Better get involved, Denise Juneau warned about three dozen Rocky Mountain College students on Tuesday night.
“If you’re not at the table,” she said, “you might be on the menu.”
Juneau was speaking as the part of the Freshmen Experience program, which is on the theme of “Self and Society.” Juneau, who has been Montana’s superintendent of public instruction for the last eight years, is running as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Ryan Zinke for the state’s seat in the U.S. House.
Juneau pointed out that only about 60 percent of eligible voters turn out for presidential elections. In off-year elections, that percentage falls to 40 percent or lower.
“We cannot afford to have people sitting on the sidelines,” she said.
Juneau, the first American Indian elected to a statewide office in Montana, encouraged students to volunteer, to write letters to the editor, to help register voters and even to run for office. She said they also should learn more about the Montana Constitution, which she called one of the most visionary and progressive constitutions in the country.
“Maybe one of you will be the first president from Montana,” she said.
Juneau grew up in Browning and earned a bachelor’s degree from Montana State University. She got a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a law degree from the University of Montana.
She taught briefly in North Dakota and in Browning before quitting “for my own sanity” because of what she called a poor administration. That experience helped drive her political career, she said.
“I learned a lot about leadership by not being led by a great leader,” she said.
Although the 15-minute speech wasn’t expressly about her political race, political questions arose in the question-and-answer session that followed. She expressed concerns about the influx of Political Action Committee and Super PAC money into political races, and she said that a constitutional amendment may be needed to overturn the Citizens United decision, which helped open the door to large, anonymous donations.
“It’s a broken system,” she said. “Congress is more unpopular right now than cockroaches.”
The talk came as both House candidates were expressing consolations over the death of a third candidate, Libertarian Mike Fellows, who was killed in a head-on vehicle collision after leaving a campaign event on Monday night.
Fellows, 59, was chairman of the Libertarian Party in Montana and a perennial political candidate. His campaigns never attracted broad support, but he used his candidacies to advocate for Libertarian principles. In many ways, he epitomized the values of civic engagement Juneau was talking about.
“Mike was a passionate advocate for his values, and I have always admired his courage and dedication to serving Montana,” she said in prepared statement. “He will be missed.”
Zinke said, “Mike was a true advocate for the Libertarian cause and a good man. He had incredible passion for his platform and he will be missed in Montana.”