Democrats in Butte last night got a chance to try to find differences between five candidates running for their party's nomination to challenge Congressman Greg Gianforte next year.
Surprise: The candidates agreed on a lot. But over two hours and more than a dozen questions, some differences did emerge.
Health care got more attention than any other topic.
"We need to pass the logical fix to this problem," said Bozeman State Representative Tom Woods, "and that's Medicare for all, and in Congress I'll co-sponsor it, that's a promise."
Kathleen Williams, who has served three terms in the Montana legislature, and is also from Bozeman said, "single payer, Medicare for all is a great thing to aspire to. I think it's going to take some steps. For example, if we can stabilize the individual insurance market now, and then allow people, say 55 and older, to buy in to Medicare … and then we can move into single payer, Medicare for all. It's expensive. That's part of the problem, why we can't move to it immediately."
Billings attorney John Heenan, who appeared by Skype from out of state, said, "we don't have time for incremental steps, and we don't have time for politicians that want to dilly-dally while people suffer. I believe in Medicare for all. I believe we need to scrap a law that was written by insurance companies for insurance companies."
All the candidates said single payer health care would be preferable to the current system, but only Tom Woods and John Heenan said that goal should be pursued immediately.
Whitefish attorney Jared Pettinato distinguished himself by being the only candidate to talk about a topic that nearly always gets applause in Butte.
"Unions! Stronger Unions!" Pettinato said, to a couple of shouts and applause. "Union membership has plummeted since the 1950s, and down have gone wages," he said. "The way to bring them up means bringing people to collective bargaining."
That was in response to a question about how to help working and middle class people get ahead. Kathleen Williams said she supports raising the federal minimum wage, and John Heenan and Tom Woods said they support a $15 an hour living wage.
Grant Kier, a former land trust director from Missoula answered the question this way.
"This is a hard place, even for well educated people, to find jobs and to keep good jobs. I get that. I think that we have huge opportunities in energy and natural resource, in ways that we can expand sustainable jobs in our communities … Agriculture, and recreation and tourism – those have tremendous potential to grow in Montana and to compliment one another," said Kier.
All the candidates said they support more investment in public education, a woman's rights to make healthcare and reproductive choices, and campaign finance reform.
A moderator asked: "What proposals would you make to improve our elections process and get dark money out of it?"
Heenan answered: "Overturn Citizens United, overturn Citizens United, overturn Citizens United."
Citizens United is the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited funds on direct advocacy for or against candidates.
"All the adivce I've gotten is that, to overturn Citizens United, we need a constitutional amendment," said Kathleen Williams, "but we can't just give lip service to that, we have to realize what it's going to take to do that."
"I don't have a problem with corporations making profits, that fine," said Tom Woods, "but the problem is we have corporations making laws. That is the fundamental reason we need to overturn Citizens United now."
The candidates were asked how they see challenge of balancing mining and environmental protection, and what should be done about the future of the Colstrip coal fired power plant.
Grant Kier said, "as somebody who's worked as a well site geologist and in conservation, I think it's important to strike a balance and I absolutely think that we can. If we have international trade policy that holds other countries to the same environmental standards, and safety standards, then we can ensure that the people of Montana have a clean and healthy environment, and good paying jobs, we're not being out-competed by countries that are destroying the environment."
Jared Pettinato said, "with the wind in the trees we can expand jobs in Montana, and also help the environment, both. By producing clean energy and by helping the forest fires in western Montana, helping wildfire return to become a natural part of the system."
The candidates appeared before an audience of about 80 people at Butte's Knights of Columbus hall last night. They got a few digs in at the man they all hope to challenge next November, Congressman Greg Gianforte – but before they can do that, one of them has to win Montana's Democratic primary in June.