Democratic primary candidates for governor mostly agree at debate

A Perspective By Brad Molnar Former Legislator/pscPolitical Potpourri
Thursday, February 20, 2020
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Political Potpourri

Last week on the MSUB campus the two remaining Democrats vying to be Montana’s next governor kinda sorta squared off before a full house. They both wore the official Schweitzer uniform for democrat candidates; blue jeans, dark sport coat, blue shirt. Of Montana’s last 24 governors, nine have been Republicans and 15 Democrats. Democrats have held the office since 2004. Statically speaking, the next governor of Montana was standing on that stage. Statically speaking, it is stupid to rely on statistics to handicap a political race.

Tough Butte kids vie for the same job

On stage was Lt. Governor Mike Cooney and business woman Whitney Williams. Cooney has a long pedigree of public service. His professional career began as a news broadcaster in Butte but he soon became front man for the Baucus congressional campaign, then he was elected to the Montana legislature at age 22. In 1988 Cooney won the general election for Secretary of State though Republicans won up and down the ticket. Cooney took the SoS off tax payer support and made it self sufficient on fees for service. In the 2000 primary for governor Cooney lost to Mark O’Keefe. Cooney then became the Deputy Commissioner of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and currently serves as Governor Bullock’s lieutenant governor.

First time candidate Williams is not a stranger to politics. Her father is former Congressman Pat Williams and her mother is a former Montana Senate Majority Leader. Williams worked for First Lady Hillary Clinton and on the Hillary Clinton 2008 Presidential Campaign. After that she worked for the Casey Foundation advocating for change in foster care programs. Currently Williams is the CEO of Williamsworks which provides strategic services for, among others, the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation and Thorn, an international anti-human trafficking/anti sexual exploitation of children organization. Williams is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.


The only panelist of unknown political persuasion was Russ Riesinger of KTVQ. The other two were Hanna Olson, Democrat candidate for Montana House District 52, and Chuck Tooley, Billings’ longest serving mayor and Democrat center piece for decades. Olson and Tooley asked questions from the Democrat play book so in-tandem Cooney and Williams stumbled to find new ways to answer shades of the same question. Williams and Cooney never disagreed so the event stayed a forum and never morphed into a debate … dang it.

Williams is fiery

While the forum did not uncover real divides—both are pro-choice, both are pro-renewable energy, both advocate access to public lands—their different styles showed their public experience. From her three-minute opening to her closing statement Williams literally had her chin, her face and her fist in the air loudly repeating vintage Democratic talking points. In her first two minutes she said, “Trump wants to transfer public lands,” “Republicans want to reverse Roe V Wade,” and she would “push back against the corporate grab for public lands.” In fact Trumps’ appointments to head the Dept. of the Interior are on record against such transfers, the Governor of Montana has zero say in the future of Roe v. Wade, and current examples of corporate “land grabs” are illusive.

Cooney is calm(er)

Cooney said he is a product of his life in Montana and wants to make it easier to do business in Montana. He highlighted his time on the land board, claiming he had maximized their profits for schools in Montana while protecting access to the state lands. Without fear of counterpoint, Cooney proclaimed his “fondness” for certificate programs that could quickly move people into available jobs. Cooney never raised his voice for effect.

Pick three

It is an old adage of campaigning to pick three issues and stick with them. No matter the question Williams’ answer worked in “defeat Gianforte,” develop “our” renewable resources, and “support the right to choose.”

Cooney chose only “Medicaid expansion cures our ills” and “I am a proven supporter of public access to public lands” as his fallback positions. He actually answered the questions asked. Appearing as the moderate, the Lt. Governor several times mentioned legislation passed by the Republican legislature as being a good first step.

Real time

This forum, like the Republican gubernatorial forum, did not address current issues but rather partisan talking points. So I prepared a few questions of my own. After the event Cooney answered my questions. Williams gave me her card and told me to email the questions and promised twice to personally answer any questions I might have. I have sent the questions via email four times. The phone number on the card does not work.

During the debate, referencing the Weyerhauser sell of 600,000 acres to Southern Pines Plantations, Williams said, “We got to stop things like this.”

Question: Weyerhauser announced the selling of 600,000 acres to Southern Pine Plantations. This is a private property transaction between private entities. What, if anything, should be state government’s position on sales of this magnitude?

Said Cooney, “The governor can provide leadership bringing stakeholders to the table to find solutions preserving and protecting Montanans’ access to public lands. Historically, Plum Creek and Weyerhaeuser committed to and provided public access to their lands for Montanans to enjoy. Southern Pines raises significant concerns and I’ll fight like hell to make sure the public has access.”

Williams: No response

Question: Governors can accept or not accept refugees. If you are Montana’s next governor will you accept refugees into Montana? If “no” why not? If “yes” would you impose conditions?

Said Cooney, “Montanans are a welcoming people. I’ve met with folks who have come to Montana and are making Montana their home and contributing to our communities. Even Republican governors have come around on this issue because refugees go through a thorough vetting process and contribute to the workforce. The fact is we’re dealing with very few refugee resettlements here in Montana.

Williams: No response

The Laurel Outlook


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