Montana Democratic Party delegates listen to 2020 hopefuls at the party's officers' convention in Helena on Saturday. Credit: Gary Marshall / Montana Free Press

Montana Democrats held their state convention in Helena July 12-13. They heard from nearly a dozen candidates for statewide and federal office, and from a former U.S. senator who told them the party needs to pay more attention to rural voters if it wants to win in the 2020 elections.

Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates-Carney covered the convention, as did freelance reporter Alex Sakariassen. They joined John Adams of the Montana Free Press to talk about what they saw. 

Adams: The talk is that the Democrats don’t have a very deep bench, particularly when it comes to some of these top-tier races: U.S. Senate, governor. You know, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who is a former secretary of state, he’s won statewide office before. He’s going to be running for governor. Casey Schreiner, Democrat from Great Falls, a representative. He was the minority leader in the last legislative session. He’s also running for governor.

But in terms of the candidates that really sort of bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the party, I’m thinking of a Brian Schweitzer. I’m thinking of a Denise Juneau. I’m thinking of Gov. Steve Bullock, who’s now running for the presidency. Did you get the sense from this convention that there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm around any particular candidates?

Alex Sakariassen

Sakariassen: I think from the party faithful, yes. Cooney seemed to really get the crowd kind of amped up first thing in the morning.

Adams: What was his message?

Sakariassen: You know, his message was one of, “Look I’ve been lieutenant governor alongside Steve Bullock. You know, I’ve been his No. 2, and if, you know, we’ve made strides, we’ve made progress in this state on some key issues, on Medicaid expansion and on, you know, dark money, and let’s, let’s, you know, continue that progress, let’s protect that progress and carry the state forward.”

And so it was kind of a heavy lean on experience and on a familiar face, and in fact, I think that people who really jazzed people up the most as far as the delegate enthusiasm were some familiar faces. Kathleen Williams got the only standing ovation, other than Heidi Heitkamp. You know, she, she really got the delegates jazzed up.

Adams: And what was the line that brought the crowd to their feet?

Sakariassen: Just her strolling to the microphone.

Adams: Oh wow, so just her presence on stage brought the crowd to their feet.

Sakariassen: Yeah.

Adams: Oh wow. 

Sakariassen: The delegates all, I mean everybody, stood up, and she immediately gave a nod to that and thanked everybody for the foundation that they built. You know, back during her 2018 bid and then, you know, also mentioned that the groundwork that she laid last year, and running for the same office, despite the loss, allowed her to in this first quarter raise, she said, you know, $430,000.

Adams: You know, that’s interesting because last primary election, I think a lot of people sort of saw her as a dark horse, right? I mean, her coming out of that very tough primary, I think it was a three- or four-way primary the last time around, and there were some folks who had a lot of money and had a lot of name recognition. But Kathleen Williams really worked hard in those rural areas of the state and came out of that primary with this, with a strong victory, and kept that momentum heading into the November general election.

Corin Cates-Carney

Cates-Carney: Another candidate who got a really good reception was Melissa Romano, who ran for the office of public instruction in 2016, lost to Republican Elsie Arntzen, and right now, she is the only Democrat running for that.

Adams: One thing that really jumps out at me is the number of women, and that is definitely a contrast with what we saw at the Republican convention, where it was, you know, it’s mostly men running for these, these top-tier offices.

Alex, you wrote in your story last week there was, at the end of the first day of the convention, some of the most interesting developments of the day came at the end over a vote. Talk about what unfolded at the end of the day on Friday.

Sakariassen: Essentially, what came up was a proposed amendment to strip gender terminology from the party’s rules and replace it with, you know, gender-neutral or non-gendered terminology, and specifically stripping out any reference to committeeman and committeewoman and replacing it with committee person.

And what wound up happening was that, that passed late in the day and got quite a bit of hand-clapping and standing, and it was, it was an effort that was proposed by Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, out of Helena, but was talked about at length on the floor and, really, the push to pass it came from delegate Amelia Marquez, who’s a trans woman and Latina and clearly saw some real importance in taking this step.

Adams: And you definitely see a more progressive strain of Democrats coming out of the urban areas, right? I mean, some of the most liberal members of the party, I would say, come from Missoula, Helena, Billings, Bozeman. Is that an age thing? Is it an urban/rural thing? I mean what are your thoughts?

Cates-Carney: I think those are kind of like … four points of a square, with age on either side and then rural and urban, and then you kind of have to draw where — you’re spreading these things out, and I think the rural-urban is as important in that conversation.

There was also, there was a younger guy who was definitely trying to represent that rural voice in the Democratic Party and saying, “Hey, we really need to get back to talking to rural voters more,” and I think that was another big theme of the convention: what can the Democratic Party do to reconnect with rural voters in Montana? Because that’s been something that’s been slowly sliding over the last few elections, and the headlining speaker, former North Dakota U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, that was her main message that she drilled into the party, was, “You cannot get re-elected, you cannot get elected period, if you don’t appeal to rural voters in Montana.”

Adams: Alex, what were the sort of takeaways from the Heidi Heitkamp speech in terms of, you know, here is a senator, a moderate, some may even say conservative Democrat from a rural red state, neighboring state to Montana, lost in this last election?

Sakariassen: Oh, I think Heitkamp’s message fed into the more intentional theme of the weekend. There was a moment when she asked the delegates during lunch, if the 2020 election was held tomorrow, who would, would Donald Trump win re-election? And like a handful of hands went up, and she said, “All of your hands should be up.”

Adams: So Corin, there were some new faces at the convention and people making their opening arguments.

Cates-Carney: There’s a Reilly Neill from Livingston running for governor, and her opening argument was, “Hey, I’m someone different.”

Adams: And Reilly Neill, I should say she was, she served, I think, two terms in the House.

Cates-Carney: Yes.

Adams: In the Montana Legislature, and she’s a newspaper publisher out of Livingston.

John Mues is an interesting character. He has a background in the oil and gas industry. He’s an engineer. He’s got some ranching experience. He’s also a former naval officer, and he lives in Loma. Kind of came out of nowhere, announced his campaign this last week. What was his message to the delegates and how was he received?

Cates-Carney: He was, I think, a lot of his message was focused on income inequality and wanting to address that, and he kind of pivoted and used that to target Steve Daines, who he would be challenging for the U.S. Senate seat, in saying, “Here’s an example of a well-to-do person, wealthy, and, you know, we need to level the playing field and I’m not one of those wealthy people,” would be his pitch. And he definitely targeted Daines quite a bit and got Democrats riled up, and that was a theme throughout their convention: targeting any Republican, whether that is Daines or especially Trump, or anyone, really, that riled up the base.

Sakariassen: One particularly strong quote, I thought, that came out of his speech that was pointed directly at Daines, you know, saying that no matter who faces Sen. Daines, what is true is the general election will have a Montana Democrat who is his diametric opposite—that is someone who can, and someone who cares. And so it was, his whole speech was about, “I’m empathetic. I’m compassionate. I care about, you know, all Montanans. Daines does not. This is a man who is born into privilege and has a track record that does not prove, and in fact, you know, upholds the idea that he has no compassion, that he has no empathy for the plight of Montanans.”

John Adams began his professional career in 2001 in Idaho Falls, ID writing and editing for a variety of trade magazines. He covered topics ranging from potato and sugar beet farming to skate park and playground construction and maintenance. Adams started his newspaper career as the city government reporter for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, WI where he covered the City Hall, police, fire and local courthouse beats. In 2005 he joined the staff of the Missoula Independent in Missoula, MT where he worked as a staff reporter covering a wide range of issues including the environment,...