Congressional Democratic candidates forum

by Pete Talbot

Knowing nothing of Melinda Gopher before the forum, I was impressed by her depth, her knowledge of the issues and, mostly, her passion.

When asked why she hadn’t filed yet and why her campaign was, at this point, lower key than the other two candidates’ campaigns, she responded, “I’m building intrigue.”

I wouldn’t call her the “winner.” All three Democratic Congressional candidates showed their strengths but Gopher gets the inspiration award. And, of course, any one of the three would be so superior to our current Congressman.

Dennis McDonald talked about his credentials, his ranching experience, his support from organized labor and his ability to work across the aisle. He also emulates the Schweitzer/Montana populist style in his campaign persona.

Tyler Gernant billed himself as an outsider — a young newcomer who touts “life experience over political experience” and “represents everything that isn’t Washington.” He called himself “the anti-incumbent.”

This was the first forum to be held where all three candidates attended. It was sponsored by the Missoula County Democrats and about 75 people showed up for the 90 minute presentation.

Gernant seemed to me to have the tightest policy proposals, from taxation to trade to the deficit. A Republican fellow I ran into at the forum said the he was the most impressed by Gernant, for what that’s worth.

McDonald had a strong opening stump speech. He’s the party’s highest profile candidate and is adapting to his role. But he also wasn’t above questioning the party status quo — he had problems with the Tester wilderness bill and was aggressive on health care reform.

Gopher talked about growing up on Hill 57 in Great Falls (I’d never heard of it — doesn’t sound like one of the Electric City’s most prestigious neighborhoods). The sixth of seven children, she called herself a “scrapper.”

All three were strong pro-choice supporters. All three opened with jobs being a priority. All three expressed disappointment with our current energy policy.

And all three were gracious toward each other, although Gopher, sitting in the middle, said with a smile that she was ready to take on Rep. Rehberg, “as soon as I dispatch these two guys sitting next to me,” which got a chuckle.

Here’s some other info I gleaned: Gopher said she wanted to “steer the Democrats back on track.” McDonald made local references to the closing of Smurfit and Macy’s — always a good move. Gernant touted a pay-as-you-go policy to rein in debt.

Gernant spoke of this being a “transformational time” to change how business is conducted in Washington, and that he’s poised to take on the challenge. He said it’s time to “move away from divisive politics” and become actively involved in finding solutions.

McDonald mentioned that he’s visited all 56 counties in Montana, shaken a lot of hands, and his work effort and “lifetime commitment” to Democratic policies make him the best candidate to take on Rehberg. He also said his main platform would be “empowering people.”

Gopher advocated for single-payer health care, tackled immigration reform and disparaged our continued role in questionable wars. She also called herself “the most improbable candidate.”

A final note. As I’ve said time-and-time again, I am not a reporter. If you want more accurate quotes, a more objective view and more depth, tune into MCAT’s channel 11 on Sunday, March 14, at 8 p.m. for a replay of the event.

  1. I think that is a fabulous assessment. While it is no secret that I am a 200% supporter of Tyler Gernant, all of the candidates were impressive.

    Nice that it’s going to replay on MCAT, too.

    I, too, was not familiar with Melinda, other than the knowledge of her father. She is inspiring, to say the least. I love her passion.

    McDonald says the right things – It’s not that I dislike him. What I like about Gernant, in comparison, is his honed-in specifics on what has occurred and what he would do, as you mention, with tax and trade and deficit spending.

    June 8th is the primary. Might seem like a lot of time, but for each of those candidates, time’s a wastin’. Now is the time to get behind a candidate if you have a preference – they need your help and your money. Don’t wait until June 8th to bemoan the loss of a candidate you had hoped would win.

    I’d also remind people – plenty that I know read this blog – how much work it took to get Jon Tester elected. Frankly, I’m a few weeks behind where I was at this point in 2006,

    Unseating Rehberg is not going to be as easy of a task as it should be….and the hard work begins now.

