GOP contenders debate in Whitefish, sans Zinke
Republican candidates for Montana's western district U.S. House seat debate in Whitefish on Friday. The event was hosted by Montana Farmers Union. (Matt Baldwin/Daily Inter Lake)
Daily Inter Lake | May 24, 2022 7:00 AM
Four Republican candidates for Montana’s new western U.S. House seat debated in Whitefish on Friday, generally finding agreement on a number of points related to the state’s agricultural challenges and preserving the rural Montana lifestyle.
Hosted by Montana Farmers Union, the debate at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center featured Mitch Heuer, Matt Jette, Al Olszewski and Mary Todd.
Looming large on stage, however, was the absence of the frontrunner in the primary race — Ryan Zinke.
Zinke, whose residence is less than a mile from the Whitefish venue, did not participate — a continuation of the former Interior secretary’s campaign tactic. Zinke also opted out of a GOP candidate debate in April at Flathead Valley Community College.
Zinke’s choice to skip the debate roused a few barbs from his fellow Republicans.
“Unlike Ryan Zinke, who is not here today and can’t be bothered to be here today, I believe that Montana agriculture is relevant,” Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon from Kalispell, chirped in his closing remarks.
While farm and ranch issues steered the conversation on stage, topics also waded into other arenas like child care, public education and health care.
All of the candidates supported reinstatement of country of origin labeling in the beef industry, which some argue would help level the playing field on the global stage.
“We need to know what we’re eating,” said Todd, another Flathead Valley resident. “We need to buy American. I do not buy from China. I do not buy from places I do not agree with.”
Olszewski said he’d support reinstatement of the law at the federal level, noting his support of country of origin labeling while serving in the state Legislature.
There was also friendly agreement on right-to-repair legislation for farmers and ranchers who want to work on their equipment, and on the need to address the lack of competition in the meat-packing industry.
Jette, who is a teacher at Sentinel High School in Missoula, called the lack of competition in the industry the “Walmart effect” on ranching where large corporations are unfairly driving down prices. He pushed for farmers and ranchers to have a seat at the table on discussions that affect their livelihood.
Olszewski agreed that more competition is needed in agriculture.
“I wish agriculture was a free market … but it’s not. We have concentrated power in a few corporations,” he said, suggesting fewer regulations from the USDA as one solution.
Todd was consistent in her messaging against federal overreach on all fronts.
“I do not trust our government,” she said. “I do not want to give them any more power.”
On the child care shortage challenging rural Montana, Todd believes religious organizations should be more involved.
“I think the government needs to get out of our business,” she said. “I believe God created the church to take care of people and that we should help each other.”
Olszewski contended that access to affordable child care was a state, not federal, issue, but offered that a child tax credit was one solution.
Education is another area where states should be in control, Olszewski said, mentioning that the U.S. Department of Education could be eliminated, with those funds diverted to state coffers.
Heuer, a general contractor from Whitefish, countered that a consistent national education program was needed for unity.
All of the candidates agreed that mental health is an issue in rural America, with Todd laying the blame for Montana’s high suicide rate on Covid protocols like masking and quarantine.
“People need to get back to running their own lives … and not depending on the government,” she said.
Olszewski said reimbursement for mental health services is one challenge that needs to be addressed, pointing at the shortfalls of Medicare and Medicaid programs.
Jette said working to quell rampant divisiveness would help, as well.
“We, as adults in the room, can do better. We can act better,” he said.
In a post-debate Q&A with the audience, the candidates offered their thoughts on rising energy prices and the conflict in Ukraine.
Heuer, who promotes innovation in all sectors, said looking at fuel alternatives like sunflower oil was one solution for skyrocketing diesel prices.
Olszewski said energy independence is vital and that more oil and gas leasing opportunities should be opened up.
“We are competitive through inexpensive energy and inexpensive raw materials. Drill, baby, drill,” he quipped.
Jette countered that the issue was more complex than opening the fossil fuel “spigot.”
“The U.S. doesn’t set the oil price market,” he said. “It doesn’t do that.”
On tenuous Russian relations, Olszewski said the U.S. needs to be prepared, “And we better not poke the bear too hard.”
Todd, who calls herself unapologetically America first, said the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in the international conflict.
“We have so many problems with the border crisis here … we should not be getting involved with Ukraine and Russia,” she said.
The debate was broadcast on ABCFox/SWX and Northern AG Network radio statewide. It will be posted to the Montana Farmers Union website.