U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Friday fielded questions from a crowd of more than 200 people in Kalispell, where audience members quizzed the Democrat on everything from the impeachment hearings roiling the Trump administration to Montana’s mental health crisis.
Staff members for Montana’s senior senator billed the town hall-style event as Tester’s eighth “unvetted” public forum of the year, which they say represents a departure from his congressional counterparts, who have opted for “tele-town halls” rather than face-to-face assemblies.
Indeed, the latter have become a signature of the third-term senator’s tenure in public office, and some of the questions from audience members, who gathered at the Flathead Valley Community College’s Arts and Technology Building, caught Tester flat-footed — including one from a Glacier High School student who grilled the senator about socialist nations and their viability in the history of civilization.
Others were right down Tester’s lane, including several questions from locals concerned about the continued trend in high suicide rates among Montanans, as well as the barriers blocking their way to mental health care access.
“There’s not enough help for those who are in crisis,” one audience member lamented, asking Tester what policies he had in store to curb the epidemic.
Tester, a working farmer from Big Sandy, said suicide is taking an outsized toll on rural America as farmers and ranchers bear the burden of financial uncertainty amid the Trump administration’s trade war. He said his Seeding Rural Resilience Act seeks to bring additional mental health resources and awareness to rural communities that need it the most.
“There is no silver bullet, but my bill provide better tools and resources for folks in rural communities to manage and reduce the stress that comes with this line of work,” Tester said.
For others, access to basic health care topped the list of concerns, and one man, who sported a similar flat-top hairdo to Tester’s, asked about the future of the Affordable Care Act. The man said his wife contracted lupus and the cost of her medical treatment “burned up most of our retirement money.”
“If it wasn’t for Obamacare my wife would not be sitting here,” he said.
Tester acknowledged that the Affordable Care Act wasn’t without its flaws, but slammed the Trump administration’s efforts to eliminate the entirety of the law as a “dereliction of duty.”
On the issue of gun control, Tester listened to representatives of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots group dedicated to public safety measures to prevent gun violence, who wondered whether meaningful gun reform policies would ever pass through Congress.
Tester affirmed his belief in the Second Amendment and said he’s a strong proponent of responsible gun ownership, but explained that his rating with the National Rifle Association was downgraded from an “A” to an “F” when he came out in support of background checks — a political bruising he said he’s happy to endure.
“If you’re afraid of a background check, you probably shouldn’t own a gun,” Tester said.
On passing an infrastructure bill, Tester said meaningful legislation will require tax increases, which he said could come in the form of a fuel tax to pay for everything from road repairs, railway improvements, broadband and bridges; however, it will require bipartisan support in a Republican-dominated Senate in which tax hikes remains unpopular.
“I don’t like to pay taxes either, but I do because I’m an American,” Tester said, explaining that he’s opposed to tacking “another trillion dollars onto the national debt.”
Pressed on whether the United States will return to the table on climate change discussions, Tester said Congress needs to let science inform policy decisions rather than industry lobbyists, but he portrayed a difficult road ahead.
“Right now we can’t even get it to a committee to debate it,” he said.
Finally, Tester encouraged more citizen advocacy, and told audience members to write their state and federal representatives on both sides of the political aisle.
“I have seen it flip senators,” he said. “Your voice absolutely makes a difference.”