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The first round of Montana’s 2022 election cycle, the June 7 primary, is now on the horizon, meaning it’s time for the MTFP newsroom to begin one of our election-year rituals: Sitting down to work out the questions we’ll put to candidates in the coming weeks.

Of course, this is the first year in decades when Montanans will elect not one but two U.S. representatives, giving this year’s U.S. House contests particular urgency as candidates jockey for their party’s nomination in the November general election.

As it turns out, identifying smart questions for those candidates isn’t an easy job. The federal government intersects with Montana life in many, many ways: highway upkeep, health care programs and income taxes, for starters, not to mention live-wire debates over topics like vaccine mandates and abortion.

Given the scope of their potential job in Congress, it’s no exaggeration to say we could come up with dozens or even hundreds of deserving questions for each of Montana’s 20 U.S. House candidates. But the reality is that there are only so many hours in the day, both for us and for them, which means we have to pick and choose the topics we bump to the top of our list. Which is where you, dear reader, come in.

At the survey link below, we’ve compiled a list of 22 broad topics we could ask candidates about — more topics than we’ll be able to get to. If you’re a Montana voter who is so inclined, we’d be obliged if you could take a few minutes to tell us which ones you consider most important. And if we’ve missed something you consider essential, you can tell us that, too.

We’ll be taking the input we get here and using it to shape a handful of issue-focused questions for a questionnaire we’ll be putting to candidates in the coming weeks, and publishing their answers in our soon-to-be-unveiled voter guide (more on that to come). We’ll also be keeping an eye out for thoughtful comments worth keeping in mind as we report out the rest of our campaign coverage over the coming months. Thanks as always for reading — and for taking the time to help us understand this big state of ours.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Say Again? 🤔

Over the course of an hour Monday night, Gov. Greg Gianforte fielded a wide range of questions centered on the topic of bipartisanship. Much of the talk, hosted by the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center, approached the issue in the context of agreement between Republicans and Democrats. Moderator David Bell, the center’s advisory board chair, asked Gianforte whether the GOP’s stronghold on state government makes bipartisanship more a question of policy compromise or of ensuring that Democrats are respected and heard. But one of Bell’s inquiries sought a slightly different angle.

For several sessions now, Republicans in the Montana Legislature have found themselves divided over major policy proposals. Key examples include Medicaid expansion, campaign finance reform, labor issues and election administration — issues where some Republicans crossed the aisle to support or oppose measures alongside Democrats, at times with significant electoral consequences. Bell tried to explore those schisms Monday when he started to ask the governor, “To what extent is managing the various colors within the Republican Party…”

Gianforte cut him off. “That’s the job of legislative leadership.”

Several members of the 120-person audience chuckled.

“Not going to take that bait?” Bell asked.

“No, seriously, if they can’t get it passed, I can’t sign it,” Gianforte replied. “I’m not trying to be too dismissive here, but we work closely with legislative leadership. I think better is always possible, but my couch is often filled with people of various persuasions within our own party trying to find common ground. Sometimes you do, and sometimes we don’t. You don’t need every vote to pass something. That doesn’t mean people’s beliefs should be ignored. But if you get a majority of the votes, the bill passes.”

With that, Gianforte and Bell sat in silence. After four seconds, Bell said “OK” and dove into his next question: “What do you see as the greatest divide between Republicans and Democrats in the state?” And the night moved on.

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Glad You Asked 🙋🏻

Last week’s piece on Billings businessman Gary Buchanan’s independent run for Congress spurred several good questions from readers via emails and social media comments. Among them: What is his stance on abortion? And, if he wins, will he caucus with Democrats or Republicans in D.C.?

Those questions, of course, highlight the political tightrope facing federal candidates who claim to be independent from the dynamics that sort so much of our national politics into partisan camps. We put both questions to campaign spokesman Jim Gransbery and Buchanan himself in separate interviews this week.

On abortion: Buchanan described himself as pro-choice. “Montana’s constitutional right to privacy is sacred and guides my view,” he said. He cited a conversation with an anti-abortion supporter, saying they agreed it isn’t appropriate for either of them to impose their views on their granddaughters. “It’s their life and it’s their conscience,” Buchanan said.

