ScienceInsider’s coverage of the 2018 U.S. elections has featured profiles of several candidates with scientific backgrounds running for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as stories about the challenges those candidates have faced on the campaign trail. Today’s story looks at Kathleen Williams, the Democratic nominee for Montana’s at-large seat in Congress.
Kathleen Williams went back to school to gain more control over her budding career in water resources management. A quarter-century later, she’s putting her career plans in the hands of Montana voters.
A former state legislator, Williams is trying to defeat first-term Republican Greg Gianforte and claim his at-large seat in the House. But unlike many Democratic candidates for Congress, her campaign is not rooted in attacks on President Donald Trump, who won the state by 20 points in 2016. Instead, Williams, who has a master’s degree in recreation resources with a focus on water, offers herself as someone who uses facts to make decisions and who can reach across the political aisle to strike a deal.
“People very much know my specialty is in water,” she says. “They respect my ability to say, ‘Here’s what the science says, and here’s what it means, policywise, about what we should do.’”
That dispassionate approach doesn’t fit with today’s political climate, she says. And the result is gridlock. During a recent televised debate with Gianforte and libertarian candidate Elinor Swanson, Williams scolded Congress for its “failure to provide leadership” on issues ranging from tariffs and taxes to health care and energy.
The charge was aimed at Gianforte, as Williams counted on her audience to know that Republicans control both chambers of Congress. At the same time, Williams was almost deferential to the Republican Party’s standard bearer.
“I’m looking forward to working with the president on any common interest we can find,” she said when asked where she disagrees with Trump. “I object somewhat to the tone going on in Washington, [D.C.,]” she explained, but said she “would chalk it up to the hyperpartisanship and tribalism” in Congress. Only after being pushed to be more specific did Williams cite her unhappiness with the president’s “approach to tariffs” and its potentially deleterious impact on Montana’s wheat farmers.
In contrast, Gianforte’s game plan has been to tie Williams to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D–CA), a hated figure among conservatives. He has continued to do it even after Williams said she won’t vote for Pelosi for speaker if the Democrats regain control of the House.
“I stand with the president, and we have delivered results,” Gianforte told the audience. This election, he asserted, is between “working with Trump or with the resistance—with Nancy Pelosi and the failed policies of the [former President Barack] Obama administration.”
An affinity for nature
The 57-year-old Williams wasn’t raised as a Democrat. Growing up in California, she absorbed the conservatism of her father, an engineer who oversaw the U.S. Army’s mapmaking efforts across the European theatre during World War II. (Her mother suffered from early onset dementia and died when she was a teenager.) She recalls casting her first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan. But she says it wasn’t long before she realized her political views aligned more often with Democratic candidates.
She stayed close to home for college, enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley. On the advice of her father, she started out in accounting. But, she says she “fell in love with natural resources” after taking a forestry course and soon switched majors. She earned a bachelor’s degree in resource economics.
That interest carried her into graduate school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Her intent was to become a park designer.
“I started taking design and recreation research classes, and it was a really heavy load,” she recalls. “So, I asked my adviser if there was anyone I could talk to who had done it. And he said nobody had done it, it was too hard. I also realized that I didn’t have design skills; I can’t draw.”
Instead, she focused on recreation resources, and worked with the U.S. Forest Service on a project to quantify the flow needed to sustain the recreational uses of the Cache la Poudre River, Colorado’s only national wild and scenic river. Armed with her master’s degree, she worked for the state and federal government in Colorado and Oregon before settling in Montana in 1995.
Williams says she never considered earning a doctorate and going into academia. “I’m just a real problem solver by nature,” she says. “I thought a master’s was the way to go for me, to get out in the world and help solve thorny natural resource issues.”
Williams came to Big Sky country to work for a nonpartisan environmental committee of the state legislature, and then for the state’s department of fish, wildlife, and recreation. She spent a lot of time working on water issues—and she was frustrated by the lack of progress by state officials. Taking matters into her own hands, she decided to run for office. She won a seat in 2010 in Bozeman, Montana, her hometown, and was twice reelected.
Her ability to understand technical material, she says, has helped her grapple with tax policy and resource issues as a legislator. However, it wasn’t always easy to turn those insights into legislation. Part of the problem, she feels, is a 1992 law setting term limits for elected state officials.
Term limits are meant to prevent career politicians. But Williams and other critics of the policy say it also sends a message that voters can’t be trusted to choose their representatives wisely. “That’s what voting is for,” she says. “If you don’t like someone, you vote ’em out.”
Term limits are especially pernicious in the current era of divided government, she adds. They not only make it harder for legislators to build the relationships needed to craft legislation, she says, but they also force legislators to leave office just as they’ve finally learned the ropes.
“When you have inexperienced people who don’t know their way around government and don’t know how to build a coalition and find common ground, then you just get more partisanship,” she says. “And I think we’ve gone too far in that direction.”
Making it a race
Williams was a late entrant in the congressional race, which began shortly after Gianforte won a special election in June 2017 to replace Representative Ryan Zinke, the Republican incumbent whom Trump chose to lead the Department of the Interior. But she proved to be an effective fundraiser and campaigner, beating out two formidable opponents in the June Democratic primary.
Her challenge has been to carry that momentum into the general election. One national tipsheet lists the race as “leans” Republican, although another puts it in the “likely” GOP column. (A June poll by a nonpartisan organization showed her in the lead, whereas a September poll by the same organization put Gianforte on top.) The national Democratic Party recently put her on its list of 73 districts it hopes will flip from red to blue in November. But a victory will require a lot of resources.
Although Williams raised $3 million by the end of September, her total pales next to the $8.2 million Gianforte reported. The Democratic Party’s backing will help with fundraising, she says, but it won’t change her strategy. “It acknowledges what we’ve known all along—that nationally, this is seen as a competitive race.”
The lack of deep roots in the state can be a liability for a candidate in Montana. But the fact that Gianforte also moved to the state in the mid-1990s, after growing up on the East Coast and selling a software company he founded, may have taken geography off the table as an issue. (Gianforte started a second software company in Bozeman that he sold to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion. He is one of the wealthiest members of the House.)
Williams knows she will need Republicans and independents, as well as her own party’s stalwarts to win next month. That electoral calculus has shaped her priorities.
“I have talked about being a true representative, to be grounded in the hopes, struggles, and dreams of the people in my district,” she explains. “And what I mean is that, although I have degrees in the sciences, it is health care that is my priority. Because that’s the top issue on the minds of voters.”
Like many other Democratic candidates, Williams has stressed the importance of preserving coverage for preexisting conditions while faulting her opponent for backing Republicans bills that would weaken that provision of the Affordable Care Act. Williams also wants to give those aged 55 to 64 a chance to buy into Medicare, something that Gianforte has likened to a more costly version of expanding coverage known as Medicare-for-all.
Williams knows the outcome of a House race in Montana won’t resolve the ongoing national debate over health care. But she does think that her scientific training has something to offer voters.
“I’m sort of a mix of applying social science to biological and physical science,” she says. “That is a critical skill and art, to take scientific information and be able to communicate it and translate it into helpful policy points.”