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Alike in policy, Democrats running in Montana’s eastern House district differ in experience

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Ronning campaign/Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Democratic primary candidates Penny Ronning and Skylar Williams.

The unexpected death of state Sen. Mark Sweeney last week leaves two Democrats in the race for the seat currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale.

Next month’s primary will determine whether Penny Ronning or Skylar Williams wins the Democratic nomination to represent the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which extends from central Montana east to the border with North Dakota. They’re each hoping to be the first Democrat Montana sends to the U.S. House in almost three decades.

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Ronning and Williams align on many policy issues: They say they support increasing access to health care and removing barriers to housing.

But they differ in the kinds of experience they say they’ll bring to the district.

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Ronning was raised in Billings and served for a term on the city council. She also co-founded the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force.

Ronning emphasizes her ability to collaborate with different political parties and her track record of combatting human trafficking through advocacy at the city, state and federal levels.

“I've proven that I'm someone that does work with folks across the aisle and has successfully passed that legislation — coauthored and passed legislation — at those different levels of government,” Ronning said.

If elected, she says she’ll address the widening gap between worker benefits and pay versus cost of living and medical care.

“A parent needs to know that they're going to be able to have access to childcare for their child," she said. "A person who's elderly needs to know that as they continue to age, they are going to be able to afford health care.”

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Williams flags expensive college tuition, high housing costs and climate change as issues he would want to address as U.S. representative.

He says he believes in providing tax cuts to small businesses instead of large corporations and advocates reforms for the American healthcare system.

“We're paying more, we're getting less and it's more expensive in this country, so I believe a Medicare-for-all approach would be the best approach,” Williams said.

Williams is a first-time political candidate from Billings and a member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe. Speaking to YPR in April, he said it’s his experience outside of politics that sets him apart in the race.

“I have no prior experience in politics,” Williams said. “But when it comes to college and climate change, I believe I have a bigger stake in this personally than the other candidates.”

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Like Ronning, the late Mark Sweeney had been campaigning on the strength of his political experience. At the time of his death, he was in his first term as a state senator. Before that he was a state representative and spent roughly 8 years as a Deer Lodge County commissioner. He also led the three-person field in fundraising with about $55,000 on hand at the time of the last campaign filing.

Sweeney’s name will be on the ballots being mailed to voters on Friday. The Montana Secretary of State’s office says ballots have already been checked and printed and will be sent to registered absentee voters as-is.

Primary elections are on June 7. The last time Montana sent a Democrat to the House was in 1994, shortly after the state lost its 2nd congressional seat.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.