Republican U.S. House Candidate Greg Gianforte is running a different kind of campaign than he did when he challenged Governor Steve Bullock in November. He's also more fully embracing President Donald Trump than he did when Trump was a candidate.
In this wide-ranging interview Gianforte answers questions about public lands, coal development and social issues.
Sally Mauk: [00:00:27] My first question is, where've you been?
Greg Gianforte: [00:00:29] I've been all over just traveling the state. I'm up to 75,000 miles now driven over the last year and a half or so.
SM: [00:00:36] But it seems like you were on the road a lot more during the gubernatorial campaign than you have been during this congressional campaign. I think this is your first visit to Missoula since you were nominated. Why is that?
GG: [00:00:47] Well I've been out a lot. This is a different race for sure. That was a marathon this is a sprint. I think I talked to someone this week that military ballots are already in people's hands. People are voting, absentee ballots go out and just a little under two weeks.
SM: [00:01:01] There are several issues I want to cover and so let's get started on those. The first one is to clarify your position on keeping Montana's public lands public. And I know in the past you've seemed to lean towards more state and local control of federal lands under some circumstances, is that correct?
GG: [00:01:20] Well not really. I've been very clear all along that public lands must stay in public hands. So I've been very clear, I don't support the transfer of lands. Public lands have to stay in public hands. And that would be my position when I get to Washington to represent you.
SM: [00:01:36] Because looking in previous interviews you've done in the past, you have said that you could see some circumstances where there might be more state control without an actual transfer of federal land, and or local control.
GG: [00:01:49] I do believe better decisions are made when they're made locally. And I am supportive of collaborative agreements for management of land so that Montanans can have a say. I don't think bureaucrats in Washington really understand Montana or can make wise decisions. I think if we have more active management of our national forests we'll have healthier forests, there'll be more habitat there'll be more wildlife, there's more hunting opportunities. We also get timber going into our mills and we have less forest fires. And I think Montanans being more involved in that process would be a better outcome.
SM: [00:02:25] And that's not code or a smokescreen for the ultimate transfer of federal land to state control?
GG: [00:02:32] Sally let me be very clear. Public land needs to stay in public hands. And by that I mean federal hands.
SM: [00:02:38] You're a strong supporter of keeping Colstrip open and developing more coal, and you support repeal of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which has happened. Do you believe coal then has a viable future? You obviously do.
GG: [00:02:52] Well I think all, I'm on all of the above energy guy. I think that our traditional fuels need to compete with renewables whether it's solar or wind, hydro. But I do think 40 percent of our electricity in North America today is generated by coal.
SM: [00:03:08] Shrinking though. That percentage is shrinking.
GG: [00:03:09] But if we turn the switch off it's going to get awfully dark really fast. And that's not a good outcome. And I think energy independence for the U.S. is a national security issue and we ought to be pursuing all of the above. And unfortunately we've had a situation where we've incented certain types of energies and penalized others. I'd be more inclined, I think, if we apply American ingenuity and technology to clean coal. There's a lot we can do to make sure that we have reliable low cost energy and to protect the environment as well.
SM: [00:03:41] That has been a proposal that's been around for many many years now. The whole notion of clean coal hasn't happened in the market for whatever reason hasn't gone that way. When climate scientists say that more coal development will doom the planet you just don't believe them?
GG: [00:03:57] Our climate is changing. I mean and certainly man has an impact on that. If you take the EPA's data itself, they've said that if we shut down every coal-fired plant in North America it would have negligible impact on the environment over the next hundred years or so. In fact the report that the EPA published said that if we did shut down every coal-fired plant in North America, the environment would be two hundredths of a degree cooler by 2100. And for that, those that want all coal to be shut down are willing to throw a 7000 high paying jobs in Montana, even in northwestern Montana, and doom certain communities to extinction. And I just think we have ...
SM: [00:04:41] You wouldn't argue that coal is not contributing to global warming?
GG: [00:04:43] Well the EPA would say that is the impact is negligible.
SM: [00:04:47] So you would argue that, the coal is not contributing?
GG: [00:04:48] I'm not arguing anything Sally, I'm just telling you the facts that have come from the EPA.
SM: [00:04:53] Actually those figures did not come from the EPA. After this interview we asked the Gianforte campaign for a link to the EPA report he cited. In response they said the data came from a study done by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, not the EPA. Now back to the interview.
SM: [00:05:10] I want to switch to health care. You've said that you thought the health care plan supported by the Trump administration and the Republican leadership, which went nowhere, was a flawed plan. What was wrong with it?
