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2022 candidate interview: Cora Neumann for U.S. House District 1

 Cora Neumann
Courtesy Neumann campaign
Cora Neumann

This month we’re hearing from primary candidates running for Montana’s 1st Congressional District that represents western Montana.

Cora Neumann is a public health expert who has worked for nonprofits most of her career. In the Democratic primary, she faces Tom Winter and Monica Tranel. Neumann sat down with MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar.

Shaylee Ragar: Cora, thanks so much for being here with us today.

Cora Neumann: Thank you for having me.

So my first question for you is just to ask what your elevator pitch is, for Montanans who don't know you yet.

My name is Cora Neumann and I'm running for the new western congressional district, and I'm running for Congress because I believe that Montanans deserve a representative in Washington who understands what Montana families go through and who will fight to make sure we have good jobs and wages; make sure that our small businesses, which are the heartbeat of our economy, can thrive; and help ensure that families who've lived here for years or generations can afford to stay. I was raised in Bozeman by a homemaker and a union carpenter, and my husband and I are raising our two kids here now, surrounded by four generations of family, which is a really big treat. And I believe that my decades of experience delivering rural health care, spurring job creation and protecting public lands makes me the right person for this job.

Right now, you have two Democratic opponents. So what sets you apart? What makes you most qualified?

I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I have 25 years of experience on the ground delivering health care and improving the lives of rural and tribal communities. And I believe that Montanans are looking for someone who understands not only the struggles they're facing, but understands how to deliver for rural communities. And that's what I've spent my career doing. I'm also building a really strong campaign. We are keeping pace with Ryan Zinke on fundraising. So we are building a race and we're building a campaign that can win.

You are the most well-financed Democrat in this race right now. You're also the candidate with the largest source of individual contributions from another state, which is California. Montana is a close second. But do you think that says something about your campaign, or what would you say about that?

I think in order to build a really strong campaign in Montana — and this is the case for all of our elected leaders — you have to cast a wide net. You have to look to those who are interested in supporting our democracy. We're really proud of how strong our Montana support is. Our Montana support does match and come close to the others. We also have over 90% of our donations are under $100. So we have a really, really high level of small donations. And I think that that's what we're, that's what matters, and that's what we're really proud of.

I wanted to ask about as well, talking about being from Montana. I know you spent some time as well away from the state. I want to give you the opportunity to talk about your time away from the state and what brought you back here.

Yeah, well, I've actually lived in Montana longer than I've lived anywhere else, although I've lived many places and my family actually had to leave the state during the 1980s. So I think you may be too young to remember that, but there was an economic downturn at that time and we had to leave. But my mom brought my brother and I here as a young widow, when I was an infant. My dad was a logger up in British Columbia and died from injuries from a lumber mill accident. And we settled here when I was an infant.

And my mom raised us here as a young widow, surrounded by a very, very supportive community here in Bozeman, which was wonderful, until she met my stepdad. He was a union carpenter. And we had a great life, you know, hunting, fishing, camping, you know, all the things that make growing up in Montana so wonderful. And then when I was in middle school, he was commuting from Bozeman all the way to Great Falls for the next good job, and it just wasn't sustainable. So we had to leave the state, and I think my family was able to come back after ten years, and I was married here.

We're here every summer and winter. I've tried to move back multiple times. My husband and I have applied for jobs here. It's not that easy. So it's actually really a pretty Montanan story of, you know, this has always been my home, my family's always been here. But, you know, there are challenges. And that's- that is part of what it's like to grow up here.

I want to get into some of your past experience before running for public office, [like] your past experience working for nonprofits. You've held quite a few positions over the last couple of decades, and I imagine that's super valuable experience. And I also think some Montanans might be concerned about the amount of turnover the state's U.S. House seat specifically has seen over the last two decades as well. So I wonder if you can speak to if this is a job you want to stay in, or if you see yourself moving on.

This is definitely a job I want to stay in. It would be such an honor to serve the people of Montana and serve this district. And my work to date, like I said, over 20 years of experience, has been really focused on working on the ground, in the trenches with rural leaders, with tribal leaders, helping support their local leadership. And that's, I think, what is required from Congress, to be an effective member of Congress. You need to have really good, strong relationships with leaders on the ground in your state and with communities on the ground in your state, and that is what I enjoy.

I also have a long track record of building consensus, and I think that's what's required not only here in Montana, but in Congress. We need leaders who understand how to build coalitions, who understand how to really listen and help local communities make decisions and follow through on their own goals.

In talking about the momentum you built and that experience you now have under your belt in the nonprofit sector: Why make the move to public office? Especially, you know, for the U.S. House representative seat in Montana, you'd be a freshman in a state with only two representatives. It just would be a loss of power and leverage.

