FRAZER — U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Democratic challenger Denise Juneau sparred on Native American, rural issues and refugee resettlements in their first debate Monday on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
From the opening statements, Juneau questioned the incumbent’s leadership, voting record and his support of Indian Country and Montana. She pointed out his continuing support of presidential candidate Donald Trump after Trump’s dispute with Muslim-American parents whose son was an Army officer killed in Iraq.
“I sometimes wonder if he’s representing Montana or making sure he’s on a 24-hour news cycle and out stumping for Donald Trump, and missing critical votes,” Juneau said. “I can tell you what he’s not done. He’s not supported Indian Country.”
Zinke, 23-year Navy SEAL, presents himself as an expert on national security, and he addressed the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month on that topic. He was an early supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and has offered himself up to Trump for vice president or secretary of defense.
He told the audience he has criticized both Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who he repeatedly compared to Juneau.
“I think my opponent has the same problem that Hillary does — the truth,” Zinke said. “I’ve been out here not because I’m your congressman, but because I care.”
Monday’s U.S. House debate was the first held on a Montana reservation since 2006. Of the more than 150 people who attended the debate held in Frazer’s high school gym, a majority of them Fort Peck tribal members.
Juneau, who is a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, and a Blackfeet descendent, will need the strong backing of Montana’s American Indian voters if she is to unseat Zinke to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress.
The last Democrat in Montana’s sole U.S. House seat was Pat Williams from 1994 to 1997.
Zinke, 54, is not conceding the Native vote to Juneau. He told the audience that he has worked hard for American Indian issues, such as backing tribal water compacts and pushing for federal recognition of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree Indians. He repeatedly compared Juneau to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Zinke attacked Juneau’s record as superintendent of public instruction. He said six of 10 of Montana’s public school children are still not proficient in some subjects and questioned the audience if they’re children are getting the best education.
“I’m happy for public schools but how you make it better is you empower the school board,” he said.
Juneau, 49, said graduation rates have improved over her tenure and invited Zinke to step inside a classroom to see what is happening there.
One question submitted by an audience member involved refugee resettlement in Montana, which has become a touchstone issue since Missoula County agreed to invite 100 displaced people a year to settle in the area.
Juneau addressed fears that terrorists would slip through the vetting process, saying the process can take two years, is conducted by multiple agencies and is very thorough.
“We need to remember that we also have a humanitarian side,” she said.
Zinke said the process is not adequate, and that just because they’re in line for two years doesn’t mean their vetted.
Mike Fellows, the Libertarian candidate, declined an invitation to participate in Monday’s debate, but said he would be at the second debate in Billings on Thursday night.
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