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The 6 Democrat U.S. House Candidates Face Off In Billings Debate

Jackie Yamanaka

There were general agreements on issue positions related to public lands and health care among the 6 candidates seeing the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House during their debate last night in Billings.  But some of the candidates also took the opportunity to stand out from the crowded field as Democratic voters have to decide which one to advance to take on the Republican incumbent. 

 The winner from the June 5th primary will face off against Congressman Greg Gianforte. The Bozeman high tech entrepreneur won the May 25, 2017 special election. Montana's lone U.S. House seat was vacated when then-Congressman Ryan Zinke stepped down to become President Donald Trump's U.S. Interior Secretary. 

While many of the Democrat contenders took political jabs at Gianforte and Trump, a few also pointed out the differences among themselves. 

"Well, I’m the only candidate in the race out of 9 born and raised in MT," said Bozeman attorney Jared Pettinato. "Born and raised in Whitefish. 4th generation. Railroading family. My great grandfather worked for the railroad. My grandfather and my father all worked for the railroad.  Union people." 

Pettinato said voters have told him they want representation of Montana values and that's how he was raised. 

Former state Representative Kathleen Williams of Bozeman said her experience in the Montana Legislature will serve her well in Congress.  

"It’s the same thing. It’s hyper partisan, broken, divisive, inexperienced and we need proven policy makers that can go there and make a difference," said Williams. 

She said despite that she was able to work with Republican colleagues to get legislation passed to help her constituents and all of Montana. 

Grant Kier of Missoula also talked about how he’s been able to bridge Montana’s urban and rural divide in his work as a land trust director. He said there’s a need for leaders who are more interested in mending fences than building walls. 

"And we need people who are more interested in leading by using unity and compassion, not hatred and division to lead us through our greatest struggles as a country today," he said. 

Kier said he has worked with farmers and ranchers to make sure the federal farm bill works for them. 

Former state Senator Lynda Moss of Billings also touted her years of working collaboratively to seek common ground. 

"I’m not a street fighter," said Moss. "I know a lot of candidates talk about fighting and being strong but I’m a collaborator." 

Moss said she’s dismayed by the name calling and bullying. 

Billings Attorney John Heenan said he doesn’t want to collaborate with people who want to destroy public education, hand over public lands, or compromise Social Security or Medicare. 

"I want to fight like hell the way that I fought for my clients my entire career, stand up to bullies and protect the hard-working people of Montana on the things they hold dear," he said. 

The Billings attorney said he’s fighting to protect Montana’s children and grandchildren. 

The newest candidate in the race is John Meyer of Bozeman, who filed his paperwork in the Democrat primary on the day filing closed. The environmental attorney touted helping Northern Plains Resource Council win its lawsuit against a railroad that wanted to build in southeastern Montana. He said as an avid backcountry skier, mountain biker, and outdoorsman he’ll continue to fight for the public lands and the environment. 

"And there’s no way I would let any of these f*#$@rs take hold of our public land," said Meyer. 

Meyer said he would push hard in Congress to protect the Paradise Valley from being mined and added he would fight to protect Montana to the maximum extent possible. 

The six candidates appeared at the debate organized by the MSU Billings Democrats at the Babcock Theater. The free event was open to the public and streamed live on Facebook.