“We’re looking for good questions,” said Glacier High School government teacher Beau Wright on Friday morning — and he got them during a question-and-answer session with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
About 120 local students, many above or near voting age, filed into the school’s auditorium for the session, which was scheduled earlier this week.
Standing in front of the stage, the senator began by sharing an early encounter with electoral politics. “When I was about your age,” he told the students, “...the school put the juniors and seniors on a bus and we went to the Legislature.”
“I was impressed by them and got the bug for public service out of them, and hopefully somewhere along in your lives, you will get that same bug. “
Wright also had a keen interest in their civic engagement. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the students,” he told the Daily Inter Lake. Wright said teachers “spent a day or two briefing the kids and brainstorming questions, talking about some policies that it might be interesting to get a take on” from the senator.
During the 45-minute session, students quizzed Tester on topics ranging from Aristotle’s concerns about democracy to kitchen-table issues like reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some students didn’t shy away from challenging the senator. One asked about his stances on immigration.
Tester opposed the DREAM Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, when it was voted on in 2007 and 2010. But more recently, he spoke out against the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the Obama administration implemented to protect this same group.
Tester linked his shift to changing attitudes among Montanans. “When I first got elected in the Senate, I was getting more mail on immigration than on the Iraq War ... A lot of people were commenting, saying, ‘This is unacceptable.’”
“Quite frankly, most people in Montana don’t see immigration the same as you do,” he told the audience. He said that once the state Chamber of Commerce had started educating residents on immigrant workers’ importance, “we started getting different input from different people.”
Difficult subject matter was also fair game. Another student asked what Tester had done to make his workplace safer in the wake of recent sexual-harassment allegations.
Tester called the complaints made against former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., “very disturbing,” and said that everyone in his office was required to watch educational videos about sexual harassment. “It’s just a matter of awareness, and we try to make sure everyone’s aware all the time, including myself.”
After the event, Glacier senior Jaden Woeppel said that “it was actually more informative than I thought it was going to be,” describing Tester’s answers as “the no-nonsense thing he’s known for.”
His classmate, Nathan Mayhak, agreed. “Being able to meet one of the senators we have was a great experience for everybody here, and we learned a lot.”
Mayhak, who’s planning to double-major in music education and music performance at the University of Montana, was especially interested to hear about how Tester’s early career teaching music had shaped his work in elected office. “When you get up on the floor, and talk about important decisions, you gotta be animated and dynamic,” he told students.
That resonated with Mayhak. “It was really cool knowing that I have more possibilities out there,” he said. As with teaching and acting, the student agrees that the “whole aspect of being able to talk to people efficiently is really important for being an elected official.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.