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First Democratic Senate Debate Discusses Health Care, Energy And Income

One man speaks into a microphone on stage while three people are seated behind him.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate (L-R) John Mues, Wilmot Collins, Cora Neumann, Mike Knoles (hidden) and Josh Seckinger line up for debate on February 21, 2020.

Montana’s Democratic primary candidates for U.S. Senate faced off for the first time in Bozeman Feb. 21. Health care, energy and liveable incomes were discussed during the debate. 

Several hundred people packed into the Emerson Center to hear five Democratic candidates argue why they are the most qualified to become Montana’s next senator in the 2020 election.

Moderator Mike Wheat, a former Montana Supreme Court Justice, introduced Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, Navy veteran and engineer John Mues, public health advocate Cora Neumann, quantum mathematician Mike Knoles and fly-fishing guide Josh Seckinger.

Collins, a Liberian refugee, made international headlines in 2017 when he defeated a four-term incumbent to become the mayor of Helena.

“I’m running for the U.S. Senate because each state deserves two senators. Montana has been short-changed. Montana has one senator. The other senator decided to join the executive branch,” Collins said. 

Jabs at incumbent Republican Senator Steve Daines came up often in the debate. Whichever Democratic candidate wins in the June primary election will run against Daines or political newcomer Daniel Larson in the general election in November.

Public health advocate Cora Neumann said access to affordable health care, especially in rural and tribal communities, is a top priority in her campaign.

“Health care is very personal to me. I lost my father in a lumber mill accident when I was baby and if we had been closer to specialized care, and the care that he needed, he may have survived,” Neumann said. 

Neumann said as senator she would protect Medicaid Expansion and look into a public option.

Seckinger took a more progressive line saying he supports Medicare for All. Mues and Collins were more moderate and said they would protect the Affordable Care Act but try to improve it. Knoles said Democrats need to work across the aisle with Republicans to find a solution.

All five candidates said health care is a human right and that they would protect abortion rights.

When they were asked how they would address rising prescription drug costs, fly-fishing guide Josh Seckinger said he wasn’t sure but would be willing to learn what would work.

“I think that’s what differs me from everybody is I’m willing to say, ‘I don’t know’ and hear it from you,” Seckinger said. 

Later in the debate, the moderator asked the candidates about climate change, which everyone agreed is an urgent issue.

“As the only expert in energy out of this entire group and the only person with agricultural experience - having owned a 1500 acre cattle ranch in north-central, water-scarce Montana - this issue of climate change is one of the biggest things impacting not just the United States but the entire planet," veteran and engineer John Mues said. 

He said the U.S. needs to increase fuel efficiency, radically shift to clean power generation and invest in renewable energy storage. Both Mues and Collins said the U.S. should get back into the Paris Climate Agreement and global negotiations.

Neumann said Montana has an opportunity to transition toward wind-powered energy.

“Since this current president Trump took office, we’ve had this huge spike in oil and gas leases across huge swaths of our public land across this country. We would need to reel that in immediately, create major incentives for investments in renewable energy,” Neumann said. 

Seckinger said he supports a federal ban on all new mines and increasing royalties for oil and gas leases to reinvest in renewable energy projects in those communities.

Knoles said he thinks the U.S. needs to improve its social safety nets for people and get rid of corruption first.

The moderator also asked candidates whether they support increasing the federal minimum wage. Quantum mathematician Mike Knoles said talking about minimum wage is missing the point.

“It's missing the point because not everybody works and not everybody can work, and so my plan would be to implement a universal income. That’s what I would do,” Knoles said.  

Collins, Mues and Seckinger said they are in favor of an across-the-board $15 minimum wage. Neumann said she supports a staggered minimum wage increase based on local economies.

During a break, attendee Sarah Jones-Popiel of Bozeman said she wishes the candidates had talked about gun safety.

“For a lot of the parents I know, that’s a pretty big concern, and my kids talked a lot about how they don’t feel safe,” Jones-Popiel said. 

The moderator also did not ask about immigration.

Claire Broling from Bozeman said she’s really concerned about health care.

“I work on an ambulance so I see a lot of people who don’t, who will actually have to say, ‘No, I don’t want an ambulance,’ even if they need one,” Broling said. 

She said she liked Seckinger’s support of Medicare for All and what Neumann had to say about improving access.

Kevin Calusey from Helena said he’s a single issue voter.

“For me, universal basic income solves all of the problems that were discussed up there,” Calusey said. 

He said universal basic income would help people who need to stay home to take care of young kids or elderly parents and create a safety net as more jobs are replaced with automation.

Out of the five candidates, Neumann has brought in the most campaign contributions: $463,000 in 2019. That’s twice as much as Collins with over $234,000 and four times as much as Mues with $113,000. Knoles and Seckinger haven't filed campaign finance reports yet. All vastly lag behind Daines.

After the break, the two Democratic candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams, debated on stage for the second time on Friday. The three Republican candidates in the primary are U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte, State Attorney General Tim Fox and State Senator Al Olszewski.

Montana’s primary election is June 2.