It doesn't feel that way to me. I think that I'm really excited about the fact that Montana is going to have more voices in Washington. And I'm proud of what Montana can bring to Congress. I think it's good for our state and I think it's good for our country. Montanans and our state is a leader in agriculture. We're a leader in public lands management. We're a leader in supporting and spurring small businesses. I think, you know, in manufacturing and energy development, there are so many things that Montana can bring to Congress. And having more votes there does make a difference.

One of the benefits that I hear a lot about of an added congressional seat is more power for Montanans and more power for Montana's interests and votes. Do you think you can find common ground with Montana's other delegates specifically? Where would you find that common ground? You know, even with our Republican senators or representatives, what will that look like for you?

Well, throughout my career, I have worked to hold leaders accountable, and that includes our own leaders. And I think that that's what is required in Congress, to make sure that Montana gets at least its fair share, if not more, of federal programming and support. And I have, again, a strong track record of working with both Republicans and Democrats to get things done. When I was working on COVID relief across the state over the last couple of years, some of my key allies were Republican county commissioners, and there was a lot we did not agree on, but we were able to find a way forward because if you start from a place where you're thinking about what your community needs, and if you're truly a public servant and you're truly a servant of your people, then you can find common ground.

And so what I will do in Congress is look for other members who are true public servants, because we have also a lot of shared priorities across rural communities around the country. So I trust that I'll be able to find good allies to get things done.

I want to move on to talking about Congress specifically. So I'd just like to know what you think is the most pressing issue facing Congress right now.

The most pressing issue facing Congress right now is the ability to build consensus and to work together to get things done. I think that, you know, one of the reasons I'm running is because I have kids, I have teenagers, they're 15 and 17. And they are looking to us adults to act like adults. And I think that we need more grounded, strong, clear-eyed leadership in Congress to find common ground.

And I have experience. I helped support a movement between a union and the private sector, where they had been at loggerheads for a couple of decades. And I was able to sit down and break down their differences and help them find a way forward. And I enjoy that. And so that is what I think- that's the largest challenge I think Congress is facing, is the ability to work together and our democracy, right, the future of our democracy is absolutely at stake.

I guess I'm just I'm curious what those conversations look like. Like, you're just talking about a specific example. Like, what's the strategy there?

Well, you have to have faith that most people do want the best for their communities. So you really have to start there. You have to start on a hopeful note. And then you begin by asking questions, and you work your way down layer by layer until you get to a place where you agree. And you cannot pull into your corner. You cannot try to change people's minds. You have to just find a place where you both agree that they're- you know, if we're talking about in Congress that the constituents that you represent are facing a common challenge and that they deserve better. And so it really requires a huge amount of patience, which I'm proud to say I have, and non judgment. You know, you really have to just be open. Open and patient.

There was quite a bit of debate last year and some deadlock in Congress over infrastructure. So one bill passed and another bill that the Democrats were really pushing for would have funded what they call social infrastructure, like child care, paid family leave and climate change investments. Would you have supported that Build Back Better Act, and what do you think- well, I'm going to start with that. Would you have supported that Build Back Better Act?

Well, I want to start by saying that I'm really proud of the infrastructure bill and that it passed and the bipartisan support that that got. I think that we need to be celebrating that more. We were able to bring both Democrats and Republicans together to pass a bill that is going to have a really- a real impact for infrastructure here in Montana as we grow. I mean, we are growing at a really, really rapid rate, and those investments are going to help us grow in a way. And I'm determined to make sure it helps us grow in a way that benefits Montana communities. So I just want to take a minute to appreciate the ways that we are working together.

And in terms of the Build Back Better plan, I know that we do need to see- I mean, I talk to families all the time and I you know, my kids are older now, so we don't have as acute a problem. But, you know, there are serious challenges around access to health care and support for families. And so I think that there are pieces of that that would be beneficial to Montana families. And that's what I'll look at when I'm in Congress.

Congress does wade into international affairs at times. So President Joe Biden has said no troops will enter Ukraine. I'm wondering to what extent you think the U.S. should support the country against Russia's invasion?

I think that it's very important that the U.S. continue to support NATO and in any, you know, the reinforcements that are needed. I do believe that we are- this is a situation where democracy is truly at stake. And it's something that we're seeing around the world. We're seeing a threat to democracy, not just in the Ukraine. We're seeing it in Hungary. We have challenges here in our own country. We're seeing it across multiple continents. And so I think we need to take a really strong stand on behalf of democracy and support Ukraine and trust our NATO allies to know what is needed there, because this is not the first time that there has been this type of crisis in Europe.

