Kathleen Williams, the Bozeman Democrat running to unseat Congressman Greg Gianforte, Montana’s sole U.S. House representative, sat down with the Inter Lake on Wednesday to discuss her campaign and her intentions if elected.
The conversation frequently returned to Williams’s experience crossing party lines in the Montana Legislature, where she served in 2011, 2013 and 2015 — problem-solving experience that, she thinks, is desperately needed in Washington.
Williams, who has lived in Montana for 24 years (“it’s the first place that felt like home to me,” she said) has a 35-year career in natural-resource management, with a specialty in water negotiations. She was one of the lead negotiators of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes Water Compact, and helped develop the Blackfoot Drought Response Plan. “It takes a pretty unique and artful approach to be able to solve problems like that with really long-term, win-win-win solutions,” she said of her career experience. “That’s really my style and that’s what I apply to policy.”
She ran for the Montana Legislature in frustration after the 2007 session failed to pass a budget, and said a similar motivation is driving her to run for Congress. She sees in Washington “hyper-partisanship, dysfunction, inability to get things done, an institution that’s about as close to broken as I can imagine,” she said, “and I think we need to send people who have problem-solving legislative experience to Washington to try to turn this around.”
One of her signature issues in this year’s campaign has been health care. Williams said one of her first priorities in Congress would be to stabilize the individual market. Also on her list are to ensure long-term funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and rural health centers so that “they’re not used as political footballs;” to allow Medicare to bargain for prescription drug prices, thus lowering the cost; and to permit people 55 and older to buy into Medicare as “a foundation for a national dialogue on fixing our entire system. It’s just a patchwork right now.”
Williams said she personally supports ballot initiative 185, which would raise taxes on tobacco products to fund Montana’s Medicaid expansion through 2019 and beyond, but will refrain from officially endorsing it. “I am not taking positions on the initiatives because I just value the people’s opportunity to weigh in,” she said.
As for President Trump’s recent trade war and escalated tariffs, Williams said she sees needless chaos and instability. She pointed to Montana’s wheat market, which has worked for decades to develop strains of weight specifically for the demands of the Japanese market. “When you lose market share,” she said, “it’s really hard to get it back.”
The steep tariffs are “like we’re using a sledge hammer instead of a scalpel on our foreign policy, and there doesn’t seem to be an exit strategy,” and she said Gianforte has not spoken up enough for Montana’s interests on this matter.
“My opponent had an opportunity very early on, when this was just being talked about, to sign a letter with 107 of his Republican colleagues in the U.S. House opposing broad tariffs, and he didn’t sign it. I know that’s just a letter but still, it shows to me a real lack of leadership.”
Williams also called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — Trump’s signature tax legislation, passed last December and championed by Gianforte — “irresponsible fiscal policy.”
“This administration and this Congress had an opportunity to level off the deficit and ensure that we were getting that spending under control. But what they did was this tax giveaway,” she said, citing a report from the Tax Policy Center which said that, in 10 years, 83 percent of the law’s benefits would go to the top 1 percent of income distribution.
“Yes, the economy is going great,” she said, “but boy, did they miss an opportunity to level off the debt, inject a little stability, predictability.”
Asked if she could compliment the other side, she said she couldn’t give Republicans credit for rebuilding an economy that has been on the rebound since 2011. But she praised Trump for wanting to bring back corporations from overseas. “I think that’s great, and I’d love to work with him on that,” she added.
As for firearms, Williams, a gun-owner and sportswoman, said she supports the Second Amendment, though recent mass shootings demand a national conversation on gun legislation. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which a student used an AR-15 rifle to kill 17 people this past February, “the fact that nobody could say anything more than ‘thoughts and prayers’ was just unacceptable,” she said.
“I have the courage to have a discussion” about gun legislation, she added. “Because no organization or interest group should prohibit Americans from having a discussion about how to keep kids safe. About how to keep everyone safe, actually.”
She pointed to efforts to ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, instead of AR-15s, which she acknowledged are a popular weapon. She also endorsed expanding gun restrictions on those charged with domestic abuse, spousal or not.
On the topic of forest management, Williams called for a comprehensive approach including environmental agencies, logging industry veterans and wildlife experts, rather than “just cutting everything and building a lot more roads, which is what I keep hearing from both Gianforte and [Sen.] Daines [R-Mont.]” She advocated for a conversation on prescribed burns, and ensuring that “the agencies have the resources they need to both manage fire and also to manage the forests and do mechanical removal.”
Overall, she said the “oversimplified approach that I’m hearing from our Republican delegation ... is very simplistic.”
Williams’s style — soft-spoken, measured — is much different than the prevailing loudness in Washington, she noted. But she doesn’t see that as a roadblock to getting legislation passed in Congress.
“If you look at my abilities in Helena, you can be graceful, you can be gracious, and you can kill things at the same time. Or you can pass things, because you put people over party, and policy over politics. I got things done, and I was in the minority the whole time. You can be powerful and still be graceful.”
When it comes to November, she said voters should choose Williams over Gianforte “to help rebuild Congress...We need to send real public servants who have experience passing legislation and building consensus, or something close to it.”
Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org