HELENA — While two of the three Republican candidates for Montana governor in 2020 took the stage for a debate here Tuesday night, the one who didn’t attend – Greg Gianforte – sparked the event’s only real conflict.
Gianforte, Montana’s U.S. representative, said earlier he couldn’t attend the debate because of a prior family commitment during the Thanksgiving week.
Attorney General Tim Fox didn’t wait long Tuesday to note Gianforte’s absence, using his opening statement to get in a dig – and refer to Gianforte’s Helena fundraiser two days earlier, with Donald Trump Jr.
“I’m disappointed like you are, that Greg Gianforte decided not to cooperate in these negotiations (for the debate), so he’s not here today,” Fox told the crowd of about 75 people at Carroll College. “But, all is not lost. Just this week, you could have paid $1,000 for a special time with Greg, here in Helena.”
But when Fox wasn’t poking Gianforte, the debate between Fox and the other Republican candidate, state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, had few contrasts, as the two men generally agreed on the issues.
The format of the event, sponsored by Carroll College, also didn’t offer much opportunity to test the candidates. They’d seen the questions in advance, organizers said, and each candidate simply answered the same question, with no formal rebuttal.
Fox, Gianforte and Olszewski are vying for the Republican nomination for governor, which is an open seat in 2020 because Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock can’t run for re-election.
Republicans are trying to win the governor’s seat for the first time in 16 years. Fox is a two-term attorney general and Gianforte, a wealthy tech-business entrepreneur from Bozeman, lost the governor’s race to Bullock in 2016 and then won Montana’s U.S. House seat in a 2017 special election.
Gianforte won re-election to the House seat last year, but decided earlier this year to try again for the governor’s chair, in 2020.
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon, has been in the Legislature since 2015 and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2018, when he came in fourth in a four-way Republican primary.
Tuesday’s night event was the first public, non-party-sponsored debate among any of the Republican gubernatorial candidates.
A panel of Carroll College faculty and one student posed the questions, focusing on jobs and the Montana economy.
Fox often emphasized his reputation for working with people of all political persuasions, to get things done for the state, as well as his rural Montana roots – he’s from Hardin – and his education in public schools and universities, all in Montana.
He said he’d be the “education governor,” with a special emphasis on vocational education to help address a shortage of skilled workers in Montana.
“I think that we should start early in our education system to let our students know that not everyone needs a four-year college degree, to be happy, to be successful, or to have financial success,” Fox said.
He also noted his work as attorney general to challenge what he called federal overreach, on issues such as water usage.
Olszewski said part of the job of governor is to be a salesman for the state, and that he’d be a champion particularly of rural Montana.
Rural towns in Montana offer good jobs and a great place to raise a family, he said, and noted his support for state programs to forgive student debt or offer scholarships for those who fill needed jobs in rural areas, such as teachers and health-care workers.
He also said he’d be a strong advocate for natural-resource jobs in industries like timber and coal.
“Whether you like it or not, our world lives on coal,” Olszewski said. “And if we’re going to have Asia, Pacific Rim running on coal, we can make sure it’s Montana coal. It’s good for Montana and it’s good for our climate.”