Whitney Williams and Mike Cooney debate at the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture in Bozeman on Feb. 24, 2020. Credit: Thom Bridge / Independent Record

BOZEMAN — The top of the Gallatin County Democrats’ candidate forum bill at Bozeman’s Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture Feb. 21 featured gubernatorial candidates Mike Cooney, the incumbent lieutenant governor, and Missoula-based entrepreneur Whitney Williams. Cooney and Williams were each allotted a minute and a half for responses to questions from former state senator and Montana Supreme Court justice Mike Wheat, who moderated. 

Williams avoided repeating criticisms of the administration of term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock that she’d leveled during a candidate forum in Billings Feb. 12. Cooney offered no critique of Williams’ candidacy. The evening’s only rhetorical darts were aimed exclusively at presumptive Republican candidate Greg Gianforte. Cooney said Montanans don’t need “out-of-state millionaires” calling the shots, and Williams named Gianforte an “existential threat to Montana.”

The two other Republican primary candidates hoping to be Montana’s next governor, Tim Fox and Al Olszewski, weren’t mentioned.

Wheat asked both candidates to address the state’s childcare crisis, and both advocated state-funded pre-K programs, which Bullock has long supported and failed to get passed through the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature, leaving Montana as one of only six states in the nation without a state-funded program. Williams called the issue her top priority. Regarding public education, Williams said teachers earn too little, stressed the opportunities afforded by apprenticeships and two-year colleges, and proposed school loan forgiveness programs. Cooney advocated work-based learning and promised continued investment in public schools, connecting educational opportunities to the state’s workforce shortage.    

On health care, both promised to protect Montana’s Medicaid expansion and find ways to limit prescriptions drug prices. 

Regarding abortion rights, Williams identified Gianforte as the biggest threat to choice in Montana. Gianforte, along with Sen. Steve Daines, has signaled support for overturning Roe v. Wade. Cooney promised to veto any state legislative attempts to restrict abortion rights. 

In response to a question about NorthWestern Energy’s plan to buy additional generating capacity at the Colstrip coal power plant, both agreed the state needs to speed its transition to renewable energy sources and support workers displaced by recent and potential future closures of Colstrip’s generating units. Likewise, both said Montana should work toward fulfilling the Paris Climate Agreement at the state level. “Republicans won’t,” Cooney said. “Montana has to stick up for itself,” Williams said. 

Both emphasized their support for public lands and resistance to any attempt at privatization, with Cooney affirming the importance of public lands to the state’s recreation economy, and Williams taking the opportunity to impugn Gianforte’s “New Jersey values.”

Cooney and Williams each promised to increase state infrastructure investments and explore tax reform. Williams took particular aim at the state’s affordable housing “crisis,” saying Montana should draw more revenue from out-of-state homeowners and tourists. 

A two-part question premised on the potential passage of Montana’s adult-use marijuana initiatives asked: where should tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales be directed, and “would you support automatic expungement of possession of marijunaa convictions from criminal records?”

Williams said she’d look to neighboring states that have legalized recreational marijuana for ideas about where to invest marijuana tax revenues, singling out addiction treatment and mental health programs. She said that “a lot of folks are in jail for nonviolent offenses that shouldn’t be in jail,” but stopped short of explicitly endorsing erasure of convictions. Cooney said he generally agrees with language in the initiatives regarding tax revenue funding of addiction and health services, and “absolutely agrees” with expungement. In response to a separate question about the state’s addiction crisis, both expressed support for expanded treatment services, with Williams noting the special challenges faced by geographically isolated rural communities, and Cooney noting the necessity of supporting law enforcement’s engagement with the issue as well. 

A penultimate question about the state’s use-stressed rivers and Montana’s constitutional guarantee of a “clean and healthful environment” prompted Cooney to reiterate the urgency of aggressive climate measures and state his willingness to consider recreational management options. Williams said she’d promote reliance on local knowledge and alliance building. 

Neither candidate gave a direct answer to a question about the No. 1 issue they would champion as governor. Cooney took issue with the premise, saying single-issue focus is “not how government works.” A governor, he said, has to be prepared to champion a number of issues simultaneously toward the goal of representing “the people of Montana and what is good for them.” Williams named three top priorities: holding pharmaceutical companies accountable, protecting public lands, and passing pre-K.

It was only in their 2-minute closing statements that either candidate tried to insert any daylight between them, and even then, the differences were less about policy than perception. Cooney referred to his nearly three decades as an elected official, saying Montanans had long trusted him to represent them, and could continue to. Williams positioned the state as being at a crossroads where “new challenges need new solutions.”

For more information on all current Montana candidates for statewide office, check out the Montana Free Press 2020 Election Guide

After starting professional life covering music for the Houston (Texas) Press in his hometown, Brad has worked as an editor at the Texas Observer in Austin and the Missoula (Montana) Independent. Along the way he's freelanced for publications including High Country News and the Los Angeles Review of Books.