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Montana Democratic U.S. House Candidates

Kier, Heenen, Williams, Pettinato, Meyer

If the leading Democratic candidates in Montana’s U.S. House primary agree on anything, it’s that women deserve to be heard when federal laws are written and that women are under-represented.

Whether the issue is equal pay or sexual harassment, reproductive rights or lifting low-income families out of poverty, the concerns of women, the candidates agree, are often not fairly supported by elected officials. The demand for change has been surging ever since the national Women’s March the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who in the 2016 election was exposed for bragging about sexually assaulting women.

The top three candidates in the Democratic primary, John Heenan of Billings, Grant Kier of Missoula and Kathleen Williams of Bozeman, say they want to answer the call. Those three candidates have the six-figure campaign funds necessary to get their message out using advertising and paid staff. All three had ads up as voters began receiving absentee ballots Friday.

Women account for 57 percent of the vote in a Montana Democratic primary, according to the Montana Democratic Party.

The remaining candidates are Jared Pettinato and John Meyer, who have raised less than $60,000 combined. In an email last month to The Gazette, Meyer said he has raised $25. A sixth candidate, Lynda Moss of Billings, ended her campaign in April, citing a shortage of cash, but will remain on the ballot.

“I think that right now, it’s really important for women in society to know that there are men who want to stand up to these voices right now just as much as they do and say ‘this is wrong and we need to provide better protection of women’s rights and better opportunities for women to have equality whether in their workplace or in their home or anywhere else,’" Kier told Lee Montana. “That’s something I’m hearing a lot of on the campaign trail and something I’m proud to be willing and able to stand up for.”

There’s a need for elected officials to be dignified in the way they talk about people, said Kier, a conservationist by trade, in the way that polices are written concerning women’s health care, or assuring women in the workplace are safe from sexual assault or abuse. There’s work to be done on equal pay for women who on average earn 20 percent less than men doing the same job. These are things on which all the candidates agree.

There’s a national surge in women running for the U.S. House of Representatives this year, with at least 309 female candidates campaigning for Congress, a new record. Kathleen Williams is one of them, attempting a move to Congress after serving three terms in the Montana Legislature.

“I’ve had people be incredibly inspired by the opportunity to be able to vote for a woman in this race, which is an honor,” Williams said. “I feel a strong responsibility to be successful in this race to show that a woman can win, but what I always say is, ‘by the way, she’s the most qualified too.’ Because gender is great. We need more women in Congress. A lot of men have told me we need more women in Congress, but I don’t want that to be the only aspect people evaluate me on.

“And if you look, I’m the only one that’s served in a legislative body. I’ve got probably 10-plus years’ experience on the other candidates in life and in career, and success working across the aisle. All those things. And, I’m female. I want people to look at me as the most qualified candidate who also is female, and we need more women in Congress, but we also need qualified members in Congress.”

Professionally, working as a natural resource economist in a field dominated by men, Williams has encountered gender bias, the kind that comes when male co-workers discredit a woman’s promotion as nothing more than affirmative action.

“I had to keep proving myself in that position because I encountered that assumption, that I was just there because I was female,” Williams said. She doesn’t want her political achievements to be colored with the same bias.

Williams sees congressional work to be done on equal pay. There have been improvements in making it easier to sue an employer for pay discrimination, but there’s no requirement for businesses to disclose pay differences. There needs to be transparency, Williams said.

Social welfare programs, intended to pull low-income families out of poverty, need to recognize the challenges of getting a job while being the mother of a single-parent household. Sometimes, a mother needs more time to find employment than allowed by the lawmakers authoring terms for a public assistance program.

Many of the lifetime challenges facing women are rooted in economic inequality, said John Heenan, a Billings attorney with a reputation for defending underdogs.

“Montana women and American women statistically get paid roughly 80 cents on the dollar than their male counterparts for the same work. That needs to change,” Heenan said. “And there needs to be accountability when they’re caught underpaying female employees. A lot of my economic platform of truly funding public education, including two years of tuition-free college, single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care, paying people a living wage, those are all economic issues that will inordinately benefit women and give women opportunities to advance in their career, to provide the income that they need to raise a family and not be stuck in underemployment.”

Heenan said he’s unequivocally supported a woman’s right to control her body. There should be no ban on abortion and no defunding of women’s health care providers like Planned Parenthood that play a role in family planning and general health care for many women, he said. All the Democratic candidates agree on this.

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