The most difficult decision Montana voters face this election season may very well be who to send to Washington, D.C., as the state’s sole U.S. representative.
Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke has certainly fought well for Montana a time or two; however, count us among those not entirely satisfied with his performance in Congress and deeply troubled by his continuing commitment to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Democrat Denise Juneau, on the other hand, promises to stand out from the crowd and draw a much-needed spotlight to Montana.
Juneau is a stand-out candidate running a high-profile campaign that has attracted national attention. She is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. As the first Native American woman elected to Congress, Juneau could bring long overdue attention to the often overlooked issues facing Montana women and tribes. She has already laid the foundation for ongoing support, both in Congress and at home in Montana.
Of course, in her first term Juneau would need to immediately begin expanding her focus and expertise beyond education. We would expect her to pick four or five issues near and dear to Montana, dive into the details surrounding them and make herself the go-to expert. That said, what she has already accomplished in the realm of education is a good indication of what she is capable of accomplishing in other areas.
Juneau holds a law degree from the University of Montana and a master's degree in education from Harvard University. She has twice been elected Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, and her time in that statewide office has been marked by tremendous success in raising graduation rates, primarily because she identified Missoula’s Graduation Matters initiative as a good example and encouraged local districts to adopt a similar program, with her office providing helpful tools and information.
At the same time, Juneau has fought against federal policies that don’t fit Montana’s educational needs, such as No Child Left Behind, while also advocating for expanded college and career readiness opportunities.
She has also demonstrated thoughtful decision-making on Montana’s five-member Land Board, breaking from other Democrats on the board at times in order to ensure state lands remain protected in the future, while also giving the go-ahead for timber projects and additional public lands access.
That’s the kind of approach that just might get things done in Congress. If she uses her demonstrated skills to work across ideological divides, she might even be able to use her high profile to break through the gridlock.
In any case, Juneau would likely have a better working relationship than Zinke with Montana’s two senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester. Indeed, she maintains a strong connection with Tester, who would be a great mentor in D.C.
Juneau stands out because of who she is and what she has accomplished, which will undoubtedly draw others hoping to work with her. So long as she uses that attention to speak for Montana, she will make sure the issues affecting all of us are heard in ways they aren’t today.
If Montanans send Juneau to D.C., she needs to be all about Montana, not about herself. And if she needs a reminder of what not to do on that score, she need only look at her predecessor.
The plain truth is that Zinke has not been a particularly effective leader in the House, despite belonging to the majority party. He has not stood out from the crowd – except when trying to advance his own career. And in these attempts, he has seemed only too willing to leave Montana behind.
Less than a year into his first term as a freshman congressman, Zinke promoted himself as a viable candidate for Speaker of the House. More recently, he caused serious concerns about his judgment when he offered to serve as Trump’s running mate, and continues to hope for a position in Trump’s cabinet should he be elected president.
Perhaps that is why Zinke also continues to refuse to condemn Donald Trump for his verbal attacks on women, minorities, Gold Star families, Muslims and others too numerous to name. To be sure, we are in no way suggesting that Zinke endorse Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. We would, however, like to see him acknowledge that Trump’s statements are unacceptable instead of merely shrugging them off. On this matter, he has not spoken well for Montana.
Montana is the fourth largest state in the nation but has the smallest possible representation in the House, with only one congressman to carry the voices of 1 million Montanans to a Congress packed with 435 members. By comparison, California has 53 House representatives.
Montanans need a strong voice in the U.S. House who is focused on serving her constituents. Let’s see what Denise Juneau can do for Montana – for our economy, our public lands and our access to health care – as our U.S. representative.