GG: [00:05:20] Well I'm not sure I used the word flawed. What I did say was I didn't think it was quite ready. The problem with the proposal that we saw a couple of weeks ago, that I did not support, was that it didn't actually lower premiums. Premiums would actually go up under that plan. We've got to preserve rural access in Montana, and there are some issues there particularly with Medicaid reimbursements to make sure our critical access hospitals continue to get funded. I think that cake, metaphorically, got pulled out of the oven a little too quick. My assessment.
SM: [00:05:51] They had years to come up with an alternate.
GG: [00:05:53] Well. Well, Trump only became president in January, so ...
SM: [00:05:58] Yeah, but Republican's have been saying for years that they had a better plan and then where was it?
GG: [00:06:02] Well Sally I'm trying to tell you.
SM: [00:06:03] OK.
GG: [00:06:04] The there was a rush to get it done and they were still in the process of building consensus amongst the leadership there. There's no question we have to do something about health care because average Montanans are seeing their premiums skyrocket. This is not sustainable. Now as a nation, healthcare consumes 20 percent of the GDP. Other nations in the world spend 10 or 12 percent and have better medical outcomes so ...
SM: [00:06:30] They have universal health too, most of them.
GG: [00:06:32] And so my view, and this is a very good point Sally, because myself and my opponent in this race have very different views on what we should do. I've been very clear. I believe we need to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that actually reduces premiums for Montanans and preserves rural access.
SM: [00:06:50] What is that something? That's the question.
GG: [00:06:53] Yeah. So. So let me if I can finish my sentences Sally I'd appreciate that. My opponent, on the other hand, is calling for 100 percent government run health care. You know if you want to see what that looks like all you have to do is look at the V.A. or Indian Health Services. Those systems are not working for the people they're supposed to serve. To answer your question, there's no one silver bullet but there are a series of things that we could do. I do believe allowing insurance to be offered and sold across state boundaries is part of it. Obamacare did nothing about prescription drug costs. They're very high, and we've seen gouging by prescription drugs. And if we're going to give a pharmaceutical company a monopoly on a drug, they have an obligation to not gouge the customer. Obamacare did nothing with tort reform to protect patients rights to defend their interests, but it did nothing to eliminate frivolous lawsuits. There's no silver bullet here, but I do think more choice for consumers and some of these reforms to get out the underlying costs are critical to get premiums down.
SM: [00:07:58] All of those suggestions have been made by various people and most of the analysts who are familiar with health care don't think those measures would be adequate to accomplish what most people want, which is affordable accessible healthcare. But would you support continued Medicaid coverage for people who can't afford insurance?
GG: [00:08:17] Yes I think we have a societal obligation to take care of people who can't take care of themselves.
SM: [00:08:22] And you do that with current Medicaid expansion?
GG: [00:08:25] And we can't yank the carpet out from underneath people who have been added to the rolls. I do think we need to bring some accountability there, so that people that really legitimately can't take care of themselves should be provided for. That is something societally we've made that decision. However if someone's young, single and can work, I have no problem with an obligation to work so we bring some accountability back into the system. But we absolutely Sally, have to take care of people who can't take care of themselves.
SM: [00:08:51] I want to switch to education now because I got a lot of topics I want to get to. You support school choice and charter schools. The question there for people who support public education is why should already stretched public dollars be used to support privately run schools? What's the argument?
GG: [00:09:08] First I'll say I do think parents should have a say in how their kids are educated. This is mostly a states issue. My goal in education has always been to have the best outcome for the student. And in states that have allowed parental options and education, academic outcomes have been better for all the kids. And I'm pro public school, we need a strong public school system.
SM: [00:09:34] But why not have those dollars go to make that system better rather than diffuse the system and take what public educators would say robbing Peter to pay Paul?
GG: [00:09:43] Well, because one size doesn't fit all.
SM: [00:09:45] You oppose any new gun control including universal background checks. How do we keep guns out of the hands of someone who's seriously mentally ill, without the background check?
GG: [00:09:55] I'm open to looking at, you know, our mental health system. I do stand by our Second Amendment. It's very clear it says the right to own and bear arms shall not be infringed. I take the words at face value, I think that's what they mean. There are absolutely exceptions where it's not safe for someone to own a firearm. I think we have to be very careful about how we determine those things. Certainly someone who's a felon or if there's mental health issues those are things we should look at. But the problem with a lot of regulations that get put in place particularly around the Second Amendment is they end up penalizing the law abiding citizens and that's not right.
SM: [00:10:32] So would you favor universal background checks in order to find those folks who are so mentally ill that they shouldn't own a gun?
GG: [00:10:39] I would not, no.
SM: [00:10:41] I want to quickly run through some social issues with you. You oppose abortion?
