Saturday night’s gubernatorial debate was a hands-off affair in every sense of the phrase.

Candidates not only did not shake hands, they couldn’t see each other. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, candidates participated in the 90-minute debate from their homes via internet. The debate was telecast by SWX stations and broadcast by the Northern News Network.

Viewers who had grown accustomed to the chaotic Democratic presidential debates of recent months saw little rancor on Saturday. The candidate who drew the most fire was the one who did not attend: U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana.

The debate moderator, veteran Great Falls broadcaster and University of Providence assistant athletic director Jim Sargent, gave no explanation for Gianforte’s absence, but Walter Schweitzer told the Associated Press that Gianforte had cited scheduling conflicts. Schweitzer is president of the Montana Farmers Union, which sponsored the debates in conjunction with the Northern Plains Resource Council, the Montana Cattlemen Association and the United States Cattlemen Association.

Attorney General Tim Fox

Credit: Photo courtesy of Tim Fox campaign

Republican candidate Tim Fox, Montana’s attorney general, criticized Gianforte several times for failing to show despite efforts to find a workable time.

“I think our leaders need to be present,” he said. “They need to be part of the discussion.” Later in the debate, he specifically attacked Gianforte’s record on agriculture.

“Where’s Greg Gianforte?” Fox asked. “He’s done absolutely nothing for Montana producers.”

The debate was split into two 45-minute segments, with Fox debating physician and state Sen. Al Olszewki, R-Kalispell, in the first half, followed by the Democratic debate between Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Whitney Williams, chief executive officer of williamsworks, a consulting firm in Missoula. She is the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams and former state Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams.

In both debates, candidates faced similar questions about agricultural and rural issues. They expressed broad agreement on most issues, with a couple of notable exceptions.

Olszewski was the sole candidate to oppose congressional approval of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes-Montana water compact. He called the compact “unlawful” and “unconstitutional.”

“Constitutional water rights are worth fighting for,” he said.

Olszewski’s stance may not have won him political points for anything other than courage. Supporters of the compact include the debate sponsor, which argues that approving the contract would settle more than 10,000 water rights claims impacting Montana agricultural producers.

Fox and the other candidates defended the compact.

“I’ll stick to practicing law, and you can stick to practicing medicine,” Fox told Olszewki. “None of what you said is actually true.” Olszewski responded in his closing remarks, “I will continue to make law, and you continue to practice law.”

Olszewski also was the candidate most skeptical about continuing Montana’s Medicaid expansion program when the legislation authorizing it sunsets in 2025. His goal is to find a better way to pay for health care, he said, rather than relying on inadequate reimbursement from the federal government.

“Medicaid expansion is a broken system,” he said. He favored a refundable tax credit of up to $9,000 for Montanans who have to buy their own health insurance.

Other than that, the candidates mostly saw eye to virtual eye on agricultural issues. They agreed that more attention should be paid to the physical and mental health of farmers and other rural residents. They said broadband internet access needs to be extended throughout rural Montana. They favored open markets and expanded trade for Montana producers. They supported Montana’s agricultural experiment stations and research centers.

State Sen. Al Olszewski

Credit: Courtesy photo

Candidates also supported reinstatement of country of origin labeling laws for beef and pork, though they differed in approach. Fox said federal action is needed, or producers could face punishing tariffs under the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement. Olszewski said he sponsored a bill in the last legislative session to restore labeling requirements; Fox said that bill unfairly put the labeling burden on retailers.

Both Cooney and Williams also called for reinstatement of labeling for beef and pork, which Congress repealed in 2015. Cooney said the current system is not legitimate. Williams said, “It’s just plain wrong that beef and pork from Mexico or Canada can be labeled as a product of the USA when it’s just processed here. It’s wrong for consumers, and it’s wrong for producers.”

Beyond that, differences between candidates were mostly matters of degree. While all the candidates supported development of renewable energy, Fox emphasized an all-of-the-above energy strategy that achieves commercial viability without subsidies. Cooney mentioned that he has solar panels on his home’s roof. He and Williams both called for Montana to become a leader in renewable energy. Olszewski stressed the limitations of solar and wind energy.

“At 30 below zero, the wind don’t blow,” he said. “And a lot of times, the sun don’t shine.”

All the candidates took a firm stance against alleged price fixing by major meat processors. As framed, the question said that since the start of the pandemic, meat packers have increased costs to consumers by 20% while cutting prices paid to producers by 30%.

Fox said he had discussed processor price gouging with a U.S. antitrust lawyer just last week. Olszewski said the Montana Legislature needs to be involved.

Democrats Cooney and Williams used statistics to bolster their claim that the current pricing system is broken. Cooney said the average Montana farmer in 2018 actually lost money; any net income derived from second jobs. Williams said that just four giant meat companies control 85% of the nation’s beef and pork market. The state should use federal COVID-19 funds to expand local packing facilities, Cooney said, while Williams called for more federal inspectors and a greater ability to ship across state lines.

“‘Too big to fail’ didn’t work on Wall Street, and it won’t work for meat processing either,” she said.

The current running beneath the pro-agriculture talk was the probability that Montana, like the rest of the country, will face steep financial challenges in coming years as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re probably going to have to tighten our belts,” Fox said, calling for the state to draw on its “rainy day fund” and look into use of coal trust tax funds. The rainy day fund, created in 2017, has a balance that ranks 40th among the states as a percentage of general fund expenditures, according to the National Association of State Budget Offices. The coal trust fund contains about a billion dollars drawn from a severance tax on coal production. Under the Montana Constitution, the principal of the fund cannot be spent without approval by three-fourths of each house of the Legislature.

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

Olszewski agreed that use of those funds should be considered, but also said fees and taxes on producers and other businesses should be cut.

“The government has to share in the sacrifices and hardships that are occurring,” he said.

Democratic candidates were not asked specifically about the state budget, but they were asked how they would support agriculture in an era when the average age of a Montana farmer is 57. Williams called for low-interest loans to farmers and potential farmers, and for support of FFA and 4-H programs. Cooney expressed support for the state’s Growth Through Agriculture grant program.

Given the limited interaction between candidates, they tended to focus on their core election pitches. Fox emphasized that he is a unifier who can work well with others. Olszewski said several times that he would be the “squeaky wheel” as governor, and pointed to his legislative record.

Cooney said he is the only candidate who has dedicated his life to public service. Besides serving as lieutenant governor, he has been Montana secretary of state for three terms and has served in both houses of the Legislature.

Williams, on the other hand, emphasized her business experience as the only Democratic candidate who has created jobs and helped communities following disasters. Fox and Williams both pointed to the expertise of their running mates on agricultural issues.

Buzz Mattelin, Williams’ running mate, is a farmer who was named Montana State University’s 2019 Outstanding Ag Leader. Jon Knokey, Fox’s running mate, has been manager of corporate strategy for John Deere.

Cooney is running with state legislator Casey Schreiner, who dropped out of the governor’s race in February. Olszewski’s running mate is Kenneth Bogner, who has served in the Marines and in the Montana Legislature.

David Crisp worked for newspapers in Texas and Montana for nearly 40 years. He now teaches writing and journalism at Rocky Mountain College.