On the day President Trump visited Missoula, his third to Montana to stump for Republican Senate-hopeful Matt Rosendale, his Democratic opponent, Sen. Jon Tester, was in Butte with veterans of all political stripes.
On Thursday afternoon, the floor and balcony of the Copper Bowl Ballroom at the historic Finlen Hotel in uptown Butte were filled with about 40 men and women wearing a blend of military uniforms, medals and badges, VFW hats, and holding “Veterans for Tester” signs. About 20 of them were on stage forming a wall behind incumbent Sen. Jon Tester, who said:
“One of the most sacred priorities that we have in this country, and the United States Senate, is to make sure this country lives up to the promises that we make each and every one of our veterans.”
Sen. Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, represents a state with the second highest per capita veteran populations in the country - about one in 10.
He rattled off the bi-partisan accomplishments of the Committee. Most notably passing the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act last year, and the VA Mission Act this year - which is aimed at improving veterans’ access to healthcare.
Tester said his opponent, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, “doesn’t have a clue about” veterans issues, and Montana needs someone who’s going to fight for “more doctors, more nurses, for more VA facilities. Who will fight for benefits for veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange or toxic substances. And I will never ever, ever, ever stop fighting for every Montana veteran until they receive the benefits that they have earned.”
Eileen Greb echoed that sentiment. She said those benefits were won with blood sweat and tears.
“I’m here to support Jon Tester for the U.S. Senate in case anybody has any questions about that.”
Greb, a retired lieutenant commander, was part of the Navy Nurse Corps in Vietnam and has been an RN for more than 50 years.
She said foremost among the many reasons she supports Jon Tester is that he helped find federal funding for the Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte - something Rosendale voted against as a state lawmaker. It’s a project she, and Tester, have been working to make a reality for years.
And she wants folks “to realize that he has stood up for us and now it is time for us to stand up for him. Get out there and vote!”
When asked if this was the toughest race in his political career, Sen. Tester said “they’re all tough”, and this one, against Matt Rosendale, is no different.
As for his current dynamic with President Trump, Tester said he gets his good ideas from Montanans, brings them to like-minded members of Congress, and hopefully they get to the West Wing.
“In the case of the Missions Act, the Accountability Act, the Appeals Backlog Act - I mean there’s a bunch of bills we put on the President’s desk. We appreciate him signing them. And we thank him because it's the right thing to do for our veterans. So that’s the relationship,” Tester says.
Outside the hotel after the press conference ended, I caught up with Mick Ringsak, who had spoken at the podium earlier. He’s a distinguished Vietnam veteran, retired businessman and lifelong Republican.
Nora Saks: “I’m curious, how do you square your support with President Trump, while President Trump is out backing Matt Rosendale, Senator Tester’s opponent, especially on veterans’ issues?"
Mick Ringsak: “Well, we all make mistakes and he probably doesn’t know Jon’s record.”
Ringsak said he has to go to the VA more than he’d like, and he supports people on the ground working there. But Tester’s bi-partisan Accountability Act has made a big difference in improving the management of the VA, and to him, that’s what matters most.
“Well I like to stay on the sunny side of the street. And I am so sick of all these negative campaigns that I really don’t want to comment on it," Ringsak says. "But it’s real obvious where Jon has been for the 12 years and before in his support for veterans. And he’s probably the best advocate veterans have in the entire United States Senate.”
Sen. Tester said he would not be watching or attending President Trump’s rally in Missoula. Instead, he jumped into an SUV headed for Billings, on his way to meet with a bunch of teachers.
Election day is Tuesday, November 6.