Interview: Kathleen Williams
Democrat Kathleen Williams agreed to an in-person interview with Montana Press on October 7, 2018, the day after the second round of televised debates with her opponents.
Montana Press: When did you feel a calling to run for Congress?
Kathleen Williams: Well, my husband actually suggested it when I was serving in the Legislature. I said, “Well, would you come with me?” and he said, “No, I’m going to hunt and fish,” and I’m like, “Well, then I’m not doing that.” He was the first to suggest it, actually. When I knew that there was going to be a special election, I thought about it then, too but he passed away in January of 2016 and I just didn’t feel like I was ready to start a new chapter. This time around, I was ready.
I just feel like we need honest, truthful, non-partisan representation. And we need to win. I felt like, of all the people with a D after their name, I probably have the breadth and the depth to actually win. I evaluated the other candidates who had entered the primary and I felt like I needed to step up. They’re wonderful people and we had a great time on the primary campaign trail. Now we’ve got to replace Gianforte. He’s just not serving us well.
MP: After a crowded primary race, how did you find the experience of being propelled to the national spotlight as a Dem to watch?
Williams: We certainly need national attention in these days of ridiculous campaign finance needs. It’s helpful to have national attention but what I love is going door to door. What I love about this is talking to Montanans and traveling the state and hearing what their hopes, struggles, and dreams are. And getting my little brain going on, “Well, what could we do to solve that?” I love that.
MP: What is your background in policymaking and legislative work? And what would you consider some of the greatest successes in your career?
Williams: My first job in Montana, 24 years ago, was non-partisan legislative staff where I was the lead staff person for all the Legislature on anything related to mining, water and outdoor recreation. That was back in the 90s. I saw a Legislature that functioned. People could disagree, but not be disagreeable. They could roll up their sleeves and get to work on things that mattered to Montana.
I continued to participate in the Legislature after that. I went to a state agency and ended up getting called in front of the Legislature for a variety of reasons because we were trying to conserve Montana’s rivers. After that, I went into the non-profit and private sectors and volunteered with the League of Women Voters. I served on their statewide steering committee for the legislative session where we were deciding what to participate in based on the League’s positions. I was also running workshops and trainings for the League on how to track legislation, build relationships with Legislators, and craft and deliver compelling testimony. Once again, I was in front of the Legislature as a testifier and as a concerned citizen working with the volunteer organization.
Back in 2007 when the Legislature couldn’t even pass a budget, I started becoming more and more concerned that hyper-partisanship, divisiveness and inexperience was pervading that institution. When [my husband] Tom went to Iraq in 2009, I’d completed the policy aspects of my day job and I found myself watching too many Law and Order reruns. A friend of mine, [Montana Representative] J.P. Pomnichowski, she tapped me and said, “Have you ever thought of running for the Legislature?” I ran and served in ‘11, ‘13 and ‘15.
As far as accomplishments, I feel like my cancer bill that required insurance companies to cover routine cancer care for patients who were participating in clinical trials was a success. It took me four years to do that but now it’s actually is saving lives. It’s an honor to be able to have done that.
I think my local food bill was also a success. We not only created the opportunity to make certain foods in a home kitchen and sell them, but that created over 200 new businesses and over 3,000 new Montana products in just three years from enactment. That bill took me four years as well. When I first started it, one of the things we discovered was that our food safety laws were an absolute mess. So not only did we pass the cottage food bill, but it was within a bill called the Montana Food Policy Modernization Act that removed a lot of duplicative requirements on food businesses and made it easier for them to expand across county lines, things like that. My style is problem solving and if I encounter something that makes things more complicated rather than shying away from it, I take it on. When you’re in the minority, you have to keep working but it’s my style to work with people of all political stripes. And that’s really what we need to get back to and what I want to take to Congress.
MP: You noted in a recent interview that you wish to put “People over party and policy over politics,” and noted a problem with hyper-partisanship in modern government. What are some of the worst examples of hyper-partisanship you’ve seen during your legislative career?
