Montana’s largest labor union and its overarching federation have announced endorsements in the contest for the state’s Second U.S. House district, where three candidates are challenging incumbent Republican congressman Matt Rosendale in the state’s deep-red eastern expanse. 

Those endorsements went not to Penny Ronning, a Democratic former Billings City Council member and former union flight attendant who touts her working-class bona fides, but to Gary Buchanan, a Billings-based wealth manager and occasional state official running as an independent.

“It absolutely felt like a gut punch,” Ronning told Montana Free Press. “Of the candidates, I’m the only proven supporter of unions.”

The Montana Federation of Public Employees announced its Buchanan endorsement at the beginning of August, while the AFL-CIO’s came last week. In each case, the unions follow established procedures under which a political committee interviews the candidates and brings endorsement recommendations to the broader membership for approval. 

“It absolutely felt like a gut punch. Of the candidates, I’m the only proven supporter of unions.”

U.S. House candidate Penny Ronning 

In Montana’s western, or First U.S. House district, the unions endorsed Democratic attorney Monica Tranel over Republican Ryan Zinke, a former congressman and U.S. Secretary of the Interior. 

The endorsements may have limited value in the heavily Republican-leaning eastern congressional district, where analysts expect Rosendale, whose campaign treasury dwarfs Buchanan’s and Ronning’s by an order of magnitude, to waltz into re-election.

Buchanan has about $70,000 on hand, compared to Ronning’s roughly $11,000, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. Rosendale has more than $1 million in his campaign coffers. Libertarian candidate Sam Rankin has contributed $20,700 of his own money to his campaign.

But the endorsements are a recommendation from leadership that some 50,000 union members support a given candidate, and allow Buchanan to advertise the endorsement — though both unions, along with the broader Democratic Party infrastructure, are focusing their organizing and fundraising efforts on state legislative and judicial races and the western district U.S. House contest between Zinke and Tranel, union leaders said.

Officials with MFPE and the Montana AFL-CIO said Buchanan excelled in his interview, highlighting his lengthy tenure as a public servant, opposition to right-to-work policies and general support for the labor movement’s goals. On policy, Ronning scored similarly. But, while both unions denied that perceived electability was among their endorsement criteria, they said their members considered Buchanan the most likely candidate to topple Rosendale come November.

“While I’m not willing to say that we considered electability, I am willing to say that our board considers Gary a good bet that has a good chance to win,” said MFPE President Amanda Curtis, a former Democratic lawmaker and public school teacher. 

Buchanan was the inaugural director of the state Department of Commerce, and has chaired a number of state boards, including the Board of Investments, the Board of Crime Control and the Montana Banking Board. 

The endorsement, union officials said, also reflects the preferences of a member base that is more politically diverse than the traditional association between labor and the Democratic Party might suggest. 

“Although we get accused of other things, we are actually blind to party, and it is my dream that all of the candidates would want to interview with us, would want our endorsement and would support our values,” Curtis said. “Recently many more Democrats have answered [our] questions correctly, which has led us to maybe have our reputation as something other than what we are.”

The MFPE and AFL-CIO endorsements of Buchanan illustrates the tightrope labor leaders walk in considering the preferences of a membership that spans the political spectrum in an environment of finite political resources and relations with a Democratic Party that has long counted organized labor as one of its key constituencies, but hasn’t had much recent electoral success. The Montana Democratic Party hasn’t sent one of its own to Congress since the 1990s.

“Those relationships work both ways,” said Quint Nyman, an MFPE staffer and the state AFL-CIO’s vice president. “I think it’s long past time that organized labor looked out for the interest of its members and sent a message that we’re going to make decisions based on what we believe is best for our members, and that may not make either party happy.”

Buchanan said he emphasized in his interviews his tenure in government service and respect for public employees amid “despicable” attacks on public sector workers from the right. His primary pitch, though, was his bipartisan past: “As an independent, the only person that can win in the eastern district, I touted my serving Republican and Democratic governors,” he said.

“I think it’s long past time that organized labor looked out for the interest of its members and sent a message that we’re going to make decisions based on what we believe is best for our members, and that may not make either party happy.”

Quint Nyman, MFPE staffer and state AFL-CIO vice president

Ronning said she understands and respects the unions’ decision, but said Buchanan, who has worked in finance since the 1970s, “promotes and is defined by the corporate structure, the promotion of the wealthy and elite.” 

She bristled at the idea that he is more electable, pointing to the volume of her $200-and-under support.

“We may as well just be saying the narrative that our country is just about rich white guys in power,” she said. “That is not who we are as a country. Montana sent the first female to Congress.”

Regardless, she said, she’ll continue working for the votes of individual union members, who aren’t obliged to follow the recommendations of the union. 

“We knew this was going to be grassroots from the beginning,” she said.

Labor endorsements of non-Democrats are not unprecedented — MFPE predecessor the Montana Education Association notably endorsed Republican Gov. Marc Racicot in his 1996 re-election bid — and not rare at all in state legislative districts, but in contested races between Democrats and Republicans, they tend to be less common. 

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The late Eric Feaver, who headed MFPE until he retired in 2020, maintained that the unions are not an appendage of the Democratic Party. He told MTFP that year that when MEA endorsed Racicot in 1996, the majority of the membership approved of his job as governor, in part because of a Racicot veto of an anti-union bill. Racicot’s victory over MEA member and Democratic lawmaker Chet Blaylock seemed a foregone conclusion. And as Republicans in state government gained traction, Feaver found it increasingly necessary to court allies in the GOP. 

While Buchanan is not running as a Republican, the unions seem to be making a similar calculus here, said Bill Lombardi, a longtime Democratic operative and aide.

“Labor is making a bet here. They’re not going to endorse Rosendale of course, but they’re looking at Buchanan and the money and energy in his race and saying, ‘we’re going to try to bet on the winner here’,” Lombardi said. “Not that he has much inkling of what labor does, being a financial advisor and a market capitalist.”

It’s a bet that carries a risk, however, Lombardi said.

“Gary better win, because not only is he making Rosendale mad, but you’re making some rank-and-file Democrats mad.”

Donor disclosure: Gary Buchanan and Buchanan Capital have donated financial support to Montana Free Press. MTFP does not solicit support from active candidates for political office. 

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