Montana Governor Steve Bullock

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 13, 2019 | 27 min

The only sitting Governor in the democratic presidential primary arguing for a chief executive's resume in the White House. We sit down with presidential candidate and Montana Governor Steve Bullock on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. 


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. 


Yepsen: As 10 democratic presidential candidates spent 3 hours on a debate stage in Houston, Texas this week, another candidate was here in Iowa holding events and meeting potential caucus goers. Montana Governor Steve Bullock jumped into the presidential race in May after his state's legislative session wrapped up. Governor Bullock joins us now here at the Iowa Press table. Governor, welcome.

Bullock: David, it's great to be with all of you.

Yepsen: Good to have you with us. Joining us across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Governor, you were not on the debate stage this week. You may not be on the debate stage next week. What is your path to victory if you're not on the debate stage?

Bullock: Yeah, Kay, I don't think that, at the end of the day that this will be decided by those debates. I think it will be actually decided by Iowans. The early states it has always been what takes a big field and narrows it down. Certainly frustrated, as Dave noted I only got in, in May because my legislature was still meeting, I had a job to do, had to get Medicaid expansion reauthorized for 100,000 folks. And I think the DNC meant well but this rule of it becomes all about individual donors I don't think is probably the best way to run a campaign. But you look at every other year, I think there was 30 some days out from the Iowa Caucuses, John Kerry was at 4 points, Al Sharpton was beating him. Once folks really start paying attention along the way, and I think that usually comes fairly late along the way, that is how we take a big field and make it much smaller.

Murphy: You mentioned that you were able to, you chose not to get into the race until after your legislative session. As admirable as that may be, you also understand the lay of the land and the way this works and you saw candidates here in Iowa for months leading up to that. It is also a commitment to run for president. So how did you weigh that decision knowing that was something that maybe you wanted to do and you were kind of putting yourself behind the pack, so to speak? 

Bullock: Yeah, and it was one where, Medicaid expansion in Montana covers 100,000 individuals, it is what helps keep our rural hospitals open. I got it passed through a legislature that was almost two-thirds republican in 2015. We had to reauthorize it and it was going to be reauthorized by a ballot initiative. Tobacco companies spent $26 million killing that ballot, the ballot initiative reauthorization. So a month after that is when my legislature started. And look, I walk in, my legislature is more republican than yours in Iowa, they had an excuse saying the voters had already spoken on this. So to get that done and any other number of things to do I had to be there. If I had been spending my time in Iowa instead of Montana there's 100,000 Montanans who wouldn't have health care. Now, on the one hand, choosing between getting 100,000 folks health care or chasing 100,000 donors, easiest decision I would ever make. But the other, look, I would hope that doesn't disadvantage me when we're still 140 some days away from any Iowan expressing their preference. Since then I think the 16 weeks I've been in, this is my 11th or 12th trip out here to Iowa, I've really been talking to folks and I think that Iowans take this really seriously, meaning that it's not an entitlement to be the first in the nation, it's actually a deep responsibility. And as a state -- we all leave come February too. We spend a lot of time paying a lot of attention to Iowans but you also have to deal with 30 of your counties voted Obama, Obama, Trump. What happens at your Statehouse here in Des Moines substantially impacts people in Iowa.

Murphy: Is it just, are our campaigns too long? Is that the problem?

Bullock: I think they are. I actually think, look, I don't even think you should be able to file -- think about President Trump essentially right after taking the oath of office reopened his campaign. U.S. Senators, everybody makes it almost that you're campaigning full-time for these jobs. And I don't, while it might sell cable television ads I don't think that's what most folks want because if you're out there across the state people are just, they're tuning in now if that.

Yepsen: Well, a little thing called the First Amendment, you can't stop people from campaigning and the fact is that the process does favor the unemployed, former governors --

Bullock: Because I still have a job.

Yepsen: You still have a job.

Bullock: You could actually, that's not stopping them from campaigning, but you could actually limit the amount of time where they can be raising money to campaign.

