Montana Public Radio

Tester, Daines Connect With Montanans Via 'Virtual Town Halls'

Feb 21, 2017

Last week, both of Montana’s senators held virtual town-hall meetings to connect with constituents. Questions ranged from Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, to the Affordable Care Act and Russia.

Democrat Jon Tester did his via Facebook Live last Wednesday.

"It is an opportunity for me to hear from my constituents, it's why I’m doing this town hall and it's good to hear from you."

Tester spent an hour answering questions posted in the comments. A day later, Republican Senator Steve Daines announced that he would hold a town hall meeting via telephone conference call that evening. When asked on the call why it wasn’t face-to-face, the Republican senator explained:

"We’re using technology to reach more Montanans. We have a lot of Montanans who can't get to a face-to-face town hall meeting. We have elderly Montanans. They don’t have access to be able to come to a meeting like that."

During their virtual town hall meetings, Daines answered 16 questions, and Tester answered about 20. They ranged from trade agreements to foreign relations to the new administration's cabinet nominees. President Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was of particular concern.

While Daines voted for DeVos, Tester, a former teacher, said during his Facebook event that he didn't because:

"She never spent any time in a public school classroom, and I think it's kind of important, if you haven't been there as a student and you haven't been there as a teacher, haven't been there as an administrator and you haven't been there as a school board member, it kind of disqualifies you for that position," Tester says.

Daines disagrees.

"President Obama didn’t send his children to public schools either," says Senator Daines, responding to a question from a constituent about DeVos's qualifications for the cabinet position. He says he likes DeVos because she’s a proponent of charter schools.

The senator was also asked about campaign donations he received from members of Betsy DeVos' family. He said the money had no bearing on his vote.

"My colleague, senior Senator Jon Tester, he receives money from the other side. I don't think that bought his vote and it certainly didn't buy my vote," Daines says.

Both senators were also asked questions about the The Affordable Care Act. Tester said he received complaints from some Montanans about the high cost of their premiums under the ACA, but:

"To throw away the entire ACA without a replacement, which is where we're at right now, would be a huge mistake."

Daines said he wants to repeal the ACA and replace it with something else. But, despite a question about it, he never answered what that something else would be.

Daines was forthright, however, when asked about his decision to cut Senator Elizabeth Warren off during a debate over a cabinet pick. Two weeks ago, Warren was quoting a 1986 statement from the late senator Ted Kennedy. The statement called Senator Jeff Sessions — Trump's pick for attorney general — a "throwback to a shameful era."

"I pretty much guarantee you that if Ted Kennedy was alive today, he would have retracted those very, very harsh remarks that Senator Warren shared," says Daines.

Warren was later silenced by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, prompting protests both in Montana and across the nation.

During Tester's town hall, the senator answered questions about veteran's affairs, campaign finance reform, and concerns about the repeal of the North American Free Trade Agreement, also known as NAFTA. He said grain trades need to be more fair and country of origin labeling is a much. But he doesn’t want to repeal it.

"I’ve had my problems with NAFTA but we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Tester also said he’s been asked a lot about the current administration's ties with Russia. The senator advocated for an independent group, similar to the 9/11  commission, to dig into the allegations.

"Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, Tester says. "This is about national security, this is about a guy who is not a good actor. Putin is not a friend of the United States and never has been. And if there has been sensitive information that has been transferred, by this administration or anybody else for that matter to the Russians there are serious consequences for that and there should be serious consequences for that. But, hopefully that didn’t happen."

Daines said he is also concerned about Russia, but for slightly different reasons. He's worried about that country's aggression towards the United States and advocates for visa bans and sanctions. However, he did not directly address the current administration's relationship with Russia.

He did, however, criticize Tester's use of Facebook Live:

"When you want to have a discussion, if you were part of Jon Tester's Facebook meeting last night, you couldn't ask a question live. You could type in a question on Facebook but you could not actually call in live,"  Daines says.

According to the Republican senator, 200,000 Montana households were contacted for his "tele town-hall" meeting, which was announced less than two hours before it began. Tester said around 1,000 people were watching his Facebook live event.

Both senators are in the state this week due of a congressional recess. However, they haven't announced any face-to-face town hall meetings.