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Montana midterm elections: Lewis and Zinke battle for U.S. House seat

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Democrat Lewis says he’s the ‘work horse’ candidate

By Bjorn Bergeson

Community News Service

UM School of Journalism

As he watched the resulting 16-day shutdown of the federal government last fall, John Lewis felt compelled to do something about the partisan gridlock.

“I came to the conclusion that the U.S. House is basically keeping this country from moving forward,” said the 36-year-old Democrat, who faces Republican Ryan Zinke in the Nov. 4 midterm election. “We’ve got one seat in the House, and I’m concerned about the future of this country.”

For 12 years, he had been aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, first in Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant and then as a Montana-based state director of Baucus’ efforts to solve problems for individuals, business and local governments.

Born in Billings,lewis_ebs Lewis is one of six children in a blended family. His mother was an educator, a Forest Service employee and small-business woman. His father was a land planner and his stepdad a smokejumper.

Lewis graduated from Missoula’s Sentinel High School, and in 2001 he earned a bachelor’s in political science from Western Washington University. Returning to Montana shortly thereafter, he began working on political campaigns.

Both Lewis and Zinke struggled after the primary to distinguish themselves with the independent voters who will likely decide the election. But the fight escalated when Zinke began running ads comparing his leadership experience as a U.S. Navy Seal with Lewis’ youth and his work “helping to write the disastrous Obamacare legislation.”

Lewis, who was in Montana when the law was drafted, has said he had no role in writing Obamacare, but supports its efforts to provide health coverage for working families. The law needs fixing, Lewis said, by adding more flexibility, less paperwork and more competition from private insurers.

Lewis also draws a line between his stance on energy and Zinke’s. Both support the Keystone XL pipeline and an energy policy that calls for development of oil, gas and coal, and renewable energy, but Lewis said his plan focuses more on renewables and the need to battle climate change.

The two also differ on abortion, with Lewis saying he would fight for a woman’s right to choose. Zinke is pro-life, but says he’ll abide the U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring abortion legal.

As voters look for differences between the candidates they should look at who’s supporting them, said Lewis, who notes that more than 70 percent of the donors to his campaign were Montanans. By contrast, most of Zinke’s donors are from California, Texas and Florida, Lewis said.

Lewis says his Washington experience would help him get legislation through Congress if he’s elected. “When I see Congress going from crisis to crisis, which is what led to the government shutdown last fall, it concerns me,” he said. “I am somebody that’s willing to work with both sides.”

In a recent TV debate, Lewis urged voters to keep that in mind as the campaign rhetoric heats up.

“If you want a show horse in this race, then Mr. Zinke is your guy,” he said. “If you want a work horse, then I’m your guy.”


House hopeful Zinke banks on experience, leadership

By Kaci Felstet

Community News Service

UM School of Journalism

You’ve seen Ryan Zinke’s ads, the ones with medals, flags and the tall, square-jawed candidate in combat fatigues or the dress uniform of a Navy Seal.

“In the Seals we’re taught to lead from the front and never quit until the job is done,” he said in one ad before the primary. “Isn’t that what we need in Washington right now?”

Zinke’s message of leadership is hard to miss as the 52-year-old contrasts his experience with that of his Democratic opponent, 36-year-old John Lewis, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

For 23 years Zinke fought as a Navy Seal in Iraq, overseeing special operations and earning two Bronze Stars. Before that he oversaw missions in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

A fifth-generation Montananzinke_2_ebs who starred in football at the University of Oregon, Zinke returned to his hometown of Whitefish in 2008 with his wife and three children. He started a consulting business that deals with aerospace, oil and gas, and national security.

He began a political career serving one term in the Montana Senate, where he chaired the Education Committee and was known as a moderate who sought compromise on subjects like school funding and workers’ compensation reform.

Zinke has spent much of this campaign stressing leadership and explaining his positions to independent voters, who will likely decide the race’s outcome.

He said he’s pro-life, but supports pregnancy education and prevention programs, including access to contraceptives. Despite his personal beliefs, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized abortions, so abortion shouldn’t be a congressional issue. “The court has ruled, and I respect the court,” he said. “That’s the American process.”

He’s called for abandoning Obamacare like a “sinking ship.” He says the law discourages business from adding jobs, though likes its coverage of pre-existing conditions and extended coverage for young people.

Zinke, who’s on the board of a company that improves the performance of oil and gas pipelines, supports completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, saying it would be the safest ever built. “It is about making this country energy independent, which is about jobs,” Zinke said.

He acknowledges climate change and that humans are an influence, but said the research is inconclusive. “You don’t dismantle American power and our energy sources on a maybe,” he said. “You work to make it cleaner.”

If elected, Zinke said he would put America’s interests ahead of partisan politics. “Just because it’s a Republican bill doesn’t mean it’s the right bill,” he said.

Leadership and experience remain the twin drumbeats of Zinke’s mission as the campaign races toward Election Day.

One of his TV ads opens with a photograph of Zinke among members of his Navy Seal team in 1988. The ad then explains that, John Lewis, the 36-year-old Democratic nominee, spent that year in the fifth grade. Lewis rankles at the implication, saying ideas matter more than years.

But Zinke isn’t backing off. “My experience is extensive,” he said. “His experience is not.”

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