Henderson: Are you counting on a Biden implosion? You talked about Kerry was at 4%. He didn't have to elbow 20 people out of the way to win. You would. Are you just hoping that the perceived frontrunner right now stumbles?

Bullock: Well, I think every other time the perceived frontrunners haven't continued to be the frontrunners all throughout. So from that perspective, as the only Governor in this race, as the only one that actually won in a Trump state, knowing we have to win back places we lost, as the only one that has actually gotten stuff done not just talked about it as a Governor, even with a republican legislature, I think that I do add both a lot and when you look at being Vice President Biden or others, 30 years ago I was all in with the Vice President, at the time Senator Biden when he was running until kind of the wheels fell off. And I think folks are probably looking for, they want to look forward, not be looking backwards.

Yepsen: Governor, let's go to your key issue that you talk about in this campaign and that is your ability to attract rural voters. Democrats have to do better at attracting rural voters because of the rural skew in the Electoral College. How do you do that?

Bullock: Well, I think first of all you show up. So as simple as that might sound -- I'm the only democrat in the country to get re-elected in a state that Trump won. He took Montana by 20, I won by 4. 25% to 30% of my voters voted for Donald Trump. And showing up and listening is something that we as democrats aren't always as good at doing in rural areas as well as urban areas. We've got to recognize about two-thirds of the counties in this country lost businesses over the last decade and folks saying, look, I shouldn't have to leave my church or synagogue or my school just to make a decent living. So recognizing that the challenges in rural areas are going to be different at times than the challenges in urban areas, but the values are the same. And as someone that actually represents rural areas and I've been able to connect in those, somebody in a rural community wants to be able to stay in that community, well you're not going to stay in that community if your hospital closes down and 20% of rural hospitals are at risk of closure. Somebody in a rural community wants to be able to have a decent job and connectivity, connectivity to the Internet. Well, it's going to be that much more difficult if we don't actually focus on those areas. So I think that what I bring is the path to victory doesn't just go through our coasts and our urban areas. If we can't win places back, like in rural Iowa, or Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, to your point, this is about math.

Yepsen: What do you tell rural candidates in a state like Iowa? What is the secret sauce? In this state there is a battle for the control of the Iowa House of Representatives. What are you telling Iowa democrats about what they have to do to win? Show up, okay, we get that.

Bullock: Yeah, there are a couple of different things, one of which, who we have I think at the top of the ticket impacts us all the way down. So if we have somebody as our nominee that feels or that rural America feels disconnected to or that they're not talking about the issues and the challenges of the here and now it makes it that much harder for that Iowa legislator or legislative candidates. But urban or rural, it's more than just showing up. I begin in Montana with the base assumption that the values most people hold are the same even if their political ideologies are different. Everybody wants a safe community, decent job, roof over their head, clean air, clean water, good public schools, the belief you can do better for that next generation than yourself. So making the case to that and saying you can do that and you can stay in these rural areas and you'll wake up each day as a legislative candidate just as I've woken up every day as Governor saying, there's something bigger than just the partisan squabbles, it's actually improving people's lives and I think you can do that here.

Murphy: So let's talk about that. How do you do that, especially looking at the rural economy? And you mentioned that a little bit earlier. So what are the solutions to help people in those areas, help people have good jobs to where they can stay in those areas, avoid population decline? You mentioned broadband Internet, a lot of candidates talk about that. What else is part of that solution?

Bullock: And that's only a really small piece of it. We actually put out at sort of what I think is a pretty comprehensive rural plan but it's also attainable and we even put in each section how we would actually address it to get it there. Certainly here in Iowa, in Montana, agriculture is significant. What this administration has done with sort of the trade wars and thinking that you're going to open up and you're going to change China's practices just by the blunt instrument of tariffs has not been helpful at all. You have multigeneration folks or folks wanting to go back to the farm, yet a young farmer it's that much harder given both the capital outlays and the land outlays. So we proposed some loan programs along the way that are already existing that you could augment. The idea that if you lose a rural hospital that town is gone. I think you've got dang near 70 rural hospitals sort of teetering on the edge here in Iowa. That's 20% of them all across the country. So investing and making sure that your reimbursement rates in addition to a decent Medicaid expansion program matters. I've also said, because you have all these great programs, many of them great in the federal government, it's not just all in U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's not just in commerce, it's not just in health and human services, I want to have an Office of Rural Affairs actually that goes all the way up to the top and coordinates all these efforts in a systematic way to address the challenges.

