MISSOULA - Candidates vying for Montana’s western congressional seat have different reasons for running, but all agree that in recent years, Congress has failed in its job to represent Americans.
On Wednesday night, Forward Montana hosted a congressional candidate forum where two Republican and two Democratic candidates did their best to use 1 to 2 minutes to answer each of a variety of questions, from what policies they’d support to fight climate change to what’s their favorite Montana restaurant. The crowd of about 50 people filling the Imagine Nation Brewery was appreciative of their efforts and even laughed when the candidates sparked some more jovial moments.
While encouraging the audience to visit their websites for more information, the candidates explained what prompted them to enter the race.
For Republican candidate Matt Jette of Missoula, it’s education or the lack thereof. Education factored into many of the issues he was asked about. Better educational opportunity would help reduce discrimination because everyone could have a better chance to avoid poverty and homelessness, which causes people to judge, Jette said. He also supports educational loan forgiveness in exchange for public service, because “education is a steep price to pay to enter into the economy.”
For Democratic candidate Monica Tranel, an attorney who grew up in eastern Montana, it’s important to strengthen democracy and hold accountable “people who have a financial incentive to lie.” When asked how she’d ensure voter rights, she said she’d pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, as did Democratic candidate Tom Winter.
The House of Representatives has already passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by requiring states with histories of voter discrimination to receive approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court before enacting voting changes. The Senate has yet to act.
Having watched so much Congressional inaction, Republican candidate Mitch Heuer, a builder who lives in the Flathead Valley, said he’s running partly so he can get the states call for a Constitutional Convention that would pass an amendment to create 8-year term limits for Congress.
Calling himself “a fix-it kind of guy” who runs an engineering company, he wanted a more in-depth look at many issues, such as incarceration of non-whites, to see if there was really a problem or if it was just political hype. With housing, for example, he said it’s impossible to have equal housing for everyone because of property rights, but availability of housing could be improved through education and technology, such as using 3D-printed construction or expandable accessory dwelling units.
Winter, a former Missoula state Legislator, said he wanted to continue what he was doing in the Legislature: improving wages on the low end, and making homes more affordable by taxing the rich. He said the root of many problems is the unequal distribution of wealth. One of Winter’s bills would have zeroed out property taxes for smaller homes by taxing second homes worth more than $1 million, and he’d like to see more housing equity. He also would cancel student debt because “it’s a generational tax on young people.”
The candidates were congenial, and all said, at one point or another, that partisan division had gone too far. Tranel and Heuer even hugged after learning they shared the same birthday: May 4.
The one issue that brought out the most obvious difference was abortion, prompted by the May 2 leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion that could overrule Roe v. Wade. Tranel and Winter said they’d fight to keep abortion legal because the courts shouldn’t be able to say what a woman can do with her body. As the rare pro-choice Republican, Jette said he’s sad that the recent revelation has just made America so much more divided. Heuer said he honors women’s rights but thinks abortion needs to be addressed at the state level because there are so many bigger issues facing the nation.
All four candidates said climate change is a serious challenge. Jette said the problem is the U.S. lacks the infrastructure to make the needed changes fast enough without hurting the economy. Heuer agreed, saying electric cars require other resources that harm the environment so we should explore ideas that use what we have, such as sunflower oil instead of diesel fuel and creating an electromagnetic interstate system.
Tranel said she would expand the system of electric vehicle charging stations and modernize the electrical grid so it could better use renewable energy sources. Winter said the Biden administration has a plan to deal with climate change that could use Montana’s wind and other renewable resources.
“The tools are here. The political will is not,” Winter said. “We are running against a man who isn’t here, Ryan Zinke. He took $460,000 from Conoco-Phillips for a job he can’t even describe. He is an industry shill for an industry that wants to take over our government.”
Three Republican candidates – Zinke, Al Olszewski and Mary Todd – Democratic candidate Cora Neumann and Libertarian candidate John Lamb were not present. The forum candidates criticized the no-shows for not participating in the public process.
Jette, who’s not a Trump supporter, pointed to the recent primary elections in Ohio and Indiana where Trump-backed politicians won the Republican races. In Montana’s District 1, Zinke has Trump’s backing.
“There’s a real danger in Montana. Do not reward, in a democratic process, someone who is not being democratic, that is, they’re not showing up,” Jette said. “(Zinke) has a real shot of winning here. I’m asking you all to come over to the Republican side and vote against this person.”
Montana’s primary election is June 7. This was the second forum in the Forward Montana Roadshow. The candidates will meet again in Kalispell on Thursday night and in Bozeman on Friday night. Forward Montana is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that encourages civic engagement for young Montanans.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.