Williams may be the next Rankin

Thursday, June 21, 2018
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Guest Opinion

In a minor upset, Montana Democrats have chosen Kathleen Williams to unseat Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte. Maybe in the “year of the woman,” Williams will have greater success than recent Democratic nominees for the same office, Nancy Keenan and Denise Juneau.

Williams’ triumph in the primary election mirrors the victory, over a century ago, of Republican Jeannette Rankin, so far Montana’s first, last and only woman member of Congress. In Rankin’s case, she faced seven men in the 1916 Republican primary. According to news reports of the time, one of Rankin’s vanquished opponents, Eldon J. Crull, a legislator from Red Lodge, committed suicide by drinking “muriatic acid while sitting on the steps of an undertaking establishment” because “he could not bear the jibe, ‘beaten by a woman’.”

Montana then had two Congressional Representatives, which in 1916 were elected on an at-large basis in the general election. Again, Jeannette Rankin was the only woman in a free-for-all field of four candidates. Placing in the top two, she won a place in history as the first woman elected to Congress.

Rankin was not reelected in 1918, but went on to win election to Congress again in 1940, beating incumbent Congressman Jacob Thorkelson and two other men in the Republican primary. Rankin campaigned as the peace candidate in the 1940 primary and general elections. Her hope was that 1940 would be a year in which women, with natural antiwar sentiments, would turn out in large numbers to elect her. She won, and while there are no data to prove it, Rankin was likely right, at least in her case, that 1940 was a good year for women.

How is Kathleen Williams comparable to Jeannette Rankin? Well, in addition to other qualifications, both prevailed in multi-candidate elections in which they were the only active women candidates. Rankin was always a “progressive,” and in addition to her pacifism, was a consistent advocate for worker’s rights, and public welfare, especially for women and children.

By her legislative record, and public statements, Democrat Williams is also progressive, and certainly in these more conservative times, her general election opponent will attack her for that. While Rankin was virulently castigated for her lone vote against World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she was never particularly targeted for her progressivism on social and economic issues.

Rankin was always strongly backed by her wealthy and well-connected brother, lawyer and rancher Wellington Rankin. Facing better-financed opponents was never a problem for her. While Kathleen Williams prevailed over slightly better financed opponents in the recent Democratic primary, her general election opponent, Congressman Greg Gianforte, is reputed to be the richest member of the House of Representatives. With a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars, in addition to connections to money all over the country, Gianforte will have a clear advantage in campaign cash. Both candidates are from politically strategic Gallatin County.

If he sticks to his job, Gianforte will have the disadvantage of being tied up in Congress for the next few months, while Williams is home personally campaigning for his job. Rankin was a legendarily good campaigner: very smart, energetic, an effective public speaker, and gifted at meeting and engaging people.

I think Williams has the Rankin-like characteristics to win on the ground, and maybe Gianforte’s presumed advantage in buying the airwaves will be matched by a real rising of women. Arching over it all is the unpredictable factor of Trump. This race could tip either way.

Bob Brown is a former MT Secretary of State and State Senate President.