Democrat Penny Ronning and Independent Gary Buchanan participate in Western Native Voice’s debate in Billings on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Community Seven Television livestream)
Democrat Penny Ronning and Independent Gary Buchanan both agree law enforcement need more coordination in tackling the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis and that Indigenous Peoples Day should replace Columbus Day.
The Congressional candidates vying for votes in Montana’s second district discussed issues from access to healthcare to criminal justice Thursday in Billings during a debate hosted by Western Native Voice.
Both Republican incumbent Matt Rosendale and Libertarian Sam Rankin did not participate in Thursday’s debate.
In her opening statement, Ronning gave a land acknowledgment, recognizing that Billings was built upon the unseeded homelands and villages and traditional areas of the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux and Blackfeet people and that this land is part of the Elk River Watershed.
Buchanan opened by commenting on the difference in participation in debates between those on stage and the candidates not present.
“Penny and I have accepted every debate that we’ve been asked to do,” he said. “Our opponents don’t show up.”
Rosendale is heavily favored to win the district.
In the latest MSU-Billings poll with a 5.3% margin of error, Rosendale leads other candidates in the race with 35% of the vote. The poll also found that he has a nearly 30% approval rating for his work to date in Congress and 35% disapproval rate.
On how to address disparities in access to healthcare in Native communities, Ronning said she would push for more funding to upgrade Indian Health Services, as well as more training for medical professionals on issues specific to rural areas.
Buchanan said that in a visit to Fallon County near Baker there were no full time healthcare professionals on staff. He didn’t specify the facility he visited.
“They’re using traveling nurses, traveling physician’s assistants, traveling doctors, and I think the same problem exists on the reservations,” he said.
He said that medical professionals should be able to pay back their student loans through service on a reservation.
When asked about what potential solutions they would have surrounding the disproportionate impact of the opioid epidemic on reservations, Ronning said when talking about substance abuse, it’s important to also discuss poverty.
“We have to address ways to build collateral, ways to develop banking systems on our reservations. I think these are things that will have a ripple effect into addressing the systemic issues that lead to the opioid crisis,” Ronning said.
Buchanan said that wherever the drugs are coming from, the crimes have to be more professionally prosecuted. He said that overdoses lead to suicides, and he touted involvement in suicide walks in the state.
Candidates were asked about how they would address the issue of the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Montana.
Buchanan said he felt there should be better cooperation between “our own police and sheriff’s departments, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the police on the reservation.”
Ronning held up her experience co-founding the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force and said better communication between law enforcement and victims services was critical.
“One of the most important things that we learned through our task force is that we also need to have a shared language,” she said.
When asked about the disparities in how law enforcement handle Indigenous missing persons compared to non-Indigenous, Ronning said Montana is in the top five for missing Indigenous women in the country, citing a 2018 report from Urban Indian Health Institute.
She cited the importance of data collection as well as police follow-ups on documents and reports. She also suggested hiring more Native police officers.
“We need cultural training within our law enforcement, jurisdictions and all of the different levels of law enforcement, and we need that training across the board,” she said.
Candidates were asked how they would tackle rising energy costs for Native communities, and both candidates said they were interested in renewable energy.
Buchanan pointed to the Calumet refinery in Great Falls’ renewable diesel fuel project as well as a new wind farm to be built near Colstrip, after first referencing it as a solar farm, which Ronning corrected him on.
“I think that there’s so many opportunities in Montana to bring in renewables,” Ronning said. “That doesn’t mean that we shut down coal and oil and gas, and we’re not ready to do that.”
Both candidates said they believed Montana’s elections were safe and secure and also supported a nationwide Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day.
In Buchanan’s closing statement, he said he would hire a Native American coordinator “to help educate me in terms of what to do.”
“In the wholeness of our federal government, we have so much work to do, to repair broken treaties, to repair broken promises. And that starts with us. That starts with the two of us on this stage,” Ronning said in her closing statement.
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