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Grant Kier, former executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust, smiles Tuesday evening before announcing his candidacy for Montana's lone U.S. House seat. Kier, a Democrat, hopes to unseat Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte.

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

BONNER — Grant Kier was vague about his future when he left last month as executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust.

After nearly a decade at the helm, Kier said only that he wanted to keep a hand in public policy.

It’s clear now what that meant.

Kier, 42, chose the new KettleHouse Amphitheater on Tuesday evening to formally announce his candidacy for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, with an eye on unseating Republican Greg Gianforte in 2018.

“I am running for Congress because now more than ever I want to commit everything I have to helping every person in Montana make sure they have opportunities to dream, and realize their dream, for a better day tomorrow than today,” Kier told a gathering of some 150 that included several Missoula city councilors, Mayor John Engen, county commissioners Jean Curtiss and Cola Rowley, and members of the Missoula Economic Partnership board.

First Kier faces a June primary contest against at least one other Democrat. John Heenan, an attorney from Billings, threw his hat in the ring last month.

Kier avoided naming Gianforte, but said quality affordable health care, public education, clean air and water and access to public lands "are under attack by a tiny group of people who, having achieved success, think now that the rules don't apply to them, and they're content to make things harder and harder for the rest of us."

He's acutely aware that, if he were to win the primary, he’d likely face a candidate who has access to tremendous personal wealth that he’s shown he’s not afraid to tap for campaigning. Gianforte spent millions to defeat Democrat Rob Quist in a special election in May and did the same in his failed bid for governor last fall. Gianforte started and, in 2011, sold RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman-based company, to Oracle for $1.5 billion.

But as a nonprofit director, Kier has his fair share of experience asking people to write big checks.

“The way to succeed right now in politics really demands raising a lot of money, and going up against these self-funding candidates is daunting,” he said. “(But) my experience running a nonprofit is twofold:

"It’s realizing that every single dollar somebody gives you is their hard-earned money they’re asking you to put to work for something you both believe in, and to me that translates directly to politics. And I feel comfortable, if I believe in something, asking other people to contribute financially.”

A Kansas native, Kier grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder in geology. He came to Montana in 2005 when his wife Rebecca, who helped introduce him Tuesday, accepted a job teaching geology at the University of Montana. His first job here was as executive director of the Bitterroot Land Trust.

“I’ve really tried to maneuver my career toward land preservation and away from resource extraction,” he said in 2007, upon being tabbed to head Five Valleys Land Trust. “I’ve always enjoyed my time outdoors and just decided that was the way I wanted to go.”

Kier said he supports a broad look at ways to fix the affordability of health insurance and access to health care. He's glad people like former U.S. senator and ambassador to China Max Baucus have called for a switch to a single-payer system, but wants to see faster fixes to the Affordable Care Act before greater policy shifts are discussed.

“What’s critical is recognizing the Affordable Care Act was a big step forward but it doesn’t work perfectly and needs fixes,” Kier said. “We need to make a quick change, to pull people together from both sides of the aisle to look at how we can fix these things and make those changes right away, and then if we want to debate bigger changes that’s fine," he said.

He's certain to have detractors from the Republican side.

"Montanans don't want another socialist Democrat supporting a single-payer system that places federal bureaucrats in complete control of our health care decisions and burdens hard-working Montanans with higher taxes,” said Debra Lamm, chairman of the Montana Republican Party.

Kier is assembling a team to help him better understand a broad range of policy areas. He plans to cross the state to meet with and hear from Montanans.

Roy Loewenstein, communications director for the Montana Democratic Party, said that represents a stark contrast to the current congressman.

"After three months in office, Greg Gianforte can't even defend his own record, which is why he hasn't held a single town hall or explained his position on a health care bill that would cut taxes for millionaires like him in order to raise premiums on working folks,” Loewenstein said.

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