The Greater Yellowstone Central Labor Council Labor Day Picnic follows an unvarying agenda: fried chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch; a range of free domestic beers ranging from Budweiser to Bud Light; bluegrass music by Jim Southworth and Southbound; inflatables for the kids; and speeches by Democrats.
The only difference this year was that an early drizzle and cool temperatures appeared to hold down the size of the crowd. Lunch lines, which sometimes take a half hour or longer to get through, were so short that one line closed altogether at an early hour.
But the light rain had stopped and the sun was shining by the time political candidates were given a few minutes each to make their case to union members. As usual, all of the speakers were Democrats, except for Dirk Sandefur, who is running a nonpartisan race for the Montana Supreme Court.
In the years I have attended the picnic, I can recall seeing only two Republican candidates: Ken Miller of Laurel, who ran for governor in 2012, and Brad Molnar, a former member of the Public Service Commission.
Molnar was at this year’s picnic, too, but is not a candidate and did not speak. Instead, Democrats gave it their best shot, promising union members they would fight for increases in the minimum wage, good jobs and access to public lands.
Letters were read from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who promised to beat back attacks on organized labor, and from Gov. Steve Bullock, who alleged that his opponent, Greg Gianforte, had refused to meet with labor leaders and had out-sourced jobs to other countries.
Sandefur said that his opponent, Kristen Juras, who teaches law at the University of Montana and is backed by conservative groups, was short on experience but long on agenda.
“The Supreme Court is no place for anybody who has an agenda,” he said.
This year’s speakers included Monica Lindeen, the incumbent state auditor who is running for secretary of state; Jesse Laslovich, who has worked in the auditor’s office for seven years and hopes to replace Lindeen; and Melissa Romano, an award-winning teacher who is running for superintendent of public instruction. She said she would “protect, preserve and improve our already excellent public schools.”
Robyn Driscoll, newly appointed to the Yellowstone County Commission, introduced a Democratic roster of legislative candidates: Kathy Kelker, House District 47; Chris Goodridge, HD 52; Margie MacDonald, a House member running for Senate District 26; Shoots Veis, HD 51; Kelly McCarthy, an incumbent running for re-election in HD 49; Deborah Abbey, SD 28; Kari Boiter, HD 44; Ken Crouch, HD 45; Jessica Karjala, seeking re-election to HD 48; Paul Van Tricht, SD 23 and president of the Yellowstone County Democratic Club; and Jen Gross, who was appointed Aug. 18 by the Yellowstone County Democratic Central Committee to run for SD 25 after Driscoll was appointed as a commissioner.
Most candidates briefly summarized their qualifications and asked for voters’ support. But a few went further.
Crouch said that his opponent, incumbent Daniel Zolnikov, “votes against everything for schools except carrying concealed weapons on campus.” Zolnikov got a zero rating from the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers for his votes in 2015. He also co-sponsored a bill expanding concealed carry provisions.
Gross said she expects opposition for her work with Planned Parenthood. And Karjala said she has a “trust fund baby opponent” in Robert Saunders.
But the sentiment of many Democrats in an election with two unpopular major party candidates for president appeared to be summed up by Veis, who told the crowd, “This election, everyone’s a little concerned about turnout.”