The primary race that will select political challengers for U.S. Democratic Senator Jon Tester and Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte is less than four months away. Between now and then Montana Public Radio is talking with voters about political issues that are important to them.
On Valentine's Day last week, I drove around Great Falls to the bars where the town’s billiards league was racking up their weekly matches so I could find out what Great Falls voters were thinking about.
At the Black Eagle Country Club, Jeremey Fodesexe was hunched over a bar table watching a pool match. He’s in the military and thinks debate over immigration is going to play a big part elections this year. He thinks, generally, things are going pretty well in Montana, but he says more should be done about homelessness in the state.
“You know all the veterans and everything that are on the streets, nobody really says anything about that," Fodesexe said. "I think that is a big issue that we should like get that fixed instead of worrying stuff about what’s in third world countries. Fixing ourselves before we’re start fixing everybody else, kind of thing. Help America out first, then try to help everybody else out.”
After I spoke with Fodesexe I walked up to an older woman sitting at the bar drinking a Budweiser. She said she’d had too much to drink to talk to me with my recorder on. But once I set it to the side and took the seat next to her she starting saying how much she thinks veterans aren’t getting the care they need.
Veterans and military issues came up a lot through the night. Malmstrom Air Force Base is one of the biggest employers in Great Falls.
About three miles on the other side of town I met Rick Fulbright at the Lido Bar & Casino. Fulbright is a mechanic from Lewistown who lives in Great Falls. He talks to me on and off while he shoots pool and he tells me the most important issue to him this year is social security.
“I’m afraid I’m not going to have no retirement," Fulbright told me, "and all the elders right now need support.”
Fulbright also says he hears politicians talk about veterans a lot, but he doesn't see veterans' situations improving, "when they say the are backing the veterans and they’re not with the decisions or laws they’re trying to make.”
A woman named Amber is sitting on a stool on the other side of the pool table, watching the game that Fulbright is playing. She’s the single mom of two kids and she works as a cocktail waitress at another bar in town. She wants there to be more help for moms like her. And she worries what would happen if programs, that she says currently help her, where gone.
“Because I have medical, dental, vision for my kids through the state because I don’t make enough," she says. "If I didn’t have that, I would be paying almost, $650 -$480 every two weeks that were garnished out of my checks alone.”
Amber says she’s been in and out of low income housing and her student debt makes it hard to get her finances stable. She says the political system is rigged.
Just about everybody I spoke with at the bars that night said they didn’t know too much about the primary elections this year. Although a couple people knew the incumbents, Senator Jon Tester and Congressman Greg Gianforte.
Most people at the four bars I went to didn’t want to talk at all, they said they were too busy playing pool, shooting darts, drinking, hanging out with friends, or nervous about what their employer might think if they heard them on the radio.
The next morning I talked to people filling up their gas tanks before going to work.
Kari Agostinelli says she doesn’t tend to vote for one party or the other, but for specific candidates, and how they present themselves on issues. Agostinelli says she works at a local hospital where she helps run CT scans and x-rays.
“Most people can’t even afford to get health care," Agostinelli said. "I work at a hospital and I have a hard time affording my health care.”
A few pumps over a guy name Jeff pulls up. He’s lived in Great Falls for 40 years and works in law enforcement.
"I’m going to be honest with you I don’t know if anybody has the right answers. I feel like we need to come together and figure out what is going to be the best for the country."
I asked Jeff what is keeping us from coming together?
“Media, I think. I think the media is the root of all evil and I think they’re putting words in peoples mouths and taking things out of context, on both sides. It's just a bickering argument now and I can't believe anything that I read or listen to anymore."
Lori Carney is a teacher from Malta.
"Education is always important," Carney tells me, "because I’m a teacher and the funding of our schools and teachers retirement and pay raises for teachers and keeping schools open. I usually vote with our teachers union and whoever they endorse that’s who I vote for."
Mike Davis, a truck driver from Billings pulled up a few minutes later. The number one issue for him this year, is health care.
“Make if more affordable for a person because I spend $500 just myself for health care and that is just outrageous for one person as an owner operator,” Davis said.
Like just about everyone I talked to, he said it was too early to tell who he’s going to vote for, or know much about which candidates were running.
Obviously, walking up to strangers at a handful of bars and a gas station is not a scientific poll or a representative survey. But between now and November candidates seeking elected office in this state will likely start saying, as candidates in the past have said, that they want to represent all Montanans. These are just a few.