The Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primary candidates debated virtually Saturday on agriculture and rural issues, each facing off against their respective party members.
The debate was hosted by the Montana Farmers Union, state and national cattlemen’s associations, and Northern Plains Resource Council.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is terming out of office and can’t seek re-election. The open seat creates a potential tipping point in the balance of Montana’s political powers.
Democrats hope to retain the executive branch they’ve held for 16 years, while Republicans are pushing to add the governor's seat to their majorities in the state House and Seate to gain a trifecta of control in the state government.
The parties candidates for governor each debated for 40 minutes in the agricultural focused debate Saturday night.
Green and Libertarian party candidates were not included in the debates. The Associated Press reports Republican Greg Gianforte declined to participate, citing a scheduling conflict.
At the GOP debate, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and Al Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and state senator, tended to agree on most issues, including expanding mental health services to farmers, agricultural research and rural broadband.
However, Fox and Olszewski had divergent views on a long-negotiated compact settling water rights claims between the state of Montana, the federal government, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Olszewski was a then freshman Montana House Representative at the time he voted against the state compact with the tribes.
“You know I’m the only governor candidate in this whole race, Democratic or Republican, that is against the water compact. In 2015, I voted against it. It’s lawful; it’s unconstitutional," Olszewski said.
Tim Fox pushed back.
“Al, I’ll stick to practicing law, and you can stick to practicing medicine. None of what you said is actually true. The state supreme court has upheld the constitutionality of the water compact. It’s not illegal," Fox said.
Tim Fox said Olszewski’s assertion that the compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would open up water rights with other tribes across the state is also false. The compact is still awaiting federal approval, but President Donald Trump’s administration has singled support.
Fox and Olszewski’s stance also differed on country of origin labeling regulations.
Cattle and hogs from other countries that are processed or packaged in the U.S. can be labeled ‘Product of USA.’ Critics say this misleads consumers, creates more food safety risks and undercuts the value of American beef and pork.
There have been multiple attempts in the Montana Legislature to push forward with a country of origin labeling law for meat sold in the state. One passed in 2005 a few years before a federal law went into effect, but disagreements at the national and international level reversed it.
Montana ranchers say labeling will help their beef to stand out to customers. Great Falls radio personality Jim Sargent moderated the debate and asked the Republican candidates if they would support a state meat labeling requirement.
Sargent asked, "As governor, would you sign it?"
Fox said his administration would want to look at it if it crossed his desk, but getting a country of origin meat labeling law would need to happen at the federal level with changes to the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement.
“The World Trade Organization that is really the referee for those agreements would have the ability, unfortunately, to add billions of dollars in tariffs on American products if a state or federal government were to again try to do these kinds of country of labeling laws,” Fox said.
“The answer is yes, I will sign that country of origin labeling bill,” Candidate Al Olszewski said.
Olszewski introduced a bill in the 2019 Montana legislative session requiring retailers to display a placard at counters, showing details about where the meat came from. 1) meat that is born, raised and processed in the U.S.; 2) meat that is processed outside the U.S.; and 3) meat that is only processed in the U.S.
It died in committee. Critics like the Montana Stockgrowers Association said the bill was not clear and that it put too much responsibility on grocery stores. There were also concerns that if the bill were to pass into law, it would contradict the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
Several times throughout the debate Fox jabbed at U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte for not participating in this gubernatorial candidate debate.
In their debate, the two Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates continued trying to distinguish themselves based on their work in government and the private sector.
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and business woman Whitney Williams were on the same page about protecting Medicaid Expansion, fighting multinational meatpackers for alleged price gouging and supporting more young people to take up farming and ranching.
Cooney often brought up his time in government, as a lawmaker, Secretary of State and now lieutenant governor, as the reason why he would be the best choice for the job.
“I’m the only candidate in this race who has made a decision to dedicate my life to serving Montana. That includes serving the work of farmers and ranchers in Montana. I’ve travelled across the state for many years, meeting with the families who have dedicated their lives to feeding Montana and the world," Cooney said.
He talked about initiatives like Main Street Montana – Rural Partners, which the Bullock administration launched in 2018. The program focuses on creating economic opportunities in rural and tribal communities.
Williams said Montana needs new skills and fresh perspectives in the governor’s office. She often touted her experience running an international business that helps companies and organizations pursue philanthropic projects around the world. Williams also pointed to her running mate Buzz Mattelin, saying there’s no better advocate for agricultural producers than a farmer.
“Rural Montanans must help lead on all decisions for our state. Buzz runs a farm; he’s respected nationally; he’s president of the Barley Growers Association, and who better to represent our ag producers here at home and around the globe? Heck, Buzz even has a barley named after him," Williams said.
The moderator asked how the candidates would promote local food production and marketing opportunities in the state.
“We have to work to diversify it and make sure it’s always safe, but we also need to make sure that we make it easier for local producers to market their products to the public. We need to be innovators here. I’ll bring energy into modernizing our inspection system and giving inspectors the tools they need," Williams said.
Mike Cooney brought up the state’s Growth Through Agriculture program, which provides small grants for economic and agricultural development through educational, marketing, travel and other business activities.
When asked about getting agricultural markets back on track, Cooney said one of his priorities as governor would be continuing to build trade relationships.
"I’ve been proud to have worked with delegations from Japan and talk to them about how important it is that we continue our business with our wheat products. I’ve been proud to deal with the Mexican customers that we have, and we’ve talked to people up in Canada. Those are our biggest trading partners," Cooney said.
Williams said she and her running mate Buzz Mattelin want to speed up the phased-in tariff reduction on American agricultural products through the U.S.-Japan trade agreement and continue to market the quality of Montana’s products.
Montana’s primary election is on June 2. Ballots will be sent out to voters May 8.