Montana Gubernatorial Candidates Highlight Differences During Weekend Debate

May 4, 2020

Mail ballots for Montana's June 2 primary go out this Friday. This weekend, Democrats and Republicans vying for Montana's governor's seat faced off in a virtual debate hosted by the Montana Broadcasters Association. Corin Cates-Carney, with the help of Nicky Ouellet, recap the gubernatorial debate.

Nicky Ouellet What stood out to you?

Corin Cates-Carney So starting off big picture, what's at stake this primary season are the key players in the governor's race. They'll be the face behind the agenda that will represent the major parties, and the governor's race could determine the balance of political power in Montana after this 2020 election.

Republicans control the chambers of the legislature. If they keep those majorities and win the governor's office, it'll be the first time since 2004 the GOP could control both those branches of the Montana state government. Democrats are hoping to keep their decade-and-a-half hold on the executive.

In terms of Saturday's debate, first off, it was virtual. Traditional in-person campaigning has been fundamentally changed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Ouellet So obviously some major repercussions from the pandemic there, with the primary happening all by mail ballot and the debates hosted on video conference calls. What are candidates saying about Montana's response to the pandemic?

Cates-Carney Democrats Whitney Williams and Mike Cooney were the first to face off in the debates, and one of the most striking differences that came up between them is how they view Gov. Steve Bullock's decision regarding allowing public schools to reopen.

In Bullock's phased reopening plan, school districts can, with new social distancing guidelines and approval from local school boards, decide to reopen classrooms May 7. Williams says that's too early:

"It was the wrong call for our kids and for communities to allow them to reopen in May. Schools aren't built for social distancing, kids aren't built for social distancing."

Ouellet Up until this point, we've seen Williams be pretty supportive of the Bullock administration's decisions on managing the pandemic, right?

Cates-Carney Right. This is the first big divergence on that, and Mike Cooney — Bullock's number two, the lieutenant governor — really pushed back on Williams' criticism on this point:

"Governors aren't kings and queens. They don't just get to pick and choose. You have to follow the rules. That's what we have done in that decision, and I think that's what Montanans expect from their elected officials."

Cates-Carney The big theme in this race between Williams and Cooney that I saw before this, and again during the debate, isn't as much about specific issues, but the professional experience and perspective they say is important for Montana's next governor.

For Williams, she's never held public office before but she's not new to politics. Her parents, Pat and Carol Williams, were big names in the Montana Democratic Party. Williams was the trip director for then First Lady Hillary Clinton, and as the founder and CEO of williamsworks, which coordinates international philanthropic efforts. She says Democrats need new leadership in the governor's office, and she can bring private business experience to the job.

For Cooney's part, his work in Montana's government is a big part of his campaign message. We mentioned he's the current lieutenant governor. He's also been the secretary of state for several terms, a state legislator, both in the house and senate, and he's the former deputy director of the Department of Labor and Industry.

Ouellet What about on the Republican side?

Cates-Carney The interactions in this debate between gubernatorial candidates, particularly Attorney General Tom Fox and U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte, are really getting more antagonistic. Here's Fox:

"Congressman, it's clear that you were social distancing long before the pandemic, yet you've ducked debates and forums, refused interviews with the press, avoided even open public meetings and tough questions."

Cates-Carney In response to one of Fox's attacks during the debate, Gianforte responded with this:

"Yeah. Once again, Mr. Fox is misrepresenting the facts to mislead you. It is shameful. I am the only one that has a plan to get this economy going again."

Cates-Carney Gianforte says his experience as a businessman is what Montana's economy needs right now to bring more high-paying jobs into the state. Gianforte also touts his experience working in Congress and with President Donald Trump as benefits to GOP goals in Montana.

Fox says the GOP would be served better if Gianforte stayed in Congress and gained some seniority there. Fox says he's best suited for the job, and he really emphasizes his role as a state leader in the attorney general position.

State senator and orthopedic surgeon Al Olszewski fills out this three-way GOP primary race. Olszewski says he is the candidate that really follows the party's conservative ideals.

Ouellet How so?

Corin Cates-Carney So Olszewski says he's the only candidate that really wants to replace and repeal Montana's Medicaid expansion program. He was also the only candidate of the three that said he wants to scrap the state's water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and write another one:

"What I would do as your next governor: As long as it's not ratified by the federal government or the tribe, it is then considered a failed compact. It's been around for five years and the federal government and the tribe have not signed it. So it's time to go back to the table."

Mail ballots will be sent out Friday ahead of Montana's June 2 all-mail-ballot primary election.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.