The five Democrats competing in their party’s primary for the U.S. House faced tough questions about their electability Thursday night in a debate in Helena.
Unlike previous forums conducted by their party and affiliated organizations, questions this time came from TV journalists Mike Dennison of MTN News, and MontanaPBS’s Beth Saboe. They asked the candidates how they plan to win in November following the 2016 election in which President Trump took Montana by 20 points and only one Democrat won statewide office here.
Billings Attorney John Heenan continued pitching himself as a populist. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in Montana’s 2016 primary.
“A populist is just someone who wants to represent people," Heenan said, "and I unabashedly just want to represent people. Let me tell you who won as a populist in Montana, our (former) governor Brian Schweitzer and our president Donald Trump."
Heenan is the only candidate who giving a full endorsement for a Medicare-for-all healthcare system.
“The public, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, become increasingly disgusted, frankly, with our current healthcare system," Heenan said.
Former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams of Bozeman took a distinctive stand on gun control in response to a question from Mike Dennison. Williams has said she wants to place more regulations on AR-15s.
“Doesn’t this stand make you a target and perhaps easier to beat up on in a general election?” Dennison asked.
“Many of the people I talk to, sports men and woman, they’re in the same place," Williams replied, "if it’s the opportunity to own a weapon like that vs our children safety, they pick children safety all the time. And I’m not afraid of it.”
Williams also says she’s the only person in the primary race with legislative experience.
“So, someone who can hit the ground running in Congress, who has policy experience, I think is very valuable," she said. "Look at the Democrats who have been successful in Montana, Senator Tester, middle of the road, roll up the sleeves, problem solver.”
Grant Kier, the former director of Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula, says he’s running because he thinks there should be more new faces in politics. But Dennison questioned how he’ll be perceived by voters.
"Aren’t Republicans going to label you as a Green from Missoula? Isn’t that a recipe for getting crushed in November?" Dennison asked.
“I’m sure there will be an effort to label me that way," Kier replied. But I think my track record will speak for itself. For more than 10 years now I have left my home in Missoula and build respectful and trusting relationships with farm and ranch families.”
Kier says he has experience working with people from all kinds political beliefs and he can both stand up to and work with Trump.
“I am not here to push anyone’s agenda but Montana's agenda," Kier said. "Where there places where Donald Trump’s agenda lines up with what we’re trying to do I’m happy to work with him on that.”
Jared Pettinato, a lawyer from Whitefish, made one of his biggest stands of the night in support of unions.
“Shareholders already have a collective bargaining unit, we call it a corporation," Pettinato said, "workers need one to fight back.”
He also says as the only native Montanan in the race he as an edge others don’t.
“I grew up on Montana values, because Montanans taught me those values. I know what it’s like to go to Montana Public Schools. I know what it’s like to drive around the state. I know what it’s like to be from here,” Pettinato said.
Bozeman Attorney John Meyer was the last candidate to enter the primary race. He was asked how he expects to win by running a low budget campaign.
“Montanans believe you don’t need a lot of money to play this game, and it is a game," Meyer said. "We’re going to show the rest of the country you don’t need millions of dollars.”
Meyer was asked about his role as founder of the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, which has sued to block railroad construction and Forest Service plans for timber harvesting because of potential impacts on the threatened Canada lynx.
“Is that the person democrats want as their nominee, who could be held up as the poster boy for so-called environmental extremism?" Dennison asked
"I am not the person the Democrats want," Meyer replied. "I am an independent. Democrats need an independent thinker. Someone who isn’t afraid of their own shadow.”
Montana’s primary elections are June 5. Absentee Ballots will be mailed out late next week.
Last night’s debate was hosted by the Greater Montana Foundation.