Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester was in Helena Friday afternoon for an in-person town hall. You can listen to the full meeting at the bottom of this post.
Tester spoke for a little over an hour to a friendly crowd of 200 people at Helena Middle School. Town halls nationwide have become confrontational events for many members of Congress. Recently, Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines has taken heat for not meeting face-to-face with constituents back home. He hosted a so-called “tele-town hall” two weeks ago, which he says allows him to interact with more Montanans because people don't have to travel to participate in them.
Tester, who recently announced he plans to defend his seat in 2018, met his crowd with the same warmth they doled out to him. His town hall was billed as having a public lands and outdoor economy focus.
"It is really important to know that not everybody out there thinks that public lands should remain in public hands," Tester said. "There are folks in Washington, DC, and not just one or two or a few of them, that would like to see the public lands either be turned over to the state, or just sell them, get rid of them."
And some people did want to talk about public lands, but the majority of the two dozen people who asked questions wanted him to talk on a vast array of other topics, like this question on healthcare from an unidentified town hall goer:
"Healthcare is in the news again, and there's a lot of ideas floating around behind presented about how we can save money and provide healthcare to America ... What do you think about Medicare for all?"
"I will tell you that we are so far away from Medicare for all for now," Tester replied.
He said that he sees the benefits of the current Affordable Care Act: In Montana, 71,000 people now have health insurance thanks to Medicaid expansion. People with preexisting conditions can get coverage, and kids can stay on their parents’ plan until they’re 26.
"All that is going to go away for things like high risk pools and block granting Medicaid, and it's going to be pretty disastrous," Tester said.
He said the real problem with the Affordable Care Act is that a lot of people who should get subsidies to help pay for it don't.
"Now I’m telling you, If we can get that fixed without taking insurance away from everybody else, then we can have the debate on what you just talked about, which is Medicare for all or single-payer, Tester said. "But we are so far away from that debate for now, we’re not even in the ballpark."
He added the White House budget proposal he’s seen is “going to kill rural America.”
A handful of people who asked questions did want to talk about public lands, like one woman who identified herself as a small business owner in Seeley Lake, who wanted to thank Tester for recently introducing legislation aiming to sustain economic and conservation efforts in the area, which is supported by a variety of user groups. Their exchange was indicative of the evening, where a question followed praise and thanks and a round of applause.
"Never forget, you are the number one ranking member for this group here, public lands, and we can trust you," the woman said.
He really only got one question criticizing a position he’s taken. One woman asked Tester to explain his support for legislation to protect the use of lead ammunition. He said the potential negatives of lead ammunition did not outweigh people’s ability to go out and enjoy their public lands.
Other people at the town hall wanted to talk about a broad array of other topics, including proposed budget cuts; the moral implications of building a wall on the Mexico border, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the next Supreme Court justice, and how a Democrat in a red state can win the special election to fill Montana’s vacant House seat.
You can listen to a recording of the entire meeting below, and find more Montana politics news anytime right here.
[Beware, the mics at the venue start out very strong, you might want to turn the volume down at the beginning.]