Delivering the speech to the Legislature he had abruptly rescheduled the day before, U.S. Senator Steve Daines on Wednesday called for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court and applauded “Montanans …running Montana.” About three dozen protesters as well as some supporters showed up at the Capitol a day after a rally by hundreds of protesters.
Daines has come under fire from constituents demanding an in-person town hall because they say their calls, emails and letters are going unanswered. They want to ask why he supported Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, why he gaveled down Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren during debate on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ nomination, and what he would do to protect access to health care they fear will be lost with Republicans’ promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act, among other issues.
In an exclusive interview after the speech, the senator from Bozeman defended his accessibility, noting he answered many of those “tough questions” during a recent telephone town hall. He touched on some of the same topics in his annual address to the Montana Legislature, but also shared his vision for Montana’s energy and agricultural sectors under the administration of President Donald Trump. Throughout the speech, he described the Trump presidency as the dawn of a new era when leaders will downsize federal government, shrink debt and return more power to the states.
“We are at a unique moment in history that many of us haven’t seen in a long time – a moment when Washington is ready to listen, rather than dictate,” he said. “A moment when Washington understands this most important principle: Montanans are best at running Montana.”
Daines said the first priorities on his list are to “stop the war on coal and approve the Keystone Pipeline.” He also argued Congress should approve “tax reform that once and for all kills the death tax,” which farmers and ranchers see as pricing out their children from taking over operations, and said he would work to expand international trade of Montana products by setting aside “academic hand-wringing about being politically correct.” As he has several times in recent weeks, Daines also highlighted his bill to create a 12th Circuit Court of Appeals that would separate Rocky Mountain states from California, perceived as a liberal influence on the existing 9th Circuit.
Daines argued Montanans should have more control over federal lands so industries such as timber harvesting are not “locked out” of the economy on their public lands, calling environmental groups that file lawsuits to halt natural resource development “extremists.” He also said to applause: “Let’s be clear: Our public lands are not for sale.”
The senator underscored his support for a repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, calling the inevitable “death spiral” of the law a prime example of the previous administration’s failures.
He repeatedly emphasized that he represents “every Montanan” and he is in Congress “not to be served, but to serve.”
Dozens who came to the Capitol Wednesday for Daines’ speech disagreed about how well he fulfilled that promise.
Nick Lockridge, who worked for the Montana Democratic Party last year, dressed as a chicken, a metaphorical dig at Daines for cancelling his address Tuesday when hundreds had gathered at the capitol. He flapped his “wings” throughout a Daines’ news conference with GOP legislative leaders about their support for Gorsuch. Others at the Capitol raised protest signs tacked with “Dump Daines” stickers. To one side, a group of women held up white sheets of printer paper with cursive writing that read, “We Love You Steve. Thank you for all you do for America.”
When Daines left the news conference after two press questions and as onlookers started to chant, Shani Henry of Helena talked to the congressman’s press secretary about better access. Katie Waldman offered a business card with information about how to call in to the next telephone town hall, but Henry declined, saying she already had contact information for the office.
“What I’m asking you is: How can he justify his refusal to answer our questions?” she said, raising her voice. “It’s our right to ask him questions.”
A little over an hour later, Henry tried to get a seat in the House gallery to watch Daines’ address, but was turned away.
Students from private schools Daines visited earlier in the day filled the House gallery, leaving only 29 seats for other members of the public. Rules prohibit people from standing in the gallery during session. Several protesters said they thought the students were invited as a ploy to keep them out. Other addresses to the Legislature this year have had few public onlookers.
Waldman said Daines did invite the students to watch his speech, but as a civics lesson, nothing more.
After being refused entry, a dozen people watched the speech from a TV on the fourth floor. They booed loudly when Daines mentioned President Donald Trump and support for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Several of the senator’s supporters also could not get gallery seats and watched from the hallway leading to the House. Donna Elford said she hasn’t been very active in politics before, but felt the need to support Daines after organized opposition from the other side. She said Daines represents her views and brings Montana issues to the national spotlight.
“I’ve been in Montana all my life,” Elford said. “I think he cares about the families.”
In the interview, Daines said, “If there’s a key word here, it’s accessibility. How do I remain and my team remain accessible to Montanans from every corner of the state?”
He noted he and his staff have replied to more 100,000 pieces of constituent correspondence since taking office in 2015.
Daines listed the ways Montanans could contact him to share their opinions and stories: by going to one of his regional offices for “face-to-face conversations” with staff; scheduling an office visit for a trip to the US Capitol; joining Montana’s congressional delegation for coffee at weekly Wednesday meetings; telephone town halls hosted every few weeks; and “more traditional forms of communication” such as letters, emails and voicemails.
“I want to be asked,” he said, listing pointed questions he answered during his last teleconference. “Because while they might not agree with me at the end of the conversation, at least I can explain ... what thought process I am going through as I made a decision to vote one way or the other.”
When asked what he would tell Montanans with a different definition of accessibility and about the calls for an in-person Q&A where constituents could ask follow-up questions, he said, to some degree, that’s unnecessary because their concerns already have been “noted.”
“It’s pretty clear to me what they’re for and what they’re against. We’re getting emails. We’re getting phone calls. They’ve got signs. They make comments. It’s not like it’s a secret,” he said. “I will tell you exactly what they are for or against. They are opposed to coal. They’re opposed to the Keystone Pipeline. They’re opposed to the repeal of the EPA power plan. They are opposed to the repeal of the Waters of the U.S. They support Obamacare. They support Elizabeth Warren.”
He said it was “absolutely false” that he only wanted to have intimate, one-on-one conversations with fellow conservatives. But he did note that he wasn’t sure how productive some chats might be given national movements by Democrats and their allies to pressure Republican leaders.
“Have you seen the playbook yet that’s out there? You see there’s a structure to this. It’s all about videos. It’s about trying to create gotcha moments,” he said, referencing Indivisible, an organization led by former Democratic staffers self-described as “A practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda.”
A handful of community groups have formed in Montana, often by regular Democratic volunteers, to organize email and voice message campaigns.
Daines described the “nationally orchestrated movement” as nothing new, pointing to the growth of the Tea Party following President Barack Obama’s election.
“It’s frankly a natural part of the political process,” he said. “It’s OK to yell, it’s OK to shout, it’s OK to get upset, to voice your opinion.”
But while Daines lauded “organic” movements and emotions – such as the Native American women he said convinced him to support the Violence Against Women Act – he questioned the suggested tactics of the new groups to manufacture drama by “shouting down the (Congress) member when they’re in the town hall.”
“That’s not what Montanans are about. Maybe for some pockets in Missoula, Bozeman and Helena, but generally Montanans say, ‘No,’” he said. “We’re about having a civil conversation, a back and forth. I’m not sure that will be the outcome with some of these folks.”