Republican U.S. House candidates debate on mental health, schools and government overreach
Four of the five Republican primary candidates for Montana’s western U.S. House seat met Friday in a debate hosted by Montana Farmers Union. The candidates discussed their plans to help rural Montanans.
The candidates generally agreed they want to limit big government, but differed on how to address specific issues like attracting teachers to rural areas and providing access to mental health care.
The debate held in Whitefish featured Al Olszewski, Mary Todd, Matt Jette and Mitch Heuer. Candidate Ryan Zinke, who has far outraised his opponents, did not participate. He was also absent at a previous GOP debate in Kalispell.
Olzewski, an orthopedic surgeon, called out Zinke for not participating in the forum. Olzewski said if elected, he’ll lean on his experience as a former state senator.
“I’m the only candidate that has actually worked and served you and has an extensive voting record when dealing with agriculture,” Olzewski said.
Todd, a Kalispell pastor and small business owner, says she’ll bring a critical eye to governments around the world to Congress.
“I am here to run to end government corruption, to expose the players that are in it for themselves, and to be new, fresh leadership,” he said.
Jette, a Missoula teacher, says he understands the challenges that everyday people face after dealing with serious health issues, learning disabilities and going through higher education.
“Whatever your lot in life is, I understand where you come from," Jette said. "It’s about time we put someone that actually understands the issues and understands where you are in your life."
Heuer, a contractor in the Flathead who owns several businesses, says he brings different experience than his opponents.
“I’m an outside the box fix-it guy, and I have solutions to difficult problems, including the housing crisis, mass shooting crisis and a new transportation solution,” he said.
On the topic of how to attract and retain teachers in rural Montana, Olzsewski suggested eliminating the federal department of education and siphoning the dollars used for that agency to states.
“And let’s turn those into block grants and send them to all the states, let the states decide how to use that money, and one of the ways can be to enhance rural and frontier education,” Olzsewski said.
Todd said parents should be in the driver’s seat.
“If the federal government has another overreach with telling us how to put teachers in our rural schools, what to do with them, what to teach these kids, I think it’s a problem,” he said.
Heuer said he disagrees with the sentiment that the federal government doesn't have a role to play and says that education should be consistent nationwide, to promote a unified country.
“We need to have a national education program that works and that has national standards, so America becomes united and united in our education and cross-trained," Heuer said.
Jette talked about his teaching experience and the red tape that comes with that.
“There are teacher unions at play, there are teaching programs at play and there are rules and regulations at play that really hamper in and veto good quality people from coming to this state to teach,” Jette said.
The candidates were also asked how they would address mental health care in rural Montana. The state has long had one of the highest rates of suicide in the country.
Todd said federal mask mandates and isolation requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to poor mental health.
“I really do believe that it is because of government overreach and that people need to get back to running their own lives, dealing with their own problems and not depending on the government,” he said.
Jette said there’s a lot of moving pieces to the issue and Congress should address the root causes of anxiety and depression.
“You look at the economy, they’re facing an economy that we have never faced before," Jette said. "There’s something called structural unemployment, which means if they go to school and they work at a job for 10 years, that job may not even exist.”
Heuer said health care needs to be more affordable and college debt needs to be reduced.
“I don’t have a great answer for that right now, I have few ideas with some small clinics," Heuer said. "Back to education, with higher education, I think we can get away from the expensive colleges if we went to a program to where we offered a higher education for a trade.”
Olszewski said the federal government needs to do a better job of reimbursing for mental health care through Medicaid and Medicare.
“I believe in a limited government," he said. "I also believe that if the federal government promises a product, they need to pay fairly for it."
On other topics, the candidates agreed the federal government should reinstate country-of-origin-labeling for meat products and require manufacturers to give farmers and ranchers the ability to fix their own equipment.
Absentee ballots should be mailed by May 31 to be counted on time, or dropped off at a polling place or elections office. The primary election is on June 7.
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