HELENA — The two Democratic candidates vying to become Montana’s next governor have widely different life stories and experience, and they both argue they’re best qualified to hold onto the governor’s office for their party.
On Saturday, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams took part in a debate over video, sponsored by the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation and broadcast on the Montana Television Network.
Cooney has spent decades in public office, including a term as president of the Montana Senate and three terms as Montana Secretary of State. In 2016, he became lieutenant governor under incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock. He said that experience has shown him what it takes to get things done in Montana.
“My background – working in government, understanding the workings of government and the Legislature – really lends itself to being an effective leader and being an effective manager of state resources,” said Cooney. “I’m very proud of my record, and the state’s in great shape.”
Williams is the founder and CEO of Williamsworks, a company that works on partnerships among philanthropists, corporations and individuals. The daughter of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams and former Montana Senate majority leader Carol Williams, she also worked in the White House under then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.
“I just think we’re at a point in our history where it’s time for a new generation of leadership,” Williams said. “I just don’t agree that government experience is the only experience one can have with budgets.”
Williams drew contrasts with Cooney and the Bullock administration on several issues. She criticized the administration for making millions of dollars in cuts to mental health funding during a state budget crisis. In another exchange, she argued they should have taken more action to support affordable housing development in the state.
Cooney defended the Bullock administration’s record, saying that working together had allowed them to pass Democratic priorities like Medicaid expansion and an infrastructure bill.
Williams called for Montana to legalize recreational marijuana, pointing to a fiscal analysis from the state that showed legal marijuana sales could bring in up to $38 million in yearly tax revenue by 2025.
“That would go a long way to shore up our budget,” she said.
Cooney said he wasn’t opposing marijuana legalization, but that it wouldn’t be responsible to base budget planning on it, since a legalization measure hasn’t passed and it would take several years to reach that level of sales.
“You can’t spend a promise,” he said.
Cooney argued he – and not Williams – has been a part of Democratic political victories in recent years.
“The first rule of Montana politics – of governing and being a real leader – is showing up,” Cooney said. “I’m the only candidate for governor who has shown up for the big fights Democrats have fought year after year.”
Williams said she offers a campaign that is looking forward – while Cooney’s is pointing to the past.
“The challenges ahead are unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime,” Williams said. “We don’t need someone whose experience is inside government. Getting folks working again and helping businesses rebuild takes energy, new ideas and a different kind of experience.”
The state primary election will be on June 2. Ballots will be mailed out to voters starting May 8.