Ronning looks to bring different tone, approach from Montana to Congress

Focus on healthcare, housing and agriculture

By: - May 26, 2022 1:58 pm

Penny Ronning who is running for Montana’s Second Congressional District (Photo courtesy of Penny Ronning for Congress).

Penny Ronning has always regarded the federal government as home.

While the former Billings City Councilwoman has launched her bid for Congress, running against incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale for Montana’s central and eastern House seat, she doesn’t see the federal government as a monolithic, unresponsive behemoth. She sees it as a force for good and partnership.

Ronning is currently running against fellow Democrat Skylar Williams of Billings for the Democrats’ nomination for Congress. The late Philipsburg Democrat Mark Sweeney remains on the ballot because he died after ballots were printed.

Ronning’s experience with the federal government goes back as far as Ronning herself, as her mother, Ila, became one of the first women to serve in the FBI. In fact, Ila’s assignment was a top-secret intelligence officer, reading dispatches from field offices around the country on teletype machines, right across the hall from longtime director J. Edgar Hoover. When something was urgent, it was Ila’s job to go in and alert “J. Edgar,” as he was called.

That led to a long career in the federal government. Ila was a forensic accountant, and she was sent to Montana to literally keep tabs on how the federal government and other programs were spending money.

Ronning would often tag along on some of those trips around Montana. She got to know other agents and other workers within the federal government. She thought of it like a family who just happened to have jobs with the federal government. She saw the good that could come from the work – funding programs for things like water systems and law enforcement. She also saw her mother’s approach making sure the funds were spent correctly.

Some of those memories are driving her to run for Congress because she believes the federal government can be a force for change and good in the lives of Montanans.

“She taught me the value and benefit of the federal government,” Ronning said. “They’d be your neighbor, your brother, your mother. It was family. It was never an entity that didn’t have a human face. It was never a faceless identity.”

From a coffee shop where she sat during an interview, Ronning looked out and saw a roundabout, a new store being built and even signage being put up.

“That’s city government, and I took that for granted before I got elected,” Ronning said.

She said her experience at both the state and her understanding of federal government give her a head start on Congress.

“I’d like to think that I really understand government. We tend to put government on a hierarchy, like federal to local in importance, but really it’s about making government, any government, work better,” Ronning said. “State and federal policy plays out in municipal government.”

She also touts her ability to reach across political divides and find solutions. She said that she was able to bring more attention to the issue of human trafficking, working at the local and state level to change laws, even with conservative lawmakers.

Ronning has also seen the discord and brokenness of the political system. She happened to be in Washington, D.C., during the second impeachment of former President Donald J. Trump. She recalls the 13 empty Senate seats and watching other Republican senators appear tuned out during the proceedings.

“Their job was to be at the trial and be engaged. Instead, they were mocking the system,” she said.

She said it was watching “moral decay in suits.” And she said that kind of antipathy helped foment the dangerous Jan. 6 attacks, where citizens traveled to Washington, D.C., at the behest of some politicians.

She said that Rosendale has become increasingly out of touch with Montana’s values and its centrist approach.

“The last few elections are anomalies. They’re not in line with the history of the state. He’s not from Montana, and I don’t think he cares for Montana,” Ronning said. “Look at all the opposition he’s facing as an incumbent, from his party, from the Democrats, even the independents.”

She believes that her approach to politics is decidedly different, and Montanans are ready for a change.

“Women come to the table in a different way, and we’re ready to have a woman lead in a different way, and I believe I am the best to do it,” Ronning said.

She also said that Rosendale has been no friend to women, voting against domestic crime bills, voting against the Violence Against Women Act, and even nursing mothers.

“He votes against females at every turn. He is absolutely horrendous in votes involving females,” Ronning said. “He was terrible in the Legislature and even worse in Washington, D.C. I would hope his votes would be as offensive to men, too.”

Ronning’s platform includes focusing on healthcare, affordable housing and agriculture – all items critical to the Treasure State.

Healthcare

Ronning said that while everyone feels the pinch of rising healthcare costs, few realize that much of the cost is driven by “work on the back end.” More rules, regulations and requirements, especially for reporting, make healthcare expensive and pull resources away from healthcare providers.

“The doctors spend more times documenting than they do with patients,” Ronning said.

She said regulations need to be streamlined, re-examined, or modified to reduce the costs. She also said that Medicare and other reimbursement rates need adjustment.

“All these providers went in with all the right reasons, but leave because these back-end issues are so burdensome,” Ronning said.

Housing costs

As the cost of housing rises across the country, Montana has seen a sharp uptick in prices, outpacing wage growth.

She said Montanans often began with starter homes, and then moved up. But, now families can’t even afford to purchase their first home.

She said that federal and local governments must work more together to find ways to get residents into their first homes to build equity.

“The problem is they’re changing the definition of affordable housing,” she said. “We have got get the right people together to get the solutions. We need to bring in the developers, builders and economists first. And then later, we bring in the policy makers who listen to the experts and know the industry and have them present the solutions.

“We can no longer be this bubble where politicians and political parties tell us our solutions. Educators know education. Family farms know ag. And builders know housing.”

Agriculture

Ronning worries that Montana is slowly losing control of what has made it so strong – its agricultural community and local farm producers.

She said if large, multi-national companies can dictate what happens to family farming in Montana, then we “will die from the inside out.”

She said Montana farmers and ranchers produce some of the best food in the world, but that control is slipping away. She said Montana produces fresh produce and meat and it comes back as boxed food.

“It used to be that the farmer was responsible to the end user, but now with corporations controlling what we eat, those businesses and corporations are now responsible to the shareholders,” Ronning said.

She said that farmers and ranchers in Montana can help lead the conversation on climate change because they’re the ones most affected by it with fires, drought and even hail.

“There’s no two ways about it: They have the opportunity to impact health soil or different types of crops or even biofuels,” Ronning said. “They know they play a part, and I have learned how much they interact with each other. We need to get back to family support so that they can feed our country.”

The Daily Montanan’s candidate profiles for Republicans and Democrats running for  Montana’s two Congressional seats will run this week. The Daily Montana has reached out to candidates in this race, offering them the opportunity to speak with our reporters. The following candidates have either declined the opportunity or not responded: Al Olszewski, Matt Rosendale, Skylar Williams, Mary Todd and Ryan Zinke.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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