Montana 2020 gubernatorial candidates (from left) Al Olszewski, Tim Fox, and Greg Gianforte at November 2019 campaign events. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

HELENA — The three Republican candidates seeking to be Montana’s next governor laid out how they would use the power of the executive branch to boost the state economy at two events this week.

Current Attorney General Tim Fox, of Helena, and state Sen. Al Olszewski, of Kalispell, met on a debate stage at Carroll College Nov. 26 to describe their respective economic policy positions. The third candidate, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, skipped the debate in order to keep what his campaign described as “a long-standing family commitment.” Gianforte did speak briefly at a Nov. 24 fundraising event in Helena headlined by Donald Trump Jr. 

Onstage at Carroll, Fox described himself as a non-polarizing leader who can unite Montanans to get things done. Olszewski, a physician and former small business owner, said he would boost agriculture and rural Montana by being the state’s “best salesman.”

“Our education policy must reflect the fact that public education is a cornerstone of our state and nation’s future success.”

—Attorney General Tim Fox

“As governor, I will convene all the stakeholders and empower them to work together to solve the problems in a comprehensive way,” Fox said. “I have a proven record and reputation as a transformational attorney general.”

“Let’s promote all of Montana, not just some of Montana,” Olszewski said. “And as your next governor, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Olszewski pointed to the low beef prices plaguing ranchers in recent years and said he wants to  help farmers and ranchers by opening more markets for Montana agricultural products.

“We need a Beef Montana, just like we have a Wheat Montana,” he said, referencing the Three Forks-based grain producer.

“The fact is they can get a good job that pays them well and will put a roof over their head with affordable housing, they can raise their family, have money for a vacation, plan for retirement. And you know what? They can be a Glasgow Scottie.”

—State Sen. Al Olszewski

Olszewski also said the solution to high housing costs in urban centers like Missoula is encouraging people to seek opportunity in rural parts of the state.  

“The fact is they can get a good job that pays them well and will put a roof over their head with affordable housing, they can raise their family, have money for a vacation, plan for retirement. And you know what? They can be a Glasgow Scottie,” he said.

Fox, citing Montana employers’ difficulty finding people to fill job openings in professional fields and skilled trades, argued the state needs to boost its higher education efforts by having colleges and trade schools collaborate more effectively.

“Montana has suffered from a lack of leadership in education and workforce development,” he said. “Hospitals can’t find nurses, diesel techs. You can’t find them. We can’t find teachers for our rural schools. We can’t find plumbers, or electricians, or carpenters, and the list goes on and on. And there’s no doubt that a skilled and educated workforce shortage is choking Montana’s economy.” 

Fox also said he would administer state lands held in trust to help fund public education to produce more revenue by encouraging logging, coal mining, and grazing.

“Our education policy must reflect the fact that public education is a cornerstone of our state and nation’s future success,” Fox said.

Two days earlier, introducing the president’s son at his Nov. 24 fundraiser at the Montana Club, Gianforte touted his bona fides as an entrepreneur who built a billion-dollar company, RightNow Technologies, in Bozeman. He said he would bring that business sense to the Capitol by cutting taxes and slashing red tape at the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“Let’s create a strong economy so all Montanans can prosper,” Gianforte said. “That doesn’t happen with government programs. That happens with entrepreneurs in the private sector who are willing to put their capital at risk to create jobs.” 

“Imagine if Montana took a page out of that national playbook and we put a business guy in the governor’s office.”

—U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte

Gianforte also lauded the state of the national economy under the Trump administration, pointing to historically low unemployment and rising wages.

“Imagine if Montana took a page out of that national playbook and we put a business guy in the governor’s office,” he said.

Fox, who grew up in Hardin and attended law school at the University of Montana, was elected attorney general in 2012, and re-elected in 2016. Olszewski, who was raised in Great Falls, served in the U.S. Air Force and spent decades as an orthopedic surgeon before being elected to the Montana House in 2014 and the Montana Senate in 2016.

Gianforte founded RightNow Technologies in Bozeman in 1997 and led the company to its $1.5 billion sale to Oracle in 2011. He made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2016, winning the GOP nomination but failing to derail Gov. Steve Bullock’s re-election bid. He was elected to the U.S. House in a 2017 special election and re-elected to a two-year term in 2018. He was convicted of misdemeanor assault for attacking a reporter during the 2017 campaign.

Bullock, first elected governor in 2012, is termed out and running for president. Four Democrats have announced plans to run for the office: Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, of Helena; former state Rep. Reilly Neill of Livingston; House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, of Butte; and consulting firm founder and CEO Whitney Williams, of Missoula. Libertarian Ron Vandevender, of Cascade, is also seeking the governorship.

The filing deadline for Montana’s June 2 primary election is March 9. Each party’s nominee will face off in the November 2020 general election.

For more on current candidates for governor and other Montana offices, see the Montana Free Press 2020 election guide.

Correction: A previous version of this article transposed the dates of the 2020 filing deadline and the 2020 primary.

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.