For some Democrats, the stakes in the 2020 elections can’t get any higher.
“Save the democracy, really, that’s what’s on the line,” Kathleen Williams said while in Havre on Saturday.
Hill County Democrats gathered under sunny skies and 90-plus degree temperatures at Pepin Park to listen to candidates for state and federal offices — and in doing so, got heated up for the 2020 primary and general elections.
At the behest of state Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre and the Hill County Democratic chair, most of the major candidates for statewide and federal offices came to Havre to try to convince party faithful to support their candidacies.
Although Election Day is more than a year off, campaign staffs are being organized, fundraising efforts have begun and candidates are imploring voters to get behind them.
But it hasn’t always been like this, veteran legislators recalled.
“This is real early,” said Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, the senior man among the millennial-laden Democratic candidates.
In the old days, he said, the primary would be held in June of election year, then the winners would take the summer off and begin campaigning on Labor Day.
Democrats seemed to agree that the major effort this year should be to elect a Democrat for governor — Cooney, House Minority Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, or former State Rep. Reilly Neill, D-Livingston. Neill did not attend the picnic.
Democrats said they have become accustomed to controlling the Governor’s Mansion over the past 16 years. The governor can set the tone for state government when the Legislature is in session, and can veto objectionable bills passed by the Legislature.
In recent years, Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature and have passed bills unfavorable to many Democrats. Most of those bills have been vetoed by the last two Democratic governors.
Democrats said they realize how important it is to retain control of the governor’s office; they’ve heard Republicans saying how important a win would be for their party.
Schreiner and Cooney said they would run vigorous races, but vowed to wholeheartedly endorse the winner of the Democratic primary in the general-election race against the Republican nominee. Both said they suspect the GOP will nominate U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte over Attorney General Tim Fox and State Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell. Gianforte has a very conservative platform and as a multi-millionaire can self-fund his campaign. Both man are popular with Republican primary voters.
Here’s a synopsis of what the candidates had to say to the Pepin Park crowd:
Mike Cooney was named lieutenant governor in 2015 after the sudden resignation of Angela McLean. He has served in the House, the Senate and the Secretary of State’s office for 12 years, and was an aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus for 10 years.
He stresses his work alongside Gov. Steve Bullock and hits on the usual Democratic themes, saying he favors Medicaid Expansion, which was approved by the 2019 Legislature after a raucous debate.
Cooney supports additional aid to educational programs throughout the state, protection of public lands, infrastructure repairs and women’s reproductive rights.
He warned of the dangers of a Republican takeover.
“They will take Montana in a totally different direction,” he said.
He said Republicans will outspend the Democrats, “as they always do.”
But he said Democrats need to raise enough money to be competitive and “we’ll outwork them.”
Casey Schreiner, the minority leader, shared his life story. He was a Great Falls teacher who was laid off because of budget cuts.
One son was born premature, and it cost $60,000 to keep him alive on the first day of his life. At first, the insurance company said it wouldn‘t pay the $60,000, triggering fear in the family.
Schreiner’s father died at 60 from complications of Type 2 diabetes. He said his father skimped on the use of life-saving insulin because he wanted to spend what money he had on his family and he believes that’s the reason he died.
“Montanans should not have to make that choice.” he said.
Those problems had an impact on Shreiner. Health care and making it affordable for all Montanans is a key part of his campaign, he said.
Schreiner also said he would take action to fight climate change. He pointed to his support for firefighters’ health care and infrastructure programs in the most recent state legislative session.
Cooney and Schreiner are friends, both have said. Schreiner acknowledged the Cooney may have more name recognition, but he also believes he has an advantage.
“No one’s going to outwork me,” Schreiner said. During an interview with the Herald, he mentioned several towns he’s already traveled to, talking to voters.
Cooney is aware of Schreiner’s tactic and plans to win on that front as well.
“Casey (Schreiner) and I are going to have a foot race and I’ll win that one,” Cooney said.
John Mues, a Loma resident, said the variety of experience he brings to the race will help him unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
The prospect of seeing Daines defeated brought cheers from those in the crowd.
Mues said he served in Iraq, and is the only candidate to have served in the military. After that, he served in the Troops to Teachers program as a teacher at Hays-Lodge Pole High School on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, giving him an understanding of Native American culture and life.
Since then, he has been involved in the energy business, especially renewable energy, which will help develop alternative energies to fight climate change.
The close loss Kathleen Williams had in her 2018 campaign for Congress convinced her to give it another try.
She narrowly lost to incumbent Greg Gianforte, who now is running for governor.
“We got the closest that anybody has come to defeating an incumbent in 20 years,” she said.
While Democrats have won state and federal offices, the House seat has eluded them.
