I underestimated Kathleen Williams.
The first night I heard her speak, at a candidate forum in Helena two Januarys ago, I was impressed with her discussion about what she had done in Legislature but felt like her responses lacked robust calls to action in the future. While I scored her the second-best candidate that night, I worried that she would struggle to connect with voters unless she presented some of the sweeping policy proposals some of her opponents were offering that night.
And then she went out across the state, talked to people about policy, and ran away with a primary before giving Greg Gianforte a real scare in the general election.
What I missed that night, and only came to understand when I had the chance to meet with and interview Kathleen a handful of times over the past two years, is that her answers to questions are the rarest of things in American politics today: they’re thoughtful, comprehensive, and solution-oriented.
We live in a strange time when it comes to elections. Social media, reduced media coverage, and a collective attention span of about 280 characters have elevated politicians who can fire off snappy one-liners or offer passionate calls for policies that won’t make it out of a committee, much less out of a full legislative body. We are driven by the politics of personality, not passionate enough about pragmatic policy. We’re captivated by the antics of members of Congress who package their personas for cable news and the Internet, and even those of us who pay the most attention to politics find ourselves distracted by the next shiny thing one of them dangles in front of us.
That isn’t Kathleen Williams. While she has proven herself to be a personable and effective campaigner, it’s hard not to get the impression that she would much rather be poring over research and projections to craft legislation that can improve the lives of the people she hopes to make her constituents.
It’s easy, I think, to condemn politicians for not leaping into every fray, both feet forward, but if we have learned anything in the last disastrous three years, it’s that we need political leaders who understand that there is nuance to policy, value in compromise, and nobility in results.
In our interview this February, Kathleen talked about how it took two sessions to pass a bill that prevented insurance companies from denying care to cancer patients involved in clinical trials to save their lives. It’s a story that should be instructive: instead of demonizing those who opposed her measure and scoring cheap political points, Kathleen set up a task force to study the issue in one session before getting the bill passed in the next.
Washington—and our political system as a whole—could use a lot more of that dogged determination to get results, even if it takes time.
Much as I wish we could wave a wand and get to single-payer healthcare in this country, Williams is taking the same pragmatic approach to getting coverage for everyone. Her proposal to expand Medicare to allow anyone 55 and older to opt-in could be, she says, “ignition towards improving the entire system as a whole.”
If you will excuse a baseball analogy, Williams is arguing that it is better to hit a single than strike out with a mighty, showy swing. And given the likely composition of our federal government, it’s a proposal that could immediately improve the lives of vulnerable Americans and, just as the Affordable Care Act has done, show people that an expanded government role in healthcare can work.
We still have eleven days to go in the Democratic primary for the House, and nothing is certain in Montana June elections. I hope that Kathleen Williams and Tom Winter will continue their respectful debate about the vision each holds for Montana and Democratic primaries. Still, if Williams prevails, as most experts feel she will, she is positioned to finally flip Montana’s house seat to the Democrats.
A poll today shows Williams tied 45-45 with her likely Republican opponent, perpetual candidate Matt Rosendale. Over the next few months, as the President demonstrates his unfitness for office, Williams would offer powerful contrast that will resonate with voters across the state. While Matt Rosendale will tout his endorsement from extremist groups like the TEA Party Express and cheer on every irrational decision President Trump hurls from the White House, Williams’s brand of pragmatic, progressive solutions will seem all the more appealing.
2020 is our best chance to recapture this seat in over twenty years. Wouldn’t it be something if the person who finally flips that seat accomplished the task by going back, in the era of Trump, to the idea that politics exist to serve the people with rational, well-developed policy?
I don’t think anyone is going to underestimate Kathleen Williams again. I certainly won’t.