Impressions from the Gallatin Blue Wave Democratic Senate Debate Friday Night

Photo by Derek Ivester

The Friday night debate between the five candidates who’ve announced in the Democratic primary for Senate offered more contrast between the candidates than the gubernatorial event, an excellent array of shots at Senator Daines, and a clear indication that we’re going to need more opportunities to get to know these candidates before we vote in June.

Debating on Friday night at the event put on by the Gallatin County Democrats were Loma engineer and rancher John Mues Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, Bozeman public health advocate Cora Neumann, math tutor Michael Knoles, and Bozeman fly fishing guide Josh Seckinger.

SOME KEY POLICY QUESTIONS

While the event did not elicit huge differences between the two candidates, a few critical policy questions showed both the values and political calculations that will drive the candidates.

The first question of the night was on healthcare. Answering first, Mues argued that while he believes healthcare is a human right, Democrats should not get locked in the framework of demanding a particular policy Medicare for All or the public option (while supporting either if the conditions are right), but should be willing to take whatever incremental steps that “will move the ball down the field.” Collins defended the idea of health care as a human right, said he supports the Affordable Care Act and was open to the public option or Medicare for All. Neumann did not answer whether she believes healthcare is a human right and only indicated that she was willing to “look into” the public option after initially saying she would vote for one. While Knoles did not address the specific policy question, he argued that we need to be reminded of the words of the Founders, who called for an “inalienable right to life.” Finally, Seckinger, who noted he was likely the only candidate to have purchased healthcare on the exchange, said he was in favor of the public option as a transition to Medicare for All.

A question on the minimum wage also revealed distinctions. Mues called for a $15 living wage, but noting that small businesses would suffer from higher costs, called for the development of subsidies to help them adjust. Both Collins and Seckinger supported a $15 minimum wage with increases for inflation, with Collins noting that “the stock market isn’t the economy.” Knoles indicated that he opposed the minimum wage, preferring the universal basic income plan that is at the center of his campaign. Neumann was the sole candidate who didn’t endorse a living wage, rejecting a “blanket increase to $15.”

The candidates also shared different views on the student loan crisisMues argued that 1/3 of the debt should be retired, 1/3 should be paid by students, and 1/3 should be retired for those who complete community service. Collins, noting that he understands loans as a parent and student, endorsed the Warren plan, which would cancel debt for 95% of borrowers up to $50,000 each. Neumann called for “partial” debt forgiveness, while Knoles touted his plan for universal basic income to solve the problem, and Seckinger, without specific details, argued that college students should be “debt-free.”

When asked what the most important foreign policy issue facing the nation was, Neumann had her best answer of the night, arguing that the despair our children feel about their future in a world ravaged by climate change demanded a response. Knoles argued that we needed to get a better leader of the United States. Seckinger suggested that we needed to end the 2002 Authorization the Use Military Force that he said could easily lead to President Trump “getting the US in a war with Iran.” Mues, noting his military and intelligence experience, agreed with the need to change the AUMF and argued that the American and global shift towards authoritarianism had to be checked. Finally, Collins argued that President Trump was the greatest threat, having undermined trust in the U.S. across the globe.

PRESENTATION AND DEMEANOR

Events like these offer voters more than a chance to learn about policy differences; they also serve an important measuring stick to evaluate how effectively the candidates present themselves.

John Mues was the most substantive candidate most of the night, offering specific policy answers to almost all of the questions posed. He demonstrated a natural command of the stage, but perhaps suffered more than any other candidate due to the last-minute decision to shorten answers from 90 seconds to 60. And while I think it’s certainly part of his message for the campaign, his closing statement was a misstep: his suggestion that he was the only candidate who could win against Senator Daines came across quite harshly and elicited an audible negative reaction from the crowd.

Wilmot Collins was charismatic throughout the event and landed the best line of the evening when he closed by asking calling out Senator Daines for his deference to President Trump and asking the audience to “imagine a Montana with two Senators” who will fight for health care, public lands, and the safety of Native women. The condensed answers seemed to affect him at times, though, as he rushed over some policy answers like his very sensible plan to end the cap on Social Security taxes that ends collection after $137,700. His answers, though, we the most assertive in defending core progressive values.

Cora Neuman was certainly perhaps the most polished speaker at the event, both to her benefit and detriment. She’s a natural, confident speaker and was at her best when talking about her compelling biography and job experience, as well as the issues in which she has a deep well of knowledge. On other questions, though, her tendency to pivot away from the question asked, present generalities, and avoid the central thrust of the question was frustrating.

Neither Michael Knoles nor Josh Seckinger was really ready for a debate to run for the US Senate, but each, I think surprised the audience with answers that were, for Knoles, often quite passionate and personal, and for Seckinger, occasionally quite specific, like his position on the royalty rate for minerals taken from federal lands. Knoles won repeated applause for his calls for improved access to mental health care and a universal basic income, and, after a rough start, Seckinger won the audience over with his personable and self-effacing answers.

Apologies for the delay in posting this. The demands of essay grading and conducting interviews ate into my time more than I thought over the weekend. And thanks to the Gallatin County Democrats for putting on an excellent evening of getting to know our Democratic candidates.

Updated to note that the question about “most important policy” was the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States.

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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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  • If Cora Neumann cannot bring herself to say that health care is a human right, she loses the moral right to call herself a Democrat. Health care as a human right is part of the platform of the Montana Democratic Party, and is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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