Williams: I think it’s when people don’t consider other people as colleagues, but only consider them as to what the letter is after their name. In the debate last night, there was so much of it. Lumping people into a box or assuming and misrepresenting their positions because there’s some kind of portion of a party that advocates for something. I think partisanship happens because there’s parties; but hyper-partisan is when it just becomes destructive to our institutions and doesn’t allow people to think independently or to vote independently.
MP: In the highly partisan environment of the U.S. House, how would you work to build discourse and consensus with your fellow representatives?
Williams: One way I did it in the Legislature was through knowing the process. I know the rules. You take things that Montanans have said they want to change and then there are a lot of people who have just been elected and have no idea how to craft a bill, how to do amendments. I helped people with things like the process to write bills or how to run a committee. So helping people is one thing. I hope I have the opportunity to do that. But also it’s looking for common interests in unique places that don’t consider party.
On my cancer bill, I knew I had to get that through Art Wittich’s Health & Human Services Committee in the House, and he’s a cancer survivor. So you find those commonalities, and you lead by example, and you hold people accountable. I made a freshman Republican Legislator apologize to a witness for calling him a liar. I didn’t have any authority to do that. But he did it because I just called to his higher ethics. I thought I’d made an enemy by doing that, but he ended up being my seatmate the next session and brought me butterscotches every day. So you can do it. You just have to bite the bullet and do it and that’s what our institutions need.
MP: If the Democrats took the majority in the House after the midterms and you were elected, how would your experience serving in the minority inform your policymaking?
Williams: Well, it’s the same thing. I’m a consensus builder. You can’t always do that in a legislative body, but the partisanship has gone too far and we need to work together. I think that’s what Montanans want. I think right now one of the problems is that whichever party is in charge is trying to hang on to that power and ensure that the other party doesn’t come into power. That’s all they care about so they’re not getting anything done. I believe we still have in this landscape, even if the majority shifts in the U.S. House, we’ll still have the President and probably not the 60 votes in the Senate. So it’ll be a little more of a check and a balance. In the House, we can raise issues, do oversight and bring back some balance to Washington.
MP: Can you talk about your work as Associate Director of the Western Land Owner’s Alliance, an organization facilitating both working use of private lands and active conservation management?
Williams: Really, what that organization did is try and bring a voice to conservation-minded farmers and ranchers across the West in North America. So we were facilitating them, telling their story, being advocates for sustainable and regenerative agriculture. So many of them, when we talk about forestry, many of them had either BLM or Forest Service leases or permits to graze or cattle. They were working hard to improve the areas that they had permits and leases on and in some places because of their work and their management the lands were in better shape than the adjacent public lands. So we were advocating to ensure that people didn’t misunderstand the good things that go are going on on the land. Often it’s private land owners who are in the places that were settled, which are often the river valleys and those are critical to wildlife and clean water, clean air and open space and my job was telling that story.
I started a film program that was a partnership with MSU that told these stories. They were six to eight minute films and they each profiled a conservation-minded farmer or rancher in the west and talked about all the good things they were doing and how the good things they were doing contributed to their bottom line so we were able to show that conservation could help make private land management profitable.
There was a rancher down in New Mexico we profiled in a film. He wanted to reintroduce ferrets because he had a prairie dog colony and he noticed that the cattle really liked being where the prairie dogs were. But the prairie dogs weren’t moving around and creating more benefit, they were just staying put. He wanted to introduce ferrets to move the prairie dogs around to benefit his cattle. So it’s stories like that, how there can be really common interests between conservation and making a living.
MP: Do you support President Trump’s tax cuts and, more specifically, would you be likely to take a stand against the President if you disagreed with him?
