FRAZER — It didn’t take long for U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau to spar over who is a bigger advocate for Indian Country in a debate held here Monday night.
In what tribal leaders said was the first debate between candidates for Montana’s lone seat in Congress held on the Fort Peck reservation, Juneau worked to characterize Zinke as out of touch with Montana’s tribes and the state as a whole, while Zinke said Juneau has lied about him and his record during this election cycle.
In the elementary school gym packed with about 200 people, the candidates fielded questions with a decidedly tribal and rural Montana flavor — health care and veterans affairs were key topics, but moderators and the audience also asked about management of bison herds, sage grouse, rural water compacts and the meth epidemic on Montana’s reservations.
Juneau, who grew up in Browning and is an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, played to what felt like a home field advantage. She said the Fort Peck tribe has given her its full support.
Zinke said he was adopted into the Assiniboine Tribe by the family of a U.S. Navy Seal whose son was killed in 2006. He then said his strong family roots in Eastern Montana make him the right choice to represent this region. “I recognize that the east oftentimes gets ignored, but you’re not alone,” Zinke said. “Montana often gets ignored.”
Zinke is a first-term congressman. He defeated John Lewis in 2014 to win Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House. He had run as a lieutenant governor candidate with Neil Livingstone in 2012, coming in fifth in a primary with seven candidates. Previously Zinke served as a state senator for one term, representing Whitefish.
For the last eight years Juneau has been Montana's superintendent of public instruction. She is term-limited from running for that post again. She was the first American Indian elected to a statewide office in Montana. As superintendent of public instruction she has seen Montana's graduation rate increase nearly 5 percent, an accomplishment she referred to many times Monday night.
The night’s first question centered on comments made by a candidate in a different race entirely, Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte. News outlets around the state last week ran stories quoting Gianforte as saying Indian reservations hinder the free market, do not have consistent rule of law, suffer from nepotism and don’t have a culture that celebrates success. Candidates were asked if they agreed with Gianforte.
In her denouncement of the statements, Juneau was quick to tie Zinke to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who many view as anti-Native, and highlight her knowledge of Indian Country issues.
“We don’t need politicians and candidates for elected office that denigrate Native communities,” she said. “We need to work with them.”
Zinke almost immediately invoked Democratic candidate for president Hillary Clinton in his response, saying both she and Juneau are liars.
“I think my opponent has the same problem Hillary does, the truth. The truth is I support tribes,” Zinke said. He cited the Blackfeet Water Compact, working to recognize the Little Shell Tribe and introducing bills to help pay for water projects.
Juneau said Zinke had let Indian Country down by voting against the Violence Against Women Act.
“He’s not supported Indian Country,” she said. “He will go out and say one thing, but look at his actions. We can do better, we can do better for Indian Country and we can do better for Montana.”
Through the debate, Juneau often fell back on her record as the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“Zinke is not providing the leadership,” she said. “We need someone who has actually gotten something done for our state, who has a record of accomplishment.”
Zinke pushed back, again calling Juneau a liar. He referenced her campaign’s push earlier this summer saying the congressman voted to sell off public lands.
“I voted 17 times in support of public land, and yet my opponent said I wanted to sell and transfer lands, and that is false. If we’re going to have a debate, let’s talk about the truth. I mean what I say and I say what I mean.”
Neither candidate offered up much in the way of specifics when asked about land management issues including bison herds, sage grouse and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Juneau used questions on these topics to say that she believes decisions are best made with Montanans sitting around the table talking, while Zinke repeated that he thinks issues affecting Montanans should be settled by Montanans and not lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
“Montana needs a say in how we manage our lands,” Zinke said. “If you’re looking for a solution from Washington, D.C., you’re not going to find it because the solution is us.”
Early in the debate a member of the audience asked the candidates where they stood on allowing refugees from Syria into the U.S. Juneau said the country has a vetting process in place that allows for the safe process of letting people into the country.
“When they come here to be resettled we need to remember that we also have a humanitarian side,” she said.
Zinke, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, said the current vetting process isn’t enough and that’s why he proposed the the American SAFE Act to amp up the screening process to include the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
“If I could say children and women aren’t threats, it would be a wonderful world,” Zinke said. “I’ve had to engage children with weapons. It’s unvetted refugees we have to worry about. I fought there so it wouldn’t come here.”
