Dems for MT U.S. House seat: Who will emerge from crowded primary field?

Posted at 12:16 PM, Apr 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-13 14:16:57-04

In a field that includes three attorneys, two former state legislators and a geologist, the six Montana Democrats who want to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte have perhaps one thing in common: Few voters know who they are.

In less than two months, Democratic primary voters will choose the party’s nominee, who will attempt to win a seat Democrats haven’t held since 1996.

Some of the candidates have been campaigning for only a few weeks; others, for many months.

Yet as voting draws near – absentee ballots will be mailed out May 11 and election day is June 5 – the six candidates often still strive to make themselves known, telling their personal story and world-view more than they talk about beating Gianforte.

“I have a track record of standing up to powerful corporations as a consumer-protection advocate,” says John Heenan, an attorney from Billings. “I think people want a street-fighter … I’m the the candidate in this race who’s a fighter.”

None of the six – Heenan, former land-trust director Grant Kier of Missoula, environmental lawyer John Meyer of Bozeman, former state Sen. Lynda Moss of Billings, lawyer Jared Pettinato of Bozeman and former state Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman – has held statewide office, and four are first-time candidates.

Some have raised considerable money and have substantial campaign operations. But it’s hard to pick a favorite in such a crowded field.

Here’s a closer look at the six people in the race:

John Heenan: The 41-year-old attorney was the first to enter the race, last summer, and is running as a populist who will press for policies and programs that help working-class Montanans.

He supports a “Medicare for all” health system that provides government-finance coverage for everyone, wants higher taxes on the wealthy, and says he wants to crack down on “dark money” in politics.

Heenan, who grew up in the Philadelphia area and came to Montana in 1997 to attend the University of Montana, has won some large court judgments representing consumers in lawsuits against banks and insurance companies. He’s put $205,000 of his own money into the campaign and had raised another $375,000 through December, and says he has campaign offices across the state.

“When I sit and talk to people, the things that they care about, the issues are the same,” he says: “The erosion of the American dream, and how do we restore it, and how do we elect people that are going to fight for regular working Montanans, instead of this wealthy, donor class?”

Grant Kier: A geologist by training, Kier left his job as director of the Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula last year to run for Congress.

Kier, 43, says his track record of working with farmers, ranchers and other landowners to achieve conservation goals and public access to land make him a good choice to appeal to all types of voters.

Kier, who grew up in Kansas and Colorado and moved to Montana in 2005, is the other top fundraiser in the contest, having collected $441,000 through December.

He also talks often about energy policy, arguing for more focus on transitioning to cleaner energy production and other steps to combat climate change.

But Kier’s main argument is his appeal as a practical problem-solved, who listens to all sides of an issue.

“My wife and I couldn’t stand by and watch any more what’s happening to our country,” he told a gathering of public-employee union members in Helena this month. “Right now, more than ever, we need people who are more interested in mending fences than building walls.”

John Meyer: The 37-year-old lawyer joined the campaign on the last day possible, March 12, as a surprise candidate.

Meyer grew up in the Midwest and went to a small, private law school in Vermont before moving to Montana about 10 years ago, establishing the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center in Bozeman.

The center recently won a significant court ruling to protect critical habitat for endangered species on national forest land – a ruling partially overturned by Congress last month.

Meyer says he joined the race because he wants to protect public land – and show that someone doesn’t need a lot of money to run, and possibly win.

“I would love to run against Gianforte as the lawyer with student loans, that goes to Congress,” he says. “I rent my apartment, I may car payments. I’m a normal person trying to do good things for everybody.”

Lynda Moss: The former state senator and consultant says she was inspired to join the race after attending the women’s march in Helena last January, when as many as 10,000 people showed up to protest policies by President Trump.

Moss has a minimal campaign, but says she’s relying on contacts she’s made across the state during a career of working with communities on a variety of local projects and issues.

Moss, 68, was born in Wyoming and grew up in St. Louis, but has lived in Billings since 1982. She was a state senator from 2005-2012.

Moss says as Montana’s congresswoman, she would put into place a “community action network” that would enlist local people and experts to devise solutions to the state’s pressing problems, such as workforce shortages.

“I have a bold plan, a bold vision – a community action network that brings people together,” she says. “I’m ready, I have the energy, to do the job, and to work at every level, at the grassroots community level, to the halls of Congress.”

Jared Pettinato: The only Montana native in the field, Pettinato grew up in Whitefish and worked for nine years as a U.S. Justice Department attorney in Washington, D.C., before moving back to Montana and Bozeman last year.

Pettinato, 38, defended federal agencies in natural-resource cases, and says his direct experience in public-lands policy sets him apart.

He says encouraging wind-power development can bring jobs to rural Montana, and he also is proposing a program of tree- and timber-fuel-thinning on national forests, to create jobs and revenue and reduce the severity of wildlfires.

“We need better ideas and we need hard work,” he says of Democrats trying to defeat Gianforte. “I’m the Democrat who’s actually come forward with new ideas, with creative ideas, for solving problems that help Montanans move forward.”

Kathleen Williams: The former state representative calls herself a “unique Democrat” who has worked with agriculture, business and conservationists to promote programs that help all Montanans.

Williams, 57, whose last job was associate director of a group promoting rural land stewardship, grew up in the San Francisco bay area and moved to Montana in 1995. She was a state lawmaker from Bozeman from 2011-2016.

Williams was the third person to get into the contest last year and has done a respectable job raising money – although she trails Heenan and Kier, in the campaign-finance race.

She says her legislative experience sets her apart, such as sponsoring bills that allowed “cottage food” producers in Montana and enabled cancer patients to get routine care covered while taking part in clinical trials.

“I think that’s really what’s going to be competitive against Gianforte, is that policy experience and that breadth and depth of knowledge,” she says. “He is not serving us in the way that Montanans deserve, and I think Montanans will realize that and want to choose a candidate that they trust.”