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Dem House candidates get down in Missoula

The five candidates hoping to become the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives met in Missoula last night.

With a name straight out of a Pokémon movie, the forum started with a unique format: PechaKucha. It’s popular in Japan and consists of 20 slides with a 20 second description of each slide. Candidates got to choose the subject matter.

It challenged the candidates to think outside the box. All rose to the occasion. Here are my observations:

The biggest surprise for me was Kathleen Williams of Bozeman. She adapted the best to the 20×20 format, telling her “story of self” (a term coined by the great political organizer Marshall Ganz). Hers was the most poignant: at an early age, having to care for a mother with alzheimer’s, and then the loss of her husband in a skiing accident.

She went on to describe the role of powerful women and evoked the name of Jeanette Rankin, to much applause. As a former Montana legislator, she pointed to her work on health care, women’s rights and the environment, saying she has “the strongest progressive record” (although John Heenan, in my mind, has the most progressive platform of the lot.)

I’d like to think that a woman would be a great foil to incumbent Greg Gianforte but superb Democratic women candidates have not fared well in Montana’s federal races, it’s sad to say, so that’s a quandary. Could 2018 be the year this practice goes down?

Before the forum started, I saw Heenan and Grant Kier as the Tier A candidates. I believe Williams could be a contender in the primary, although she got in late and is trailing in fundraising.

Lynda Moss of Billings, also a former legislator, was perhaps the most philosophical. “We are brothers and sisters and we can come together,” she said. She spoke of unity and often mentioned her inspiring relationship with Montana Tribes and her work bringing disparate communities together: “It gives me hope for the world.”

In her closing statement, she quoted poet Richard Hugo saying we need “a window, not a wall.” I liked Moss’ soft sell approach but she, too, got into the race late and is underfunded.

Jared Pettinato from Whitefish, now living in Bozeman, admitted that his presentation was the most wonkish — slides that showed electrical transmission stations and sites for wind farms. That was his pitch. Wind generation that would bring jobs to the state and income from the sale of electricity. That, and forest management, which would reduce wildfires and increase jobs in the timber industry.

He spoke of his background in the U.S. Department of Justice, principally on public lands litigation, and that with his experience he claimed he could beat incumbent Greg Gianforte and would then hit the ground running. And although his closing speech was one of the more passionate, I see him as an outlier. At this point, he hasn’t shelled out the $1740 to file for the seat, as have the others. (Candidates have until March 12.)

Former Five Valley’s Land Trust Director Grant Kier of Missoula spoke of his work bridging the “urban/rural” divide. Using slides of his family and then Montana landscapes, he pointed to his collaboration with ranchers and farmers to preserve lands for future generations.

He, along with Heenan, was the most aggressive at attacking Gianforte, “a New Jersey Republican” who was divisive and used “hate as a form of leadership.” Kier said it was important to do outreach to friends and neighbors, and start building bridges to find solutions to the problems facing our state and country.

Billings attorney John Heenan has spent his career representing consumers against “bullies,” a clear reference to Gianforte, and holding “powerful corporations, banks and insurance companies accountable.”

Getting dark money out of politics is one of his major planks and he spoke of his court battle against the disgraced former Republican state Sen. Art Wittich. Heenan also said he wasn’t a party insider: “no one in Helena selected me to run.” He’s not using their playbook, he said, which hasn’t gotten a Democrat elected to the U.S. House for 20 years. “I’m tired of (Democrats) losing.”

Heenan was the first to enter the race and has the largest war chest, followed by Kier.

So what are the differences in the candidates? There are definitely more similarities: all are strong supporters of unions, of public education, of clean energy, as was revealed in the Q&A after the PechaKucha (I love that word).

And all five, to my great disgust, said they didn’t support expanded background checks for weapon purchases. They basically mimicked Republican talking points about enforcing current laws and tackling mental health issues. Others at the forum share my disappointment.

In perhaps the most telling response, Williams, Moss and Pettinato skirted the question on whether they’d join the Congressional Progressive Caucus, while Heenan said he would and Kier said he “wasn’t going to join a certain club or belong to a group.”

Heenan also said he would push for Medicare for all and living wage legislation. I don’t recall the other candidates broaching health care except for Kier, who said, “I heard the same story from an entrepreneur in the Fathead Valley, and I’ve heard from our rural communities that a tax on Medicaid expansion and public service programs that fund our rural hospitals is threatening to close those rural hospitals and, along with it, destroy the integrity of our rural communities.”

(I poached Kier’s quote, above, from Martin Kidston’s story as my note taking ebbed. Here’s his article in the Missoula Current. And here’s the Missoulian’s take, an MTPR piece and MCAT will be rebroadcasting the event. Check for the schedule.)

It was standing room only, which makes sense considering Missoula County has more Democratic voters than any other Montana county. And it was an important night for the candidates now that it’s getting down to the nitty-gritty. The question on everyone’s mind was which one has the best chance of defeating Gianforte. For many, this has yet to be resolved.








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About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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