A Rankin successor? Williams vying to emerge as top Democrat in race for Gianforte’s seat

Kathleen Williams will square off this June against four other Montana Democrats, each looking to challenge freshman Rep. Greg Gianforte in the general election. And while she brings her own brand of politics to the party, she doesn’t hesitate when challenging Gianforte on the issues, or his voting record. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Back in 1917, Montana voters elected Jeannette Rankin to Congress, making her the first woman to hold federal office in the United States. More than a century later, Kathleen Williams is vying to become the second Montana woman to take the state’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

To get there, Williams will square off this June against four other Montana Democrats, each looking to challenge freshman Rep. Greg Gianforte in the general election. And while Williams brings her own brand of politics to the party, she doesn’t hesitate when challenging Gianforte on the issues, or his voting record.

“His first act in Congress was to propose a bill that if Congress couldn’t pass a balanced budget, it wouldn’t get paid, then a couple months later he’s supporting a $1 trillion addition to the deficit, and his mailer right after that is about a balanced budget,” Williams said on a recent morning in downtown Missoula. “At a minimum, you have to be consistent. There’s a lot of things we can hold him accountable on.”

Considered one of the three Democratic front-runners heading into Montana’s primary, Williams brings her share of experience to the table. Like the other Democratic candidates, she believes Congress is broken and that Gianforte is vulnerable.

Unlike the others, however, she’s the only leading Democrat who has been elected to office.

“Of the three (Democratic front-runners), I’m the only one who has been elected,” Williams said, noting her three terms in the state Legislature. “I’m really tired of this seat being filled by someone that doesn’t really represent Montana, and I wasn’t convinced we had someone that could win in a state that went 20 points for (President Donald) Trump. It’s going to be a unique Democrat that can take on Gianforte and be successful.”

During her time in the Legislature, Williams served as vice chair of the Agriculture and Taxation committees, and on the Governor’s Drought Committee and the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission.

While she advocates strongly for health care, equality and education, she’s also connected to the state’s agricultural sector and the Chamber of Commerce. It’s an eclectic mix that she believes represents her ability to work across political divisions.

“I have some Republican contributors and people encouraging me from eastern and central Montana and all parts of the state,” Williams said. “If our donors are any evidence of the voters, then I think we have a really good cross section.”

Kathleen Williams stopped in Missoula recently on her campaign tour. (Missoula Current)

Williams, who lost her husband two years ago and has two adult step children, gained interest in politics early in college. While her father – a World War II veteran – steered her toward business, she diverted to resource economics after taking a forestry class.

Years later, she continues to serve in the field, both in her political function as well as her “day job” as the associate director of the Western Landowners Alliance, where she works on water and policy issues. Her work in the field has help her build diverse alliances, adding fuel to her campaign.

“I’ve worked with people across the aisle – people of all stripes,” she said. “I’ve worked statewide with senior water users, and I’ve got good relationships there. My day job is with farmers and ranchers, so I have good relationships there as well. My policies and the way I express them are attractive to a broad cross section of Montanans.”

Williams entered the race in October and, like several other Democratic candidates, she has crossed the state listening to voters of all political stripes. At the same time, she says, her potential opponent, Gianforte, has avoided face-to-face town halls, opting instead for tele-town halls conducted from the safety of a distant office.

“He’s not being very accessible, and there’s a lot of things we can hold him accountable on,” Williams said. “It’s not about serving a certain contingent. It’s about serving the entire state. When voters are frustrated, you need to face them and find out what they’re frustrated about.”

Of the five Democrats in the race, two are women. Williams is considered a top contender with John Heenan and Grant Kier.

“I think it’s time that Jeannette Rankin has a successor,” said Williams. “It’s only been 101 years since we first elected her. Experience helps you craft your position and approach, and it helps get things done rather than learning that on the job. But I also hear a lot of people say it’s time for a woman. I would say not just any woman, but if the most qualified candidate is a woman, then more power to her.”