Again and again responses circled back to Indian Country issues.
Juneau said Zinke hasn’t supported Montana’s tribes or spent the time in communities and talking to tribal governments like she has. She brought up Zinke’s support of the English Language Unity Act and his appearance with the ProEnglish organization, which has been called a racist group. Zinke said he voted for the act because it was about making certain U.S. government documents that should be in English.
Zinke said he sees desperation across Indian Country and he’s worked by supporting the Blackfeet Water and Northern Plains Water compacts as well as recognition of the Little Shell Tribe.
The candidates traded barbs on support for veterans, with Juneau lambasting Zinke for not denouncing comments made by Trump disparaging Gold Star families of fallen service members after Trump attacked Khizr Khan, the father of a deceased U.S. Muslim soldier, after he spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
“Congressman Zinke sided with a guy who has degraded a Gold Star family,” Juneau said.
Zinke quickly turned the conversation back to Clinton, saying she lied about being under sniper fire and what happened in Benghazi, where Zinke said two of his friends died.
“I don’t agree with Trump on a lot of issues, and I do not agree with corruption and lying,” Zinke said.
When asked why reservation schools are still struggling, Juneau pointed around the gym, saying Frazer was one of the original locations to participate in her Schools of Promise program that focused on putting resources in some of the lowest performing schools in the state.
“They’ve done great. We can look at data in our Schools of Promise and see that it has been successful.”
Zinke responded by saying that students are still not proficient at reading and math and many need remedial courses when entering universities and community colleges. “How you make it better is you empower the school boards,” he said.
On a question focused on health care, Zinke called the Affordable Care Act an “unmitigated disaster,” saying the program hasn’t meet goals of better access to health care at lower costs and hard-to-get appointments.
“A lot of people criticize the VA,” Zinke said. “Indian Health Services is a superstar compared to the VA.” Again he advocated for putting resources in communities and not in Washington.
Juneau said the Affordable Care Act has done some good in Montana and in Indian Country. The law does need fixing, she said, but shouldn’t be thrown out and more should be done to take insurance companies out of the driver’s seat.
Zinke told the crowd he thought the best way to fix the program was to let decisions be made in Montana.
“Veterans should not die waiting in line for service,” he said. “If you can’t get an appointment, you should have immediate access to an appointment somewhere else.”
Zinke also said the VA has not done enough to address women's health and needs to stabilize its leadership.
One of the last questions of the night focused on the methamphetamine epidemic on Montana’s Indian reservations. Poplar, 40 miles east of the debate site, has seen an increase in the use of the drug and several high-profile crimes tied to its abuse.
Zinke said there are too few local resources to effectively fight the problem. “Washington is not going to fix this problem,” he said. “We need to give you resources here, clinics here so you don’t send someone away outside of their tribal network.”
Meth is a threat equal to that posed by ISIS, Zinke said, “Because it is killing us from within.”
Juneau told the crowd she’s been to all of Montana’s reservations and that tribes need more law enforcement and tribal courts that can effectively prosecute.
Nancy and Albert Foote came from Poplar in part to drums and sing before the debate. The couple, who have lived in Poplar most of their lives, said they came to support the community and Juneau.
“She’s a Native representative and it’s important we have somebody in there able to speak up for Native issues,” Albert Foote said.
Foote said one of the biggest issues for him this election cycle is clean drinking water. He said Juneau has a better chance of understanding issues like that because she’s also from a reservation.
“It’s important for us to have a representative that understands us,” he said.
Brent McRae and his wife Hillari drove in from Jordan. They’re Zinke supporters and said he’s done good work to support Montana's rural electric cooperatives.
“He’s helped us many times,” McRae, who is who is president of the Montana Electric Cooperatives' Association, said. He was hoping to learn more about Juneau’s stance on issues he said he hasn’t been glean from her website.
Both Juneau and Zinke supporters said they were happy the debate was close to home.
“I’m really pleased they came to Eastern Montana for the debate because sometimes northeastern Montana is forgotten,” McRae said.
Monday night’s debate was the first of four scheduled between Zinke and Juneau. Another is set for Thursday in Billings. Two more are set for Great Falls on Oct. 5 and Oct. 8. The candidates have said they would like to hold a debate on the Crow Reservation but that has not been scheduled.