Six Democrats vying for the chance to challenge Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte met on stage at the Babcock Theater in Billings, discussing topics from health care and foreign policy, to agriculture and a potential trade war with China.
The forum, organized by the Montana State University Billings College Democrats, featured Grant Kier of Missoula, Lynda Moss of Billings, Jared Pettinato of Bozeman, John Meyer of Bozeman, John Heenan of Billings and Kathleen Williams of Bozeman.
Former mayor of Billings Chuck Tooley moderated, asking submitted questions.
Tooley first posed this question to candidates: "On most of your websites or social media sites, bringing better-paying jobs to Montana is listed as the top priority. Can you give us one or two ways you think a trade war with China would be good or bad for Montana?"
Moss, vice chairwoman of the Northwest Area Foundation, highlighted her experience with diplomacy during her time in Montana's legislature in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.
"What I learned is Japan is one of the largest importers of Montana beef," Moss said. "So I believe that it's very important for Montana to nurture and sustain our relationships in trade with our international partners, and I support diplomacy and opportunities to work side by side with our partners."
Pettinato, an attorney originally from Whitefish, described a domino effect where increased steel prices could drive up farming equipment costs. Tariffs could make it harder for farmers to sell soybeans and wheat, Pettinato said, before describing the importance of growing the economy and keeping jobs in Montana.
"In Montana we can build jobs and bring money into Montana with the wind in the trees," he said. "We can make money out of thin air. It's the next treasure out of the Treasure State." Pettinato then expressed a need for increased solar and wind energy in addition to better forest management.
Meyer, a Bozeman attorney, focused on Colstrip in his answer to the trade war question, saying the power plant should be converted into a wind and solar manufacturing facility.
"The Trumpsters like to say 'Let's make Montana great again, let's make America great again,' and I think this is a huge opportunity to create new manufacturing jobs. As we phase out of coal we can put people to work building good, clean manufacturing jobs, wind and solar, and then install it as well, so it's not just building it, it's installing it across the state."
Heenan, also an attorney, said tariffs risk Montanans' financial security.
"Our president tweeted that trade wars are good," he said. "For those of us that have retirement plans, 401(k) plans, we would respectfully disagree with the president. And the people that would disagree the most are our farmers and ranchers. As I travel the state, particularly in Eastern Montana and rural Montana, they are rightly nervous about these tariffs and trade wars, and frankly, what's happened is this administration and this Republican party has chosen to sacrifice our state and our farmers and ranchers to play politics, and our representative is silent on this issue."
Williams, a former state legislator and associated director of Bozeman’s Western Landowners Alliance, continued Heenan's angle.
"So John said he would respectfully disagree with our president. I would say 'What an idiot,'" she said, referring to President Donald Trump. "So the steel and aluminum, that was the first salvo, that's going to increase costs for anybody who uses those materials in their manufacturing."
Calling society a global economy, Williams argued, "every product has elements from various countries and various parts that make it work. Trade war is not effective for Montana."
Kier, former director of Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula, also piled on the president and a trade war, calling it a "disaster for Montana."
"We are producers in this state, and we need markets to buy our goods. It is that simple," Kier said. "It doesn't matter what industry you're in. And the biggest markets are growing in Asia right now. Montana producers are absolutely terrified by the tactics that Trump is delivering across this world right now. They are a threat, and nobody is standing up for them. Greg Gianforte married the Trump family on his campaign, and now he refuses to stand up to them even when they threaten our biggest industry in Montana."
Candidates went on to answer questions about health care, foreign policy, agriculture, public lands and town hall meetings.
During the public lands portion of the forum, Meyer shocked some in attendance as he described his commitment to protecting public lands. "There's no way I would ever let any of these f---ers take all of our public land," he said.
The entirety of the forum can be watched at the MSUB College Democrats Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MSUBDemocrats/.
More than 100 people attended Thursday night's event.