Candidates for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat covered a lot of ground during a Sunday evening debate in Kalispell, starting with the Ebola crisis and touching on gun rights, environmental regulations and a deadlock in Congress before winding up with their views on sustaining Social Security and Medicare.
Republican Ryan Zinke, Democrat John Lewis and Libertarian Mike Fellows took the stage at Flathead Valley Community College for the timed event, sponsored by the Daily Inter Lake. It was a well-mannered discussion, with a few political jabs tossed in as the candidates near the finish line of the Nov. 4 general election.
They’re seeking the seat currently held by Republican Steve Daines, who is running for the U.S. Senate.
Although there were no formal opening statements, Lewis gave up most of his time on the first question regarding the Ebola crisis to criticize Zinke’s “multiple choice” stands on issues in the race, questioning his Republican opponent’s leadership.
During his rebuttal time, Lewis did respond to the Ebola question, however, saying he doesn’t support sending American military troops to Western Africa to deal with the crisis. The underlying problem, he said, is that millions of Americans don’t have access to health care. Lewis supports investing in research as it relates to infectious diseases such as Ebola.
Regarding the Ebola crisis, Zinke said more attention should be paid to securing the United States’ borders.
“The first job of our government is to protect our citizens,” Zinke said, detailing a hypothetical scenario in which Ebola-infected foreigners could cross into the U.S. from places such as Mexico to seek treatment in this country.
Zinke believes the African states affected by Ebola should be quarantined, and he wants answers to health-care protocols in this country. He doesn’t support sending troops to Africa; such soldiers would need to have special training, he added.
Fellows likewise said he wouldn’t support sending American troops to Western Africa. The CDC has been “lax” in dealing with the disease in America, and better containment procedures are necessary, he said.
“We need a plan and we don’t have one right now,” Fellows said.
Candidates were asked to address issues related to the Bakken oil fields in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota, and how they would balance health and environmental concerns with the economic development of oil and gas production.
Zinke said he doesn’t want to be “held hostage” to foreign imports of oil, adding he hasn’t seen evidence that fracking is a big environmental threat.
“Our energy policy is our chance to bring back jobs,” Zinke said. “I don’t want to see our children fight on foreign shores for what we have here.”
Zinke acknowledged that transporting oil by rail is a “big issue in Montana.” He’d rather have pipelines transporting oil, and added that he doesn’t favor subsidies for energy development.
Fellows stressed protecting private property rights as it relates to energy development and has opposed federal government subsidies to alternative energy companies, referencing $535 million given to the failed Solyndra company that manufactured solar cells.
Industrial hemp is something he’d like to see explored as an alternative energy source.
Lewis weighed in with his support of energy policies that look at long-term needs. He pointed to the potential for biomass development, and said questions linger about the long-term effects of fracking.
“We need to know what’s going into the ground,” Lewis said about fracking.
He wondered why America wouldn’t want to invest in solar and wind production to supplement the country’s energy needs.
The trio sparred over reasons for the downturn in the state’s timber industry and what could be done to restore logging.
Lewis said too much timberland is “locked up,” but noted that Lincoln County’s plight, in particular,” is complicated and not as simple as opening more timberlands for logging. He said reforming the Equal Access to Justice Act could help, because the law, which authorizes payment of legal fees to a prevailing party in an action against the U.S. if the government can’t prove its position was justified, is being wrongly used by fringe groups.
Following the Libertarian party line, Fellows said smaller government and more local control could boost the timber industry.
“Get Washington out of the equation,” he said.
Fellows also took the opportunity for a second time to make a pitch for hemp, a plant he said grows fast and is a good building material.
Zinke agreed with Fellows, that more local control would benefit the timber industry. Forest Service rangers are hamstrung in making decisions, because “Washington, D.C., has sucked up the power.”
It’s not just timber production that’s hamstrung by the federal bureaucracy, Zinke pointed out. He alluded to a mining project and hundreds of jobs in Lincoln County being held up by an Environmental Impact Statement process that’s dragging on.
The discussion about gun rights prompted a lively discussion, during which both Lewis and Zinke argued over their ratings with the National Rifle Association. Lewis claimed he has an “A” rating from the NRA, and pointed to Zinke’s 42 percent lifetime score from the national association.
Zinke disputed Lewis’ claim of an “A” rating, saying it was based only on answers to a questionnaire, before going on to say he’ll support existing gun laws and rights.
“We can all agree that in Montana, guns are a legacy,” Zinke said. “I’ll defend every law on the books and will continue to do that.”
