By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
There are two ways of looking at the outcome of Montana’s congressional race last November between Denise Juneau and Ryan Zinke. Most would say the race was over by midnight and that Juneau lost by 16 points to a Republican incumbent in a state that leans toward red.
But some might also say that Juneau garnered more than 201,000 votes and raised more money than any other Montana Democrat vying for a seat in the U.S. Congress. They might also say that the race marked the end of Juneau’s tenure as the Superintendent of Public Instruction, in which she became the state’s first Native American woman ever elected to executive office.
As her father often said, it’s not bad for a girl from Browning.
“Every time a door of opportunity opens, you have to make a choice whether to walk through that door,” Juneau said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of things and walk through those doors of opportunity, and it has led to things I would never have imagined.”
Seated in a downtown Missoula cafe, Juneau reflected on the last five months – her run for Congress, her tenure as superintendent and her goals moving forward. She moved to Missoula in January, becoming the city’s newest resident, and she plans to refresh the law degree she earned from the University of Montana back in 2004.
Juneau is also keeping an eye on the university’s search for a new president. She plans to apply for the post once the search committee announces the qualifications.
“I’m going to see what they put out, but I think I would be a good fit for that,” Juneau said. “I think it’s a really exciting opportunity to play another role in providing service to education, the community and Montana as a whole.”
During her tenure as superintendent, Juneau managed an agency that claimed a $1 billion budget with 180 employees. She worked with every school across the state, including Montana’s 140,000 students and 12,000 teachers.
While she “merely” holds a law degree, she feels her experience suits her well for the presidency of the University of Montana.
“All those things that make everything in public education run smoothly across the entire state, and being able to transfer those skill sets over to the university would be a good step,” Juneau said. “The search committee is putting together the criteria, so we’ll see what they put out.”
CONSIDERING THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC EDCATION
Juneau wrapped up her campaign in November and ended her job as superintendent in December. She moved to Missoula to live with her partner and has, for the time being, set her political career to the side in an effort to explore new opportunities.
Looking back over the past eight years, Juneau remains proud of her accomplishments, with Graduation Matters topping her list. The program was born in Missoula before it swept the state, boosting graduation levels to historic highs for two consecutive years.
“The fact that it’s living on beyond my administration is really important,” Juneau said. “I don’t know what the new superintendent is going to do or won’t do, but as I travel around, I still see Graduation Matters signs up, and I still hear people talking about it.”
Not only did the program boost graduation numbers, it also increased the standard. Juneau traces the program’s success to community outreach and partnerships, something she mentions often.
Along the way, her office worked closely with 58 Montana communities and 458 businesses, ensuring everyone had a seat at the table. The efforts included Schools of Promise – an effort to improve low-performing schools on reservations – and giving students a voice in the education process.
“It really was about building a longer table and making sure everyone had a role to play in all the big initiatives we had,” Juneau said. “That’s really what built the sustainability of those projects. We were really able to keep public education public.”
During her tenure, Juneau said there wasn’t a legislative session in which one or more bills didn’t push toward privatization, charter schools and tax credits. With community partners, Juneau said, her office was able to hold those efforts at bay and ensure limited state funding went to public schools.
Watching now from the sidelines, Juneau doesn’t know what the future will hold, though she’ll be watching closely. She maintains that privatization is bad for rural states like Montana, though she’s keenly aware of the direction the debate is taking at both the state and federal level.
“It will be hard to watch if it moves in that direction for sure,” Juneau said. “Education will have to adapt. But I do appreciate that for almost a decade, we were able to hold that off. We’ll see what happens now.”
HARD FOUGHT CAMPAIGN FOR U.S. CONGRESS
Now settled in Missoula, Juneau continues to make new friends and explore new opportunities. She’s left the rigorous race for Congress behind, a fact that’s evidenced on her Facebook page, which hasn’t been updated since November 9 – the day after the election.
The final results saw Zinke win 56 percent of the vote to Juneau’s 41 percent. Despite the results, she remains pleased with her performance and is proud of the race she ran.
“He was a popular incumbent and it’s always hard to take on an incumbent,” she said. “But the team I put together for the campaign was awesome. I don’t feel bad about the campaign we ran at all. We raised more money than any other Democrat in that race. We had great ads and we inspired a lot of voters.”
During the campaign, Juneau traveled across the state, meeting Montanans and debating the issues. Along the way, she learned that Montanans care about the issues at hand, not about personalities and smear tactics.
Yet too often, she said, negativity infiltrates politics.
“Montanans really do want to have conversations about issues,” Juneau said. “From what I see with all the negativity in races, it’s too bad. You poll and you find out all these little tiny issues you can drive wedges on, and it’s not even about the issues Montanans want to talk about. It’s more about personalities and that’s too bad. It’s a sad place for our society to be.”
Shortly after the election, President Donald Trump tapped Zinke to serve as the administration’s Secretary of the Interior. A special election will be held this spring, pitting two new Montana candidates against one another in a bid for the state’s lone seat in Congress.
Juneau said she passed on the opportunity to run again, believing it was someone else’s time to give it a try.
“I ran my race, and we ran a good race,” Juneau said. “I lost and I think it’s time for somebody new to take that and run with it. I’m in a place right now where I’m reassessing what I want to do and figuring out what my next steps are going to be, and I want to take the time and space to do that.”
In the time Juneau sat at the downtown coffee shop, she gave out hugs and spoke with friends. It’s exactly how she envisioned her free time – getting to know the Missoula community and exploring her new future.
She’s content in taking some down time to see what the future offers.
“Missoula has always been really good to me, and I’m going to still be engaged,” she said. “I’m really excited about finding ways to give back to this community and staying involved in public service in some way. I don’t know where my place is in all that yet, but if I do figure out that I have a role to play, I’ll be ready to take that step.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org