It wasn’t a real town hall but as close as we’ll probably come to one with Sen. Steve Daines.
It was Missoula City Club, a monthly gathering of citizens to listen to speakers and discuss issues related to the city and state. There is usually an authority or two on the subject, and an opportunity to ask questions toward the end of the forum.
It got a bit feisty in the closing moments — more on that later — but all-in-all a civil affair. I have to give Daines credit for two things: he showed up, in Missoula, and he couldn’t have tailored a better speech for this crowd. There were no attacks on socialism, no “love it or leave it” rhetoric, he avoided the hot topics of the day — mass shootings, racism, health care, tariffs hurting Montanans, immigration, climate change — and made just a few references to Trump, although some of those topics were raised during the brief Q&A.
It was one of the most innocuous speeches I’ve ever heard.
He mostly touted bipartisanship and how he has worked with Democratic Senators (Sen. Kristin Gillibrand, “a good friend of mine,” and Sens. Feinstein, Warren and Tester, for example) to get bills passed.
He talked about garnering awards as the most bipartisan member of the Montana delegation and the most transparent of the class of 12 new senators elected in 2016. He did not mention which organization presented those accolades.
He showed us the cell phone he used to call Trump and lobby for Montana’s Job Corps Centers.
He mentioned a newspaper in Northwest Montana that called him a “conservative conservationist” and then went on to champion the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was timely since there were protesters in front of the DoubleTree Hotel urging Daines to fully fund LWCF. We’ll see if he does. It’s still bottled up in committee.
He said he was working to get a bill passed for funding the deferred maintenance in National Parks and added that Trump told him he’d sign that bill.
He blamed “a lack of forest management” and “serial litigation” as the cause of wildfires in the West. No mention of climate change.
There was the meth scourge, always a safe subject. I mean, who supports meth? He laid blame on Mexican cartels, and then mentioned some programs he supported, many of which are funded by Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. Daines has consistently voted to scale back Medicaid and voted to repeal the ACA.
Finally, he spoke to “accountability” when it comes to government shutdowns, saying Congress shouldn’t be allowed to leave D.C. or get paid until it balances the budget. Of course, balancing the budget will be tough when the 2020 budget deficit is pegged at $1.1 trillion, thanks in part to the massive tax cuts that Daines voted for.
Then came the questions. The format at the Missoula City Club is that each table of eight — there were about 20 tables — gets to ask a question. Unfortunately, Daines’ speech ran long so there was only time for about six questions before the event adjourned shortly after 1 p.m.
There were a couple of softballs lobbed in Daines’ direction: how to bring civility into today’s political landscape; how to engage young people in the process in these days of divisiveness and detachment.
One tough question was on how Daines could stay silent on the installation of William Perry Pendley as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, who’s an advocate of selling off public lands to private interests. The question was met with a smattering of applause. Daines responded that Pendley’s boss, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, wouldn’t allow the sale of public lands. That remains to be seen.
Another question broached the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project. Daines didn’t really answer instead saying he appreciated collaboration and was worried about “extreme interests” but that he’s “engaged” and there would be “more to come.” Daines has yet to support the bill (nor has Rep. Greg Gianforte) which was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester. The bill is stalled in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
A question on reduced refugee resettlement numbers and funding was met with a convoluted spiel on legal versus illegal immigration. He said current laws “incentivize” illegal immigration.
The topic that brought some shouts from members in the audience was, of course, gun control. His answer was uncharacteristically blunt. He will not support red flag laws or expanded background checks. Then he talked about the research he had done saying those type of fixes won’t work, and went on a rambling oratory on the background of the various shooters and whether the juvenile criminal justice system should be changed and the need for “hardened targets” (in other words, turning schools into concrete bunkers).
He praised the quick action by law enforcement in Dayton, Ohio, where the shooter was only able to kill nine people and wound 27 others in the span of 30 seconds with his 100-round semi-automatic rifle. He was advancing the “good guy with a gun” myth.
“Our kids are dying!” “Background checks!” “Doing nothing won’t keep our kids safe!” came the cries from a few in attendance as the forum adjourned.
In a way, Daines got off easy. Except for gun control, he was able to skirt most of the big issues and tried to present himself as a moderate, regular Montanan. Except that he isn’t.