Williams: I look forward to working with the President where we have common interests. The tax bill was pretty painful to watch, having been Vice Chair of the House Taxation Committee in 2015, where we took a very measured approach and a fiscally-responsible approach and made sure that whatever we did we tried to be revenue neutral. I voted to lower the Business Equipment Tax to help business. We were trying to figure out how we could lower property taxes because there are people that are concerned about being taxed out of their homes.
I would stand up to the President. My style is not typically confrontational but I sort of stand up to everybody. My style is to find common interests and unique arguments to bring people over to my position. People talk about compromise and I talk about communication.
MP: What is your perspective on restricting ownership of weapons?
Williams: I’m a proud gun owner and supporter of the 2nd Amendment. I’m proud to have the support of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance. This Congress has failed to take any action on keeping children safe in schools and protecting children from massacres. I don’t believe the corporate gun lobby is more important than the life of a child
MP: Do you think healthcare is a fundamental right for a taxpayer?
Williams: Everyone deserves access to affordable, quality healthcare. I believe this because it’s personal to me. When I was 11, my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and me and my father became her caregivers. I understand what a health crisis can do to a family. I will work to stabilize the individual market, reduce prescription drug prices, and to allow people 55 and older to buy in to Medicare if they want to.
MP: In recent interviews and debates, you’ve been sharply critical of your opponent, Congressman Gianforte. What would you point out as a key concern about his ability to represent Montanans?
Williams: Well, number number one, he’s lying about me and he lied to law enforcement after he assaulted a reporter. So I think at a minimum we need people that are honest and have integrity. And I think, too, that he seems to be serving narrow special interests. He won’t hold public meetings. He talks about traveling to all 56 counties but nobody seems to remember seeing him. He won’t allow the public to speak at a congressional briefing paid for by tax dollars. He won’t allow the public to speak. I don’t think he’s representing all of Montana, which is what I want to do. Whether people vote for me or not, I will be the Representative for all of Montana. We need to balance those interests and get Congress working again.
I was his Legislator, he was my Constituent, so I’ve known him for a long time and we can do so much better. He’s just following the partisan line. He keeps talking about having the ear of the President and advancing the President’s agenda. It’s like: You’re a Congressman. Congress is a separate branch. It’s great if you want to work with the President, but let’s solve some problems for Montana that the President doesn’t have the authority to do.
MP: Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi and President Obama are frequently mentioned in statements and interviews about this House race. How are these nationally known politicians relevant to Montana voters?
Williams: My opponent is using Pelosi to try and scare people or to paint me in a way that isn’t correct. He knows. In July I came out and stated that with Paul Ryan stepping down we had an opportunity, America has an opportunity, to select leadership on both sides in the U.S. House that can actually work together and reduce this hyper-partisanship and he took the clip from that statement that said I wouldn’t be voting for Nancy Pelosi and used it in a commercial saying that all I would do is side with Nancy Pelosi. I mean, that is the most blatant lie that I can think of.
He seems to think that that name means something to Montanans, but Montanans vote for the person. I know they do. So it’s my hope that they won’t be cowed or believe the misrepresentations that he’s putting forward. There was a great recent Guardian article where the headline was, “She’s got a truck camper, he’s got a private jet.”
MP: What has been a highlight or some highlights of your campaign tour, traveling in a camper around the state?
Williams: It was a blast. That’s how you hear what matters to people. You go to them and you talk to them and you invite them to talk to you. We’re going to do another tour but the first one we called it the ‘Opportunity Tour.’ We started in Opportunity, Montana, which is great. We went up the Rocky Mountain Front, across the High Line, up to Scobey and Plentywood and down eastern Montana. We tried to stay on public lands every night, which just recharges me. The first night on the road, we were so busy just sort of getting out and getting to the first event. Everett, my Finance Director, went with me the first time. When the two of us got to this little fishing access site that we could camp at outside of Choteau, we parked the camper, set it up and it was night one of the Opportunity Tour. We looked up at the Rocky Mountain front and my dog got in the little reservoir and it was just like, “Wow. This is Montana.”