Another issue that I think is top of mind for a lot of people right now is inflation. What should Congress do to address inflation and spiking costs? Or should the strategy be maybe to wait it out?

I think that's a complicated question. But what I know- we need to address what we can address, and that is addressing price gouging, right. We shouldn't have major international corporations, oil and gas corporations and others benefiting from the crisis that Europe is facing and that the global energy pipeline is facing. We also need to bring more manufacturing back to the U.S., and I do believe that that's a current priority of Congress and of this administration, so that we have goods and services that we need here in this country and that we have the wages that come with that.

Like I said, I was raised in a union family. I worked as a union laborer to pay for college. I wouldn't be here without those wages and without those protections. And I think if we bring more manufacturing back to the United States, that that is one key. The other is housing. That is one of the one of the places that is where, you know, rising costs are really putting increased pressure on families. And there are really robust federal programs or potential programs that we need to invest in.

What are those programs? What does that look like?

There are is the Federal Housing Authority, so making sure that that's well funded. There's also USDA Rural Development and rural housing programs, which are, you know, anything from single family to multifamily housing grants. There are ways that the federal government can work directly with local organizations. And we have quite a few great examples across Montana right now. You know, communities are responding and trying to respond. And then there are also tax incentives and investments that we can explore, to- you know, real estate is the most lucrative industry in the world. So there is funding out there in the private sector.

And there are ways that the government- I mean, the government does, when it's working well, it works with the private sector, it works with companies to solve solutions, to solve problems and find solutions. And so collaborating with the private sector is another place that I am looking at and we'll be looking at from Congress.

How do you think Congress should address climate change?

We should all address climate change. But I think that from Congress there are again, some really unique and important ways that a Montana member, a member of Congress from Montana can help address climate change. I talk to farmers and ranchers regularly about how they're doing and how they're preparing for another potentially very dry summer. And, you know, the scary thing is that if our rivers were to ever heat up to 82 degrees, all of the trout would die. Right, so these are things that will directly impact the Montana economy. And we have a history in Montana of managing both our agriculture sector and our public lands really responsibly.

So number one would be protecting and continuing to be good stewards of our public lands, because that's the washing machine of our air and water and our soil. So number one, public lands. Number two, agriculture practices: making sure that we're we're making investments in innovation, in agriculture. And we are seeing some really phenomenal- I mean, right here at MSU, there's some great research being done. I was just at the Farmers Union conference and they were running through some really exciting innovations. So making sure that our farmers and ranchers who are stewards of our land and water and important, really important partners in this have the support they need.

And then investing in, you know, diversifying our energy sources. Montana also has a history and is currently a large energy producer and looking at existing ways, but also expanding into wind, solar, hydro and looking at and making sure that however we invest in that it's benefiting our local communities.

Climate change has become such a polarizing topic for policy makers. What would it look like to move past that?

I mean, look, it's- the way forward, I believe, for any member of Congress and for, you know, any leaders is to look at what their constituents are asking for and the challenges that they're facing. And if you start from there, if you start from what farmers and ranchers need and are looking for as they face extreme drought and extreme weather, the solutions will- the solutions will come from those conversations and from trusting our farmers and ranchers. Same on the public lands front and our outdoor recreation industry. So I believe that if you are listening to your constituents and the communities you represent, the answers will present themselves. And it's not about climate change. It's about the future of the economies and the future of the communities in these places.

Cora, I want to talk about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. House Democrats have been moving forward with an investigation into the events of that day and what happened. Do you support that investigation?

I support protecting our democracy and I trust that process. I think that, you know, we have to protect our Constitution. And that is what I- protect and implement the rights guaranteed in our Constitution. And that's what I plan to do from Congress.

Do you think a formal investigation is the right call?

I trust the process that's taking- that's proceeding right now. And I believe that we have to take very seriously the ways that our democracy is being compromised, because, yeah, our rights and future depend on it.

If elected, what do you hope to tell voters about your record in Congress a year after your swearing in? What do you hope your major accomplishments will be?

I hope to be able to share how I have helped ensure that the growth in Montana has benefited and is benefiting Montanans. We are at a major turning point as a state, which is presenting a lot of challenges, but also a lot of opportunities. And so on the housing front, jobs and wages and spurring economic and business growth in Montana and also making sure that our our farmers and ranchers have the support that they need to continue to produce some of the best wheat and beef and pulses in the world, that the growth in Montana is benefiting Montanans and benefiting all of our industries.

Thanks so much for being here, Cora. I appreciate it.

Thank you.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.