Zinke. That happens this Thursday at 7:00 p.m.