She told the story that as a youth her family watched the moon landing and the pride she felt. If the United States can put a man on the moon, it could fix health care problems and solve climate change issues, she said.
Williams wants to bring a sense of change to Washington.
Six years’ experience in the Montana Legislature taught her to work with people of opposite beliefs in “a hyper-political situation,” she said. These are talents she will need in Washington.
Tom Winter laughs when people tell him he should win easily in his home Missoula County because it is in the liberal Democratic bastion of the state.
His legislative district is not your typical Missoula district, however. It is in both suburban and rural parts of the county. Donald Trump handily carried the district, yet Winter defeated a Republican incumbent representative. He did it by talking and listening to people, going back to their homes repeatedly and sharing their common values.
He’s doing the same thing as he campaigns for Congress. He plans meet as many people as possible. To that end, some nights he sleeps in his truck, although for this particular trip he had to travel in a Subaru because his pickup is having problems. He’s planning on camping in the Missouri Breaks Saturday night after he attended the powwow at Fort Belknap.
Winter said he would favor forgiveness of student loan debt, saying that students who get college educations are benefitting not only themselves but Montana as a whole.
When it comes to gun control, he believes the debate is toxic and often used to divide people in Montana.
“When I talk to people, guns don’t come up,” he said.
Most gun violence is used in domestic violence and suicide, he said, and that’s what needs to be addressed, even as it includes gun laws pertaining to those issues.
Winter spoke with the Herald about the kind of representative he believes Montanans want.
Montanans want someone who is real and isn’t trying to pull the wool over their eyes. And Montanans, he said, can spot candidates who aren’t genuine.
“People are going to know what I care about and they’ll know it’s what they care about,” he said.
Raph Graybill, who is from Great Falls, is chief legal counsel for Gov. Steve Bullock. In that role, he has sued state agencies, including the present attorney general, Tim Fox. And he’s won.
He sued the Trump administration’s Internal Revenue Service when it tried to change the rules for dark money organizations so they could donate to Montana candidates and not reveal their contributors. He won.
He said he recently got an email from Chase Bank changing the terms of his credit card arrangement.
Buried deep in the fine print was the important change. Customers are not allowed to sue in case of a dispute with the bank. Matters would be taken to arbitration. Arbitration cases are tilted almost entirely in favor of the bank, he said. Rarely do customers win.
The attorney general should sue on behalf of Chase customers in Montana to block the change, he said.
“Tim Fox shows up after the house is on fire,” Graybill said. As attorney general, he would take preventative action.
Kimberly Dudik, after serving four years in the Montana House, is looking to become attorney general, replacing Tim Fox, who is termed out and is running for governor.
She has been a nurse, a private attorney, a prosecutor, a domestic violence advocate and a state representative.
“It would be great to have a Democrat back as attorney general to fight for our rights,” she said.
She touted her role in the House as a supporter of stronger legislation to fight domestic violence and child sexual and physical abuse. She said she was angry at the number of children murdered at the hands of their parents.
She played a key role in passing legislation, including bills that will eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
She vowed to fight for “reproductive rights for women.”
She said she would set up an Office for Native Affairs in the Justice Department that will, among other things, help solve cases of missing and murdered Native women.
“There is no reason why there should be 10 times as many murdered Native women as there are white women,” she said.
Secretary of State
State Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, is the lone Democrat running for secretary of state.
He has served 10 years in the Legislature and has been his party’s chief spokesman on expanding voter rights.
The secretary of state is also a member of the Land Board. He will vote to uphold the public’s access to public lands, he said.
But Bennett said his passion is ensuring that people have a right to easily register and vote and thus take part in democracy.
He favors expansion of same-day registration. People should be able to register online as they can in many states, he said.
He said the secretary of state should be an advocate of efforts to make voting easier. Instead, the current secretary of state, Corey Stapleton, “has worked every day to undermine our elections,” by claiming without any evidence that there is fraud and abuse in the Montana election system.
State Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, is the only Democrat running for state auditor.
Talking to the Pepin Park crowd, he recalled coming to the Hi-Line when he was young, taking part in wrestling and baseball leagues.
Now he’s courting Hi-Line voters.
The auditor’s main job is to oversee the insurance industry.
He said he would enact tight controls over insurance companies, but would also work with them to reduce health-care costs for all Montanans.
He pointed to his record in the last Montana House session, speaking of the variety of legislation he was involved with.
One of his proudest moments was the approval of legislation to abolish the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases.
Whoever comes out of the primaries, Bachmeier said while cleaning up after the event, they’ll be ready to put up a good fight in the general election.
Correction: This version has been updated to say that Tom Winter was camping in the Missouri Breaks but not with his wife. Winter is not married.
Paul Dragu contributed to this report.
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