On caucusing: Campaign spokesperson Gransbery said this week that Buchanan would caucus with “whichever party gave him the committee assignments that he would desire,” with the aspiring congressmen particularly interested in seats on the House Natural Resources Committee, given Montana’s expansive public lands, and the Financial Services Committee, given his business experience.

Buchanan confirmed his interest in those committees, but said he wants to reserve judgment on which party he’d align himself with until after the election. “I’ll think about it if I win,” he said.

Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Hot Potato 🥔

As Montana’s only public adult psychiatric hospital descends deeper into turmoil — fueled by the pandemic, a staffing shortage and its standard high-acuity caseload — some mental health experts are intensifying calls for the Gianforte administration to right the ship.

Gianforte’s head of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, Adam Meier, has so far defended his strategy for handling the crisis in Warm Springs: call in outside experts. Following a DPHHS reorganization last summer that put all state-run health facilities under one division, the department solicited bids for a contractor to temporarily oversee those facilities and help strategize their futures. Last week DPHHS awarded the $2.2 million contract to the New-York based consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal, which beat out five other applicants. 

News of the hospital’s increasingly dire situation and the private contractor has launched a frenzy of political finger-pointing. Democrats have condemned what they identify as efforts to “privatize” state services. (For the record, none of the state’s seven public health facilities are being bought out by private providers — the contract with Alvarez & Marsal is scheduled to conclude in June 2023.) The state GOP has tried to punch back on Twitter, placing blame on the former administration of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and his head of DPHHS, Sheila Hogan, who Republicans say “punted” on staffing issues at Warm Springs during her tenure.

Members of Montana’s online peanut gallery surged into the comment sections. Some agreed that former administrations should shoulder some responsibility for the hospital’s current emergency. Others reminded Republicans that their party is now thoroughly in control of Montana government and should act accordingly. One commenter suggested another answer: “all of the above.”

“Yep it’s a multiparty problem. Ms. Hogan directed it, Democrats and Republicans were governors, and the legislatures setting the DPHHS budget way too low were mostly Republicans,” wrote a Twitter user named Grunthos. “Now it’s time for both parties to stop fighting about blame and start solving the problem.”

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Quiz ✅

It’s time again to test your listening skills on Season 2 of our Shared State podcast.* Anyone who sends in correct answers to the three questions below will be entered to win MTFP swag: hats, mugs, sweaters and more. Let’s get started.

Episode 6: Bozeman is in a housing death spiral. Can local politics fix anything?

  1. What was the average price of a single-family home in Bozeman at the time Eric Dietrich reported this episode?
  2. What local housing policy mentioned in the episode did the Legislature ban during the last session? 
  3. Where did the campaigns of Joey Morrison and Terry Cunningham go to wait for the election results in November, 2021? (Hint: restaurants) 

Submit your answers using this form by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday, April 18, and we’ll randomly select one winner from the correct entries to send some sweet MTFP gear.

*Yes, we know, there are transcripts available to just look up the answers. We trust you to listen first and verify later. Have fun!

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers — One of my favorite things about local journalism is its ability to introduce readers to their fellow community members. This piece from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle did that this week. Though I’m not a Bozeman resident, I got a little bit of insight into the neighborhood of people living in tents, RVs and trailers not far from N. 19th Ave. It’s a compelling, well-written article that’s worth some of your time this weekend.

Alex Sakariassen — Montana’s a wild and rugged place, and it takes a certain wild and rugged personality to help safeguard the environment we live in. The Flathead Beacon penned an engrossing profile this week on just such a person: retired Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor Jim Williams, whose career among critters stretched from wrestling alligators in Florida to facilitating conservation projects across northwest Montana.

Eric Dietrich — If you’re going to read only one longform article from a national news outlet discussing how social media has changed American politics this month (or, hell, this year), make it this piece by Jonathan Haidt published by The Atlantic: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life have been Uniquely Stupid. There’s plenty in there, but this one point in particular has me thinking hard about what meaningful free speech looks like on the internet: “Even a small number of jerks were able to dominate discussion forums … because nonjerks are easily turned off from online discussions of politics.”

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.