Democratic Candidates Debate in Race for Montana US House

Candidates said they would work with Trump when it's in the state's interest, and oppose him when it's not

By Justin Franz

HELENA — Democratic candidates running for the chance to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte as Montana’s only congressman said Thursday that the state needs someone who will stand up to President Donald Trump.

Attorney John Heenan, former land trust director Grant Kier, ex-state legislator Kathleen Williams, former Justice Department attorney Jared Pettinato and environmental attorney John Meyer blasted Trump’s policies on tax reform, health care and tariffs.

Most of the candidates said during a debate Thursday in Helena that they would work with Trump when it’s in the state’s interest, and oppose him when it’s not. That’s more than Gianforte is doing now, Heenan said.

“We have someone who puts party over state,” he said.

The candidates also debated health care, the environment, guns and what it would take for a Democrat to win back the seat after 21 years of Republican occupying it.

Kier, who has outraised the other candidates, sought to appeal to voters beyond the June 5 Democratic primary. He talked about how he’s worked with Republicans on land conservation issues, said that some of the Wilderness Study Areas Gianforte has proposed lifting protections for might merit the action, and he was the only candidate to not specifically call for more gun control.

Kier also criticized Gianforte for not holding public meetings with his constituents.

“He doesn’t listen to a word Montanans say,” Kier said.

Heenan, who has raised nearly as much as Kier, staked out a position farther left of Kier. He said he is running as a populist, much like Trump, but one who will fight “dark money” corporate and lobby interests.

“I unabashedly want to represent people,” Heenan said.

Former state legislator Kathleen Williams is the only candidate who has held political office, and she described herself as a progressive who has also been honored by the chamber of commerce.

She bashed Gianforte for sponsoring a bill that called for a balanced budget, then supporting Trump’s tax reform that include cuts that will increase the pressure on the budget.

Meyer, who has lagged in fundraising, said money doesn’t matter and Democrats need an independent thinker “who’s not scared of their shadow.”

Gianforte is running for his first full term after filling the term won by Ryan Zinke in 2016. Zinke resigned his House seat after joining President Donald Trump’s cabinet as Interior secretary.

Gianforte easily won the seat over Rob Quist in a special election a year ago, but his victory was marred by an altercation with a reporter for The Guardian newspaper who said Gianforte “body slammed” him when he tried to ask the candidate a question.

Gianforte later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge.

The assault only came up once in the debate, in Pettinato’s closing statement.

“Vote for me and we will send the body slammer packing,” he said.

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