Fellows said the Second Amendment giving Americans the right to keep and bear arms is “quite clear” and that it is not about hunting.
“We don’t need new laws,” Fellows said. “I don’t think we need all these checks for rights we already have.”
Answers fell along party lines as candidates weighed in on a question about whether or not Congress is taking an active enough role in national security.
“Absolutely, Congress should play its constitutional role and debate this,” Lewis said. But he pointed to the $2 trillion cost of the war in Iraq that began in 2001, and stated that in dealing with the current threat from ISIS, “it’s more complicated than bombing our way out of this ... we need to look at border security. I want Congress to debate,” but we need an objective.
Zinke countered, saying “ISIS is here; it’s not that complicated to shut a border down.” It’s also not complicated to show leadership abroad, he stressed.
“ISIS is on full throttle and we’re on full retreat,” Zinke said. “Our country [has done] nothing in the last six years and it shows ... I wish you could bomb your way out of it but you can’t.”
Lewis said Americans are wary of getting involved in another war and seem to favor addressing problems at home. America needs to stop “policing the world any time a situation starts,” Lewis added.
A question about what changes will be needed to sustain the safety net of social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act prompted varied responses from the candidates.
Fellows said he sees a dismal future for Medicare and Social Security, both of which “are going broke,” he said.
“And the Affordable Care Act is not that affordable,” Fellows added. “Obamacare needs to be overhauled.” He believes the law has forced some people who had health insurance into the Medicaid program.
Lewis said political ads have falsely accused him of supporting cuts to Medicare, saying that some $716 billion in cuts were not to senior benefits but to waste and fraud. Those same cuts are included in U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s Republican budget proposal, Lewis added.
Zinke said maintaining Social Security and Medicare is “about keeping our promises” to seniors. The long-term financial viability of both programs has been jeopardized, he said, because “Congress can’t keep from putting their hands in the cookie jar.”
Zinke said he agrees with the framework of Rep. Ryan’s budget, and while he doesn’t agree with every proposed cut, he applauded Ryan’s courage in putting something before a deadlocked Congress.
“This is a starting point,” Zinke said. “Ten years is appropriate to address an $18 trillion deficit.”
In closing remarks, Fellows point-blank stated: “I think this country is in trouble. Republican or Democrat, it’s still the same problems,” Fellows said.
If voters want more liberty and less government, a Libertarian candidate is the obvious choice, Fellows stressed. “Right now there’s war between two parties [and people] don’t care how much destruction they cause,” he concluded.
Lewis said his stand on issues is consistent, and he won’t waffle on what he supports, whether it’s protecting the North Fork area of the Flathead River or his belief that women should have the right to make their own health-care decisions.
Zinke said he wants to get government out of business to spur growth in manufacturing and energy independence. His campaign, he noted, has been about restoring trust and accountability in government.
“I wouldn’t run if I didn’t believe in America,” Zinke said.
He asked voters to hold him accountable, because he’ll be doing the same for every member of Congress, whether Democrat, Republican, Tea Party, “or whatever label we put on ourselves.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.
Candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, from left, Republican Ryan Zinke, Libertarian Mike Fellows, and Democrat John Lewis gather for a debate at Flathead Valley Community College on Sunday, October 19. The event, sponsored by the Daily Inter Lake, had an audience of about 300 people. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)
From left, the Daily Inter Lake's managing editor, Frank Miele, and community editor, Carol Marino, along with Western News publisher Matt Bunk, listen to answers at the U.S. House of Representatives candidates debate on Sunday, Oct. 19, at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell. Miele, Marino and Bunk were questioners at the debate, which was moderated by Matt Baldwin, editor of the Whitefish Pilot. The Daily Inter Lake sponsored the debate. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)
Candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, from left, Republican Ryan Zinke, Libertarian Mike Fellows, and Democrat John Lewis gather for a debate at Flathead Valley Community College on Sunday, Oct. 19. About 300 people were in attendance at the debate, which was sponsored by the Daily Inter Lake. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)
Libertarian Mike Fellows speaks Oct. 19, 2014, at a U.S. House of Representatives candidate debate at Flathead Valley Community College. Fellows died in a car crash Monday night. (Brenda Ahearn file photo/Daily Inter Lake)
Democrat John Lewis speaking at the U.S. House of Representatives debate on Sunday, Oct. 19, at Flathead Valley Community College. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)
Republican Ryan Zinke speaking at the U.S. House of Representatives debate on Sunday, Oct. 19, at Flathead Valley Community College. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)