U.S. House candidates meet at Democratic forum

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Whitefish Democrat Jared Pettinato makes a point, while, from left, Grant Kier, John Meyer and Kathleen Williams listen at a forum of the congressional candidates at Columbia Falls High School Saturday. (Chris Peterson photo)

Montana’s House Democratic primary came to the Flathead Valley Saturday. Five candidates aiming to unseat U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R–Mont., spent two hours onstage at Columbia Falls High School in a forum sponsored by the Flathead Democratic Central Committee.

Several dozen guests turned out for the event, where moderator Mark Holston read audience-submitted questions to Kathleen Williams, Grant Kier, John Heenan, John Meyer and Jared Pettinato, then gave them each a brief period to respond.

One of the first questions focused on the electoral task ahead: “What differentiates you from the other candidates that you believe would increase your chances of defeating Gianforte?”

Kier, former executive director of the Bitter Root and Five Valleys Land Trusts, pointed to his experience managing land trusts. “I do believe that we are the minority party and we win by going into places and building relationships with independents and Republicans,” he said. “For the last 13 years in my career, I have bridged the rural-urban divide to help small communities invest in rural public lands...In that work, I have built incredible relationships with people on all sides of the aisle.”

Former Bozeman state representative Williams also addressed the tough fight in store for the primary’s winner. “It’s an incredibly unique Democrat that’s going to be able to unseat (Gianforte).…What that requires is a strong progressive advocacy and voting record. I’m honored to say that I have that.” Her work with the state’s business and agricultural communities, she continued, holds appeal for more right-leaning voters.

Meyer, the executive director of the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center in Bozeman, brought up his previous work with the U.S. Forest Service and his current efforts in environmental law and conservation. “It’s easy to talk about things, but I’m actually doing (them) now, I’ve been doing these things since before I filed to run.”

Billings consumer-protection attorney and small-business owner Heenan took a different tack. “I’m a street fighter. I stick up for people against bullies.” He also noted that “I’m from Yellowstone County. It’s where statewide elections are won and lost.”

Whitefish native and attorney Pettinato got some of the afternoon’s biggest laughs with his reply. “I served at the U.S. Department of Justice for nine years defending public lands. So I’ve got the best contrast with Greg Gianforte: Department of Justice, confessed criminal.”

As the questions grew more specific, the candidates showed strong consensus on some issues, such as defending public lands and women’s abortion rights. But they differed and broke ranks on others.

On campaign finance reform, for instance, four of the candidates denounced election contributions from political action committees, commonly known as PACs. But Williams said that “We need to raise campaign finances so that we can work on campaign finance reform.”

She went on to say that, while she had refused PAC contributions for her state legislative campaigns, “I’m not doing that now, but that’s partly because I have a proven record of making lobbyists work for me, rather than the other way around.”

Their paths also split on gun violence. Williams, Meyer and Pettinato all offered specific gun-control measures, such as banning “bump stocks” that increase a rifle’s firing speed. Heenan gave a broader reflection on his children’s concerns about gun violence, decried gun lobbyists’ influence and declared that “common sense needs to prevail.”

Kier, meanwhile, was clear that “I’m not calling for a ban on assault-style weapons...I’m a scientist, and I need data to make good decisions.” In an interview with the Daily Inter Lake last month, Kier said that restrictions on federal funding for research on gun violence need to end. “I’m calling on full funding of the (Centers for Disease Control) to do that research right now.”

The two-hour forum covered a wide range of other issues, including climate change, health care and tax reform. Democratic voters will assess the candidates’ stances on these issues in the June 5 primary.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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