Five Democrats running for their party’s nomination to challenge Republican Greg Gianforte for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House met in their second public forum in Helena Thursday night.
They continued working to distinguish themselves as uniquely qualified to beat Gianforte. A Democrat has not represented Montana in the U.S. House since 1996.
Each candidate was given two minutes to make their best augment for why they should be the party’s candidate.
Kathleen Williams is a former three-term state representative from Bozeman.
"We need the most qualified candidate with policy expertise that knows how to make lobbyists work for them, rather than the other way around," Williams said. "We need someone who can hit the ground running in D.C. because they have been tried by fire in the Montana Legislature.”
Billings attorney John Heenan said he’s practiced in standing up for people who aren’t being represented fairly.
“I’ve been fighting for people across this state that are getting a raw deal, that are getting screwed over. The system doesn’t work for them, government doesn’t work for them. And they need help, real help, not just a little bit of help. A lot of help. They need a fair deal.”
Heenan, the first to announce his candidacy, is pushing hard early in the primary campaign.
Two-term Senator Lynda Moss from Billings is the most recent candidate to announce.
“I believe that our connections are stronger than our differences," Moss said. "I believe that we have an opportunity together, all of us, to work at the grassroots level, together, to change how our congressional office works. To make sure that the work that we do in Montana is respected.”
Whitefish attorney Jared Pettinato emphasized his family’s Montana heritage and his service with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I am the only candidate in the race, either side of the aisle, born and raised in Montana," Pettinato said. "Fourth generation, railroaders, working class people, that’s where I come from. I spent 9 years defending Montana’s public lands. I know what’s going on with how D.C. works.”
Grant Kier from Missoula has spent a decade as director of a public land trust. The second Democrat to announce, Kier gave one of the evening’s smoother performances – transitioning between broad digestible talking points for general voter appeal.
“I’m running because I believe, right now, we need somebody in Congress who is more interested in mending fences than building walls," Kier said. "I think that right now what we need is somebody who has a proven track record for delivering on the promises they have made to Montana families and to Montana communities.”
The five candidates faced questions on expanding healthcare access, LGBTQ rights, standing up to President Donald Trump, and representing the state’s Native tribes.
Candidates tended to agree on those issues. Each was then given a minute to talk about a topic of their choosing.
Kier called for the overturning of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allows unlimited spending by corporations on behalf of political candidates. During the first Democratic candidate forum in Butte in November, John Heenan also called for Citizens United to be overturned while Kathleen Williams noted that it wouldn’t be a simple process and candidates shouldn’t just give the idea lip service.
But Kier says Citizens United is the root of a lot of the country’s problems.
“Every one of these things, we can point to corrupt politics, people being bought as politicians."
Jared Pettinato took his extra time to criticize President Trump for rolling back regulations that Pettinato says protect people's personal privacy, workplace safety, and health care options.
“They withdrew all sorts of labor protections, education protections, and we need to bring all of those back. And I want to expand unions,” Pettinato said.
Lynda Moss used her time to talk about the importance of public lands, and called for more support of nonprofit groups which support public land causes.
“I think it’s important that we all work hard to make sure we support our incredible nonprofit sector that is providing the support we need for all that work, and continue to protect this remarkable landscape that we have in Montana,” she said.
John Heenan returned to health care policy. All the candidates agreed the country’s health care system needs fixing, but Heenan was most vocal for a quick and drastic change.
“Let’s be bold. Our health care system is not just a little bit broken, it’s totally broken. So let’s rebuild it in a way that helps everybody. That’s Medicare for all."
Kathleen Williams said she worries about how LGBTQ groups will be treated under the Trump administration.
“We need someone that will go to Congress that will work to advance those issues, fight for those rights so they don’t get unraveled.”
The Lewis and Clark County Library was packed with more than 70 people standing, sitting, and pouring out into of the conference room hall to hear the candidates speak.
Regular primary election voter registration closes May 7. Primary election day is June 5.