While the Gallatin Blue Wave gubernatorial debate last night didn’t lead to any real fireworks between Democratic candidates Mike Cooney and Whitney Williams, it did reveal the narratives—the value of experience for Cooney and the need for change for Williams—that each candidate will use to win the primary.
What disagreement did exist in the gubernatorial debate was understated, but certainly present. Whitney Williams continued the line of attack that has become the center of her critique of Mike Cooney: that he and Governor Bullock did not do enough to prevent the budget cuts that occurred in the 2017 special session and have not done enough to advance progressive policy. While it may be an effective political attack, it feels a bit disingenuous to ignore the composition of the Legislature for much of the past decade, when the body was filled with people who would slash government services to the bone, arm every toddler in our schools, and turn our public lands into playgrounds for the ultra-rich.
I think the line of attack underscores the real vulnerability Williams will face in the race. Williams’s critique of the Bullock-Cooney administration also reminds voters that, while the big political fights of the past administration were ongoing, Cooney was there fighting for tuition freezes in the university system, investment in public education, and, of course, Medicaid expansion. Democrats certainly didn’t win every fight, but Mike Cooney was in the ring, battling for our values.
And Williams was not.
Williams presented herself as the voice of change, arguing that Montana needs “bold solutions.” Still, she never really articulated any, using the phrase “a variety of programs” to describe what she’d do as governor when asked about funding schools, protecting Montana’s rivers, and developing clean energy. Her call for bold action and its embedded critique of the Bullock-Cooney team would be a lot more persuasive if accompanied by actual policy proposals.
I’m especially interested to learn how Williams plans, as she said twice in the debate, to “make rich out-of-staters pay” for the roads and services they use in Montana. Short of a Disneyland-style entrance fee at our airports and borders, I’m hard-pressed to think of a way to do that without imposing sales taxes.
In contrast, Cooney positioned himself as the experienced candidate who has lived in Montana and fought for progressive policy his entire adult life. While Cooney smartly defended the achievements of the Bullock Administration, I think he could have improved his debate performance by letting the audience better understand the nature of that service and the policy he has championed.
Running as a lieutenant governor is always tricky, as the candidate has to balance defense of the current administration and establish himself as his own person. More of the latter would serve Cooney well as he continues these forums across the state.
Both Whitney Williams and Mike Cooney share progressive values; both share a commitment to our public institutions; both share a well-founded belief that Greg Gianforte is “an existential threat” to our way of life in Montana. Let’s hope the rest of this primary season helps us understand better which candidate can best protect us from that threat and preserve what we hold dear.
A write up for the Senate debate will appear later.