GG: [00:10:45] I'm pro-life.
SM: [00:10:46] You oppose gay marriage?
GG: [00:10:48] You know, our Supreme Court has made a decision on that. I personally believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. But I'm not running to impose my views on people in the U.S.
SM: [00:10:59] If, for some reason, the court overturned that, you would support that?
GG: [00:11:02] I don't know, I'd have to see it.
SM: [00:11:04] Your position on evolution has come up in past campaigns because of your support primarily of the Glendive museum. Do you personally believe in evolution?
GG: [00:11:14] I personally believe, as many Montanans do, that God created the earth.
SM: [00:11:20] But do you believe personally in evolution?
GG: [00:11:23] I believe that God created the earth. I wasn't there. I don't know how long it took. I don't know how he did it exactly, but I look around me at the grandeur in the state and I believe that God created the earth.
SM: [00:11:32] And so evolution is not something that you believe in?
GG: [00:11:37] I think I've answered your question.
SM: [00:11:38] I want to switch to foreign policy now because it's definitely in the news. Should America have bombed Syria?
GG: [00:11:43] Yes. Chemical weapons are beyond the pale. And we are in this situation in Syria and in the Middle East in large part because of a lack of foreign policy over the last eight years. We're starting to see a president who's doing exactly what he said he was going to do. I do think going forward we need additional consultation with Congress on our foreign policy in the Middle East.
SM: [00:12:08] Should they have a say if we're going to bomb someplace?
GG: [00:12:12] In most cases. I support the president in his action. It was surgical .
SM: [00:12:18] And unilateral. He did not have congressional approval.
GG: [00:12:21] Did you want to ask a different question?
SM: [00:12:22] No I'm asking the same question.
GG: [00:12:23] Ok, I'd like to finish my answer then if I could. You keep interrupting me. I believe that in this particular situation Donald Trump was completely warranted in the surgical attack against a 100 percent military facility that was the place that this criminal act of using sarin gas against his own people was launched.
SM: [00:12:46] I want to get to the horse race now. When you ran for governor you hardly mentioned Donald Trump. Now you're using his campaign slogan this drain the swamp et cetera. What changed?
GG: [00:12:56] Well I when I was running for governor I was running for governor. I was presenting myself for that particular race. This is a federal race. That race was not a federal race. That's the biggest difference.
SM: [00:13:04] How do you think the president's doing? It sounds like you think he's doing a good job.
GG: [00:13:07] I've been encouraged. I think what's making people getting all wound up and exciting, honestly, is we have someone in office who's doing exactly what he said he was going to do. He's made appointments to offices, I think he said he was going to appoint a Supreme Court justice who respects the law and will not make the law from the bench. He appointed Neil Gorsuch who is eminently qualified. We have the first ever Montanan in the U.S. cabinet in Ryan Zinke. So I've been pleased with his appointments. His actions on the Clean Power Plan. Waters of the U.S. are completely in line with what he said he was going to do, and I think for a lot of people it's very very refreshing to have a politician doing exactly what they said they were going to do.
SM: [00:13:48] But he's changed his mind on many issues. As some would say flip-floped, just in the last week said he was going to take on China's monetary policy, now he's praising China; said that NATO should be disbanded, now he's saying it's a hugely important alliance. And there are at least a half dozen other things I could cite where what he said during the campaign and what he's saying now are 180 degrees. Does that bother you at all?
GG: [00:14:12] Two people never agree on everything. This election is about, does Montana want someone who's going to go back and work with Donald Trump in the current administration to advance the interests of Montana. Or are we going to send someone back who is going to side with the obstructionist tactics of Nancy Pelosi. Whenever it comes to a question of, should I put Montana first or Donald Trump's agenda first, I'm going to put Montana first.
SM: [00:14:38] One final question for you. You're running against a native Montana with a cowboy hat. How do you run against the label that his supporters want to put on you that you're an outsider rich guy, that probably did hurt you in the gubernatorial race? How do you combat that?
GG: [00:14:52] Well I go back to the facts. I mean my wife and I Susan, we chose Montana 24 years ago. We've been in the same home there ever since. We've raised our four kids here in Montana hiking the back country, fishing, hunting, all over the state. And we, I'm an electrical engineer, I'm a business guy. And it is a choice between do we want a business person who spent their life balancing budgets, or do we want a musician. That's the choice.
SM: [00:15:16] Well I've been speaking with Greg Gianforte who is the Republican nominee for Montana's open U.S. House seat. Mr. Gianforte thanks so much for spending this time with us.
GG: [00:15:24] My pleasure Sally.
You can hear Sally Mauk's interview with Democratic Candidate Rob Quist here.