John Heenan

John Heenan

Billings attorney and restaurant owner John Heenan announced Monday he will seek the Democratic nomination for Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House next year.

The seat is currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who defeated Democrat Rob Quist in a special election this spring to fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, now Secretary of the Interior.

Heenan becomes the first Democrat to register a campaign committee to challenge the Bozeman Republican, who garnered wide attention after a bizarre election-eve assault on a reporter on May 24.

Gianforte has said he will run to keep his seat. No other Republicans have announced they are running.

Heenan, who has no previous political experience, said he started considering a bid before last May's election.

“I watched Greg Gianforte spend millions of his own money to run for public offices that pay less than $175,000 a year. From the outside looking in, it felt like he was buying his way into power. That concerned me.”

Heenan said he was also troubled by Gianforte’s assault on a reporter and subsequent false statements about it. Gianforte body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs and his campaign later released a statement blaming Jacobs.

Jacobs was asking about Gianforte’s stance on Congressional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In a call Gianforte held with supporters before the special election, the then-candidate said he was "thankful" for the bill, while he had been telling Montana press he was undecided. The New York Times first reported Gianforte's comments on a call with lobbyists.

“The icing on the cake to me was when he told all of us that he hadn’t made up his mind about the health care bill and then got caught privately telling the donors and special interest folks that he was thankful,” Heenan said Monday.

Health care will be a top issue of the Billings lawyer's campaign. Heenan cited clients he’s represented who had to declare bankruptcy because of illness, saying he’s dealt with the effects of a flawed system first hand and would advocate for a single-payer approach.

“I’ve seen the carnage that is our health care system and I believe strongly that we need to patch the holes in the net and the way to do that is Medicare for everyone.”

His work has also brought to his attention consumer protection issues, something he said Gianforte does not side with Montanans on. Heenan referenced Gianforte's vote with other House Republicans to pass the Financial Choice Act, which would to roll back financial regulations on large financial institutions.

Heenan also cast himself as the opposite of Gianforte, who was a Bozeman businessman who became wealthy after starting RightNow Technology and selling it to Oracle in 2011 for $1.8 billion.

“I’m not a politican. I won’t give politician answers. I have a view of how to make Montana better and how to make Montana work for the 99.9 percent that don’t have a voice in Washington,” Heenan said.

Last year Heenan joined with the Commissioner of Political Practices Office to prosecute a case against Art Wittich, a former Republican state representative from Bozeman who was found guilty of campaign finance violations.

He was also working for the office on a case against Billings attorney Emily Jones, who is accused of withholding evidence in a political practice lawsuit. During last year's election for a seat on the state Supreme Court, he requested the emails of candidate Kristen Juras, which produced conversations about religious freedom lawsuits that upset anti-discrimination groups. Juras lost to Dirk Sandefur.

Heenan said he feels Montana is in danger of returning to the days of the Copper Kings, magnates William A. Clark, Marcus Daly and Augutus Heinze who became wealthy from copper mining in Butte and used their money to influence elections and in some cases win them for themselves in the late 1890s and early 1900s

“As Montanans we pushed to get campaign finance laws in place 100 years ago," Heenan said. "One of my top priorities is we need to amend the Constitution to reverse this terrible Citizens United decision and put us back to common sense. People should have a voice in democracy, not corporations with billions of dollars and not billionaires who use their money to buy influence.”

While Montana has long been held up as an example of strong campaign finance laws, made tougher with the passage of the Disclose Act in 2015, the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 gave corporations the ability to spend heavily in elections.

Heenan also said he would advocate to preserve funding for Planned Parenthood and work to preserve public access to public lands.

Acknowledging the race he's entering is likely to be expensive, in part because of Gianforte's ability to self-finance, Heenan said he had his work cut out for him if he makes it past the primary.

“You’re not going to out-money Greg Gianforte. I certainly know that. Frankly this all starts at a grassroots level,'' he said. "No one knows who I am across the state. I understand that. I’ve got a lot of people to introduce myself to.”

Heenan was born in Pennsylvania and attended the University of Montana. He is married to Meagan Heenan and has four children, ages 14, 11, 8 and five. He also owns a restaurant in Billings that serves local food and in the past was an over-the-road trucker and forklift driver.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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