BILLINGS — Democrat Denise Juneau asserted strong support for the coal industry while Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke highlighted her vote against a major eastern Montana mining project as natural resources took center stage Thursday night during a sometimes-raucous U.S. House debate.
The two major party candidates met for their second debate before a boisterous crowd of hundreds at Montana State University in Billings. Libertarian Mike Fellows did not attend because of health issues.
Zinke said Juneau’s 2010 Land Board vote against selling a state-owned coal reserve near Ashland belied her claim to be an industry supporter.
He also accused her of taking “blood money” in the form of campaign donations from opponents of a West Coast port that could have been an outlet for Montana coal as the industry faces severe troubles at home.
“When my opponent says she’s pro-coal, I don’t think anything can be further from the truth,” Zinke said.
But Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, disputed Zinke’s claim that regulations were at the heart of coal’s troubles. She pointed to economic shifts that have favored cheap natural gas at coal’s expense.
Juneau said her 2010 vote in opposition to the Otter Creek mining project came after hearing concerns from surrounding landowners and members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. The mine proposal has since been effectively dropped after sponsor Arch Coal, Inc. declared bankruptcy.
She also touted her 2014 support of expanding Montana’s largest underground coal mine and votes she’s cast in favor of leasing state land for oil and gas exploration and logging.
“I’m a supporter of natural resource development and I have a record on that and I’m proud of that,” she said.
The candidates revisited the issue of refugee resettlement, which also came up during an previous debate in Frazer in response to Missoula County inviting 100 displaced people annually to resettle in the Missoula area.
Juneau repeated her assertion that Americans need to retain their “moral center” and remember that most refugees are women, children and families.
Zinke has called for suspending the refugee program until more thorough vetting can be done.
“You should realize that women and children can be a threat if they are under the influence of evil, just like San Bernadino, just like Boko Harem,” Zinke said, referring to December’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California and the Islamic extremist group in Nigeria.
“Four out of five terrorist attacks are conducted by children,” Zinke added, drawing cheers from his supporters.
Both candidates sought to link their opponent to their respective party’s presidential nominee, seeking to capitalize on low favorability ratings for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Juneau suggested that by aligning himself with Trump — including offering himself as a potential vice presidential candidate to the New York businessman — Zinke had betrayed veterans offended by Trump’s dispute with the Muslim-American parents of a U.S. Army officer killed in Iraq.
“You have someone more interested in being on a 24 hours news cycle, being out stumping for Trump,” she said of Zinke.
Zinke twice called Juneau a liar — a label often affixed to Clinton by Republicans — even as he called on her to apologize for not being civil, when she said he was affiliated with a campaign finance super PAC.
“That is a patent lie,” he responded. “You’re a lot like Hillary. You have a problem.”
Only one other debate has been confirmed, on Oct. 5 at Great Falls College.
Zinke and Juneau have both expressed interest in a debate on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana but it’s uncertain if that will happen.
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