HELENA — Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski were cordial Tuesday in discussing jobs and the economy in their first debate just two days after the president’s son campaigned in Montana for the third candidate seeking the party’s nomination.
Both touted their Montana roots, defended President Donald Trump’s trade wars, said they support reduced taxes and would promote responsible natural resource development in answering questions posed by students, faculty and staff at Carroll College.
But Fox did take a couple shots at U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who said he could not attend the debate because he was traveling.
Fox noted that on Sunday you could have paid up to $1,000 to talk with Gianforte at a fundraiser in downtown Helena attended by Donald Trump Jr. He said the 100 people in attendance Tuesday would instead hear from two homegrown candidates.
Fox said his work as attorney general has included fighting the state of Washington’s efforts to prevent Montana coal from being exported overseas and that he has experience bringing various groups together to work on issues such as substance abuse, human trafficking and investigating sexual assaults. He said the state needs to bring high schools, colleges, trade schools and communities together to develop a better trained workforce and create more internships and apprenticeships.
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon from Kalispell, said he would be “the best salesman for Montana” in promoting agriculture and rural areas. He said he supports the continued use of student loan repayment incentives to attract teachers and medical professionals to underserved areas.
He also suggested increasing Montana’s workforce by not penalizing older workers in taxing their Social Security benefits, making more accommodations to employ workers with disabilities and saying it was time to “invite people on welfare back into the job market” through work requirements.
“A prosperous Montana starts with a job, a good-paying job,” Olszewski said, arguing you can find them in some of the state’s smaller towns where housing is affordable.
Fox closed with another apparent jab at Gianforte, who ran for governor in 2016, won a special election for the U.S. House in 2017 a day after assaulting a reporter, and was reelected to the House in 2018.
“Our state deserves leaders with character,” Fox said. “Our state deserves leaders who put the good of the public over their personal political ambitions.”
Gianforte’s campaign manager Jake Eaton issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Fox for scheduling the debate knowing Gianforte had a family commitment.
He said Gianforte looks forward to discussing his vision for Montana at a Jan. 23 debate in Billings.
The two-man debate gave Fox and Olszewski “the opportunity to make their cases, so that can be beneficial, although it probably will not be a game-changer,” said Jeremy Johnson, associate professor of political science at Carroll College.
“How much does one debate resonate close to a year before an election without one of the major candidates is an open question,” he said.
Four Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for the open governor’s seat in 2020. Bullock is prevented by term limits from seeking reelection and is campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president.