  2. Jim

    A correction Pete! First, Tester’s bill is not a Wilderness Bill. It it a logging and motorized recreation bill. Second, this was a public forum of Democrats where Dennis McDonald dissed Tester’s logging bill. With both TV and print media present, this was a pretty strong condemnation of the secrecy involved in putting this bill forward and the vapid notion that while Jon can legislate that trees be cut, he can’t create a market where there is none. And thus It’s just another taxpayer and environmental boondogle. Jon should be ashamed.

  3. Pogo Possum

    Pete, thanks for the recap.

    I have seen McDonald speak on several occasions and have never been impressed. He isn’t going to defeat Rehberg.

    I haven’t met Gernant so the only opinions I have are from news stories and his web site. I saw Melinda Gopher speak once and your description of her is very accurate: a vast depth of knowledge, passionate, a “scrapper” and a refreshing sense of humor.

    I spent time in Great Falls in the 70s and am familiar with Hill 57. It was a very challenging place for anyone to live especially during the time Melinda was there as a child. While things have improved a bit over the past 30 or 40 years, it is still a very poor neighborhood.

    While I may disagree with a number of Melinda’s issues, I greatly respect what she endured growing up in one of Montana’s poorest and most difficult communities.

    FYI…….According to one source the name “Hill 57” originated in the 1930s when pickle salesman Art Hinck arranged large whitewashed rocks to outline the number 57 to advertise the Heinz product line.

    Here is a graphically accurate description of Hill 57 by a Montana born writer named Kevin Stevens:

    ”As a boy, I would accompany my father once or twice a year to Hill 57, a rural slum two miles north of our hometown of Great Falls, Montana. When the weather was really bad – three feet of snow, forty below zero, with an arctic wind blowing in off the high desert plain – we would bring food, clothing and fuel to the settlement’s dirt-poor residents, mostly landless Native Americans.

    More than four decades later, I vividly remember conditions on the Hill: junked cars and piles of old tires covered in snow; derelict shacks made of scrap wood, cardboard and tarpaper; ankle-deep trash covering frozen alleyways. The treeless, grassless village was situated next to a dump, from which residents scavenged scrap metal and rags. Two hundred people shared a single water pump and were crowded fourteen or fifteen to a room. There were no telephone lines and no bus connections to the town. Social problems were rampant, the children often malnourished.
    . . . . Forty years later, I went back to Hill 57. Most of the families had gone, and the few who remained lived in sturdier housing, with indoor plumbing. . . ”

    • JC

      I have to agree with you here, PoPo.

      I grew up a block away from the foot of Hill 57. I started sledding down the hill in the early 60’s using car hoods and trunk lids and cardboard we scavenged from the dump and junkers.

      I also went to school, k-12 with many residents from Hill 57 over the years, and know the challenges they had to overcome. I witnessed the burning of abandoned shacks and trailers as the settlement slowly dwindled during the 60’s and early 70’s.

      Watching the poverty and struggles of the residents of Hill 57 forever instilled a sense of social justice within me. It was not easily arrived at, as I was raised by a prejudiced father, and had to learn how to arrive at my own values about injustice.

      I probably met Melinda years ago, but I did know several of her relatives. It is a testament to her courage, will and drive to have overcome the impediments of growing up on Hill 57, and to have reached a place where she can challenge a sitting republican rep, who grew up with a silver spoon.

      I look forward to getting to know more about Melinda’s politics and policies, and helping her however I can, both during this primary, and in future endeavors.

  4. Turner

    I’m glad Melinda Gopher has surfaced at last. But why won’t she answer my e-mails? She has a website, but is there a phone number?

    She’s running a very odd campaign.

    Richard Turner
    Beaverhead County Democrats

  5. Ryan Morton

    anyone want to help put together events for tyler gernant in helena? if you’re interested. thanks!

    • Ryan Morton

      well, i’d appreciate the help if it’s out there. i’ve never supported a candidate like i’m supporting tyler. let’s make it happen!

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