Libertarian John Lamb, Republican Ryan Zinke, and Democrat Monica Tranel speak at City Club Missoula. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)
The Olympic rower plucked the microphone out of the U.S. Navy SEAL’s hand at one point in the candidate forum for the U.S. House of Representatives, and at least a couple of times, the moderator told the sold-out crowd of roughly 250 to stop heckling.
“For you to misrepresent me in front of this crowd does no service to democracy,” former Olympian Monica Tranel said to opponent and retired SEAL Ryan Zinke in defense of her support for law enforcement, which she described as “unequivocal.”
Monday, in response to audience questions at City Club Missoula, lawyer Tranel blasted the record of her Republican opponent and military officer Zinke, and said he’s in the pocket of the energy companies that pay him. Former Secretary of the Interior Zinke, in turn, touted his record boosting energy production — from 8.3 million barrels a day to 12.5 million barrels a day, he said — in his quest to help the U.S. gain energy independence, and he generally held up his tenure with the agency.
“I don’t think there’s a department that affects Montanans more than Department of the Interior,” said Zinke, a former President Donald Trump appointee.
Zinke, former member of the U.S. House, and Democrat Tranel joined Libertarian John Lamb at the lunch forum hosted by City Club, an organization with a mission to inspire and inform citizens on vital community issues. Retired journalist Sally Mauk moderated, and periodically, she urged the energetic audience at the DoubleTree to maintain its composure despite emotional topics, such as abortion.
“Please show respect for the speakers and for each other, and try to keep your heckling to zero if you would,” Mauk said.
In the City Club format, a participant from each table prepared a question for the candidates, and the candidates took up a variety of issues including privacy and abortion rights, opioids and methamphetamine, climate change, and access to public lands. City Club sells tickets for lunch or tickets for dessert and coffee, and the forum is also available through community television.
The three candidates are vying to represent Montana’s new western district, a product of the recent U.S. Census that gave the Treasure State a second seat in the U.S. House. Tranel pointed out that Democrat Pat Williams, who held the second U.S. House of Representatives seat before Montana lost it in 1993 and served afterward as the at-large representative, was in the crowd.
The first question from the audience was about whether the candidates backed privacy rights in the Montana Constitution that protect abortion, and whether they would back a federal ban against abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned Roe v. Wade, which protected abortion via privacy, and Montana’s GOP Attorney General and governor want the state’s protection overturned as well.
Lamb said he has 12 children and opposes abortion based on moral and religious grounds, and he also pointed to medical advances that helped one of his children and wife. He said his 3-year-old son was born at just four pounds.
“We have great medical doctors today that can save lives, both lives, and that’s what we did,” Lamb said.
Zinke said he doesn’t agree with termination “moments before birth,” but he also said a ban is too harsh in light of unwanted pregnancies, incest, rape and other medical issues with a mother and child.
“I’m pro-life, but life is not perfect, is it?” Zinke said.
In her pointed response, Tranel said she would vote for women to live life on their own terms and be able to choose when and whether to become parents. She said the ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies are clear, and she described her opponents’ views as extreme, as forbidding a 10-year-old rape victim from having an abortion.
“They would not save a woman’s life when she is at risk of dying because she’s pregnant,” Tranel said.
Although Tranel took aim at both opponents over abortion, she shot barbs at Zinke early and often. She reminded the audience that she lives in Missoula, sees people at the grocery store and at children’s soccer games, and recently has been traveling only in Montana.
Zinke has listed a California mailing address in consulting paperwork filed with the SEC, and earlier this year, Politico reported that his wife declared a home in Santa Barbara as her primary residence. However, Zinke himself also lists Whitefish as his residence, and in his opening statement Monday, he highlighted his and his family’s roots as Bulldogs, the mascot of Whitefish High School.
Political analysts peg the western district as leaning hard for Republicans, but they also give Democrats more of a shot at winning the new district than they do the eastern one. In the east, GOP incumbent Matt Rosendale hopes to fend off Democrat Penny Ronning and Independent Gary Buchanan, the latter who recently earned the endorsement of the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
Before the lunch forum, the Tranel campaign released news of an endorsement by Susan Good Geise, who served as chair of the Republican Party in the early 1990s and more recently as commissioner for Lewis and Clark County and, in 2020, a Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In her opening remarks Monday, Tranel, a former Republican herself, said she’s already replaced two sets of tires and one set of brakes on her minivan from touring the new district, and on a trip through Flathead County, Tranel said she asked railroad workers what they love most about their jobs. She said they told her they love the Empire Builder.
“The Empire Builder, Ryan, is what you voted to cut funding for,” Tranel said.
Zinke, in turn, bashed Tranel for her response to a question about how to stop the flow of opioids and methamphetamine to Montana. Tranel said fentanyl, which has had deadly consequences for Montanans, is mostly made in China, but Zinke said she shouldn’t disregard the southern border when it comes to illegal drugs.
“Your head is buried so deep in the sand that you’ll never see light,” Zinke said.
He advocated for shutting down the southern border and empowering law enforcement to handle the problem. One fiery exchange with Tranel came when Zinke accused her of support for defunding the police via her client Montana 350, a climate activist group.
In response, Tranel said she doesn’t ascribe to every stance of every client she’s ever represented, and she also said her work with the group has reduced energy costs.
“I am proud of the work I have done here in Montana,” Tranel said.
Lamb, a Norris farmer wearing a tie scripted with “We the people,” said when it comes to drugs, more education aimed at children is needed, and not more interference from government: “The war on drugs isn’t working is what I’m saying.”
Lamb eschewed the mic for rebuttal opportunities more than his opponents did, but he said it’s his dream and goal to be elected into office. The one-time candidate for the Montana Senate said he’s seen government overreach into areas of his life from farming to faith, and he was inspired to run for office to change things.
“It made an impact on my growing up,” he said.
In general, Tranel talked about the problems families face with inflation, high housing costs, and prices for prescription drugs and even hearing aids. She repeatedly told Zinke she hopes he will join her and Lamb at debates across counties in the district and its reservations, and she said voters want the voice of someone who will work for them in Congress.
“I am hearing from you that you want community and fairness,” Tranel said.
Zinke, who has served overseas, said he doesn’t look at issues through a red or blue lens, but through a red, white and blue lens, and he’s worried about the country and the concentration of power. For example, he said he sees evidence of fascism when a medical physician can put a license at risk or a Navy SEAL could be discharged for raising questions about the efficacy of vaccines.
“Our lifestyle is worth defending,” Zinke said.
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