Impressions from the Gallatin Blue Wave Democratic Gubernatorial Debate Last Night

Photo by Don Pogreba

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. 

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • Ms. Williams clearly has no understanding of how government works. The Bullock and Schweitzer administrations greatest contributions were the vetoes of countless idiotic republican bills. Just stopping most of the crazy was a major accomplishment. The expansion of Medicaid was a huge benefit to our rural hospitals not just low income folks.
    Additionally, she has no clue that our roads are paid for by the fuel tax which the Bullock administration managed to get increased for the first time in over 20 years. We have too many legislators who don’t know how government works. We don’t need a Governor who doesn’t know it either. There is no “That Was Easy” button on the Governor’s desk. Mike Cooney has the necessary experience and skills to be a successful Montana Governor. Ms Williams simply does not. Don’t waste your vote. We certainly cannot afford to have Gianforte rubber stamp the ALEC written bills the republicans will flood the session with.

    • Cooney?

      If he was going to be elected Governor, it would have happened before now.

      I think of him as a little ‘Mondale’ who the Dems won’t mind sacrificing because his political future is over.

      All these candidates are strictly second string.

      • Mike Cooney. A “little Mondale?” Man, what drugs are you on and why aren’t you sharing? It is obvious that you don’t like the man and that you’re one of the crazies that are walking around here. Steve and Mike’s record in office seems like a winner to me. My only beef with them is that they didn’t take a baseball bat and started cracking legislative heads when the were sending all of that crazy shit to the governor’s desk. Sigh. Sure wish Brian was still around. He’d sick Jag on ya. That would be fun.

  • That does it. Mike’s my guy. Williams sounds like Barack Obama in a skirt. Don’t know about you but I don’t like being made a fool of. Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I got suckered once. Never again.

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