Montana state Rep. Tom Winter entered politics in the aftermath of the 2016 election. He told me that his motivation was
“equal parts frustration with where we were and optimism about where we could go.” When we spoke he wanted to make certain that everyone understand that “contrary to popular opinion, we are not a ‘red state.’ We elected President Trump and Democratic Governor Steve Bullock at the same time. Democratic Senator Jon Tester has won statewide twice. Montana just doesn’t fit the mold of a red, blue, or even purple state. Republicans win when they can cast their opponents as unpopular or out of step with everyday Montanans. Democrats win when we make the case for our shared values and fight for what is right. Nearly half of the voters here identify as Independents. So in this arena it helps to keep away from partisan talking points.”
And that’s exactly what Tom did last year when he defeated a Republican incumbent Adam Hertz in a state legislative seat that had voted for Trump by 11 points. “I knocked on every door in a largely rural district, and I listened,” he said. “Nobody felt like any party or any politician was addressing their concerns. And they knew the problems they were facing were systemic. Our broken politics had left them behind.”
Tom ran as an agent of change in a western Missoula County district where people knew the system wasn’t working for them. In 2016 Missoula County went for Bernie over Hillary 60.4% to 43.4%– but Bernie also beat Trump on primary day– by a lot. County-wide Bernie got 13,271 votes and Trump got 7,623. Voters wanted change– and Bernie and Trump were the two change candidates. Hillary was the candidate of a status quo that wasn’t doing anything to help the people who elected Tom to the state legislature in 2018. Please consider contributing to his campaign here.
–by Tom Winter
candidate for Montana’s At-Large congressional seat
Voters knew what issues animated them. They cared about ever-rising property taxes, unaffordable (and often inaccessible) healthcare, an unfair tax structure that catered to the rich, legalizing marijuana, and crippling student loan debt. Other candidates weren’t even acknowledging these concerns because they didn’t fit well into a simplistic left vs. right narrative.
People told me I couldn’t run as a progressive in this conservative district, but the actual, real people we were reaching didn’t care about ideology. They just wanted someone to be honest, to level with them about this mess we’re in. Years of being force-fed talking points from both parties had left Montanans jaded. But getting burned by Trump’s false promises hadn’t made it any better. It was all of a piece. So there was excitement for real plans and real progressive legislation.
And it worked. After knocking 22,000 door attempts in a district with only 4,000 doors, after registering hundreds of new voters, after speaking with people who had never had any politician take the time to speak to them, we won.
I pledged to follow through on my promises to voters– they were voting for a legislative platform in addition to an individual person. I entered a legislative chamber with a strong 58-42 Republican majority. I was told by many that all of my progressive proposals would be dead on arrival and that it would be a waste of time. But this is a false dichotomy. We need to make our case for what is right and move the ball forward on progress every inch we can. So, I proposed 24 bills– a record load for a freshman in a 90 day bicameral session in a legislature with no support staff. But I made a promise to my voters. Among these bills were:
- Protections for pre-existing conditions and banning lifetime payment caps
- Banning short-term “junk insurance” plans
- Significant property tax relief for over 80% of homeowners paid for by a modest increase on second home mansions
- Student loan debt relief for all graduates earning $40k/year or less paid for by a 0.5% capital gains tax increase
- Online voter registration
- Ending the prohibition on recreational cannabis– including $150 million in new revenue and significant criminal justice reform
- Mobile home tenant protections
- Extending minimum wage and overtime regulations for all workers
- Corporate income tax disclosure and transparency
- Lower the cost of certain life-saving prescription drugs through an innovative state subscription model
- Establish a state pension plan for non-unionized workers
This was broadly popular, often innovative legislation. But many, if not all, were met with fierce resistance from the established order. Some members of my own party even pushed back. They called it earnest, as if that were a negative. But whenever I traveled back to my district to hold town halls at the local brewery– my constituents loved that I was shaking things up. They told me to keep pushing the ball forward.
The more people I spoke with the more I was encouraged to take my progressive vision higher and further. Although we elect Democrats in Montana and sent them to the governor’s office and the Senate, our lone congressional seat remains elusive. The year I won an 11-point Trump district is the same year Jon Tester was sent back to the Senate by historic margins. Yet we still lost the congressional race by 6 points. Despite an immensely unpopular opponent (Greg Gianforte the reporter-body-slammer) and favorable midterm conditions we lost. Candidates that just check the standard Democratic playbook not only lose, but they draw the ire of an electorate that deeply needs true representation.
I’m running for Congress in Montana because I want to be a voice for those who don’t have one in our federal government. I’m running because I can win without compromising our values. Because progressive values are Montanan values. We can’t shy away from making our case for voters that are understandably wary of a system that so often fails them.
Montanans have been fed party talking points for years. We’ve got more cattle than people up here– so the voters know bullshit when they see it.
Thanks for always doing what you can to make a better world,
–Howie, for the entire Blue America team