Henderson: There is often a different attitude toward guns in rural America than there is in urban America. Do you support what many of the candidates on the debate stage this past week said? Do you support a ban on assault style weapons?

Bullock: I do actually support no longer selling them, so stopping selling them.

Henderson: Would you go as far as buying them back, mandatory turn-in programs?

Bullock: No, no I wouldn't.

Henderson: What sort of additional measures would you support?

Bullock: Yeah, and I think, look, I'm a gun owner like 40% of households in this country. I own firearms and I'm a hunter. I think if we could ever look at this as a public health issue, not as a political issue, the answers are actually a lot easier. The vast majority of even gun owners think universal background checks make sense, that is how they have gotten their firearms, as long as we have the instant check system as it should be. You look at safe storage laws, which we need to do. Red flag laws, being able to remove a gun where an individual has manifested some either problems or challenges, even Indiana passed that. That's not a real liberal area of the country or of our nation as well. And then as you know, even Dick's and Wal-Mart are no longer selling assault weapons. They're not used for hunting, they're not used for self-defense. There's no reason we should continue selling them as well. But when I was growing up I think the challenge that we face in this is that when I was growing up the NRA was a gun safety, a hunting and a shooting organization. Now it's nothing more than a political reason. I'll give you 30 million reasons why we're not making any progress, it's $30 million that the NRA spent on Donald Trump's election. Think about it -- go ahead.

Yepsen: Are you going to be able to sell this program to voters in Montana and rural Iowa?

Bullock: Oh, I think when you look at the fact that overwhelmingly gun owners think universal background checks should be in place, the answer is yes. And I think gun owners need to call on Congress to actually take some action because it's even -- a fourth of the times I've been asked to lower the flags as Governor it has been for mass shootings. Folks are tired of the thought that we can't take any actions on this.

Yepsen: There's a real rural/urban split on this gun issue. How does an American President bridge the gap between rural Americans for whom gun ownership is a part of their culture, their heritage, and also a matter of self-protection in rural areas, with people in urban areas in Chicago where gun violence is just routine? The evening news, how many people got -- how do you bridge that gap as a leader?

Bullock: I think you do it and it's a part of my culture and heritage too, gun ownership, I think you do it by saying this isn't a political issue, this is a public health issue. And the vast majority of gun owners say universal background checks, as an example. The problem is, is that the NRA is now used as just a political issue to try to scare everybody into thinking that somebody is going to take away everyone's guns and that's not the case. We need to take some common sense steps and I think we're finally getting to that point where we can have a meaningful discussion about steps that we can take to actually keep our kids and our communities safer.

Murphy: So speaking of money and elections, one of the topics that you talk a lot about on the campaign trail is dark money and campaign finance reform. How do you achieve something meaningful on that front? Dave noted early on about the 1st Amendment when it comes to maybe reigning in the campaign season, kind of the same issue here. How do you achieve meaningful campaign finance reform without running afoul of the 1st Amendment and freedom of speech when it comes to that?

Bullock: Yeah, and let's not kid ourselves, we used to be able to regulate outside spending and dark money spending until this case called Citizens United. And the only thing that changed, the 1st Amendment didn't change, the composition of the court changed on a a 5-4 decision. And I've had the opportunity, because I was Attorney General before Governor, work with your good AG Tom Miller who has endorsed me in this race along the way. What we've been able to do in Montana is one, I passed a law that said, I don't care what sort of group you call yourself, 90 days out from an election you have to disclose every dollar you're spending on elections. So doing that made it so the dark money spending, so that is undisclosed money, which was about 2% of all outside spending before Citizens United, now it's over half of these midterms. That dried up the dark money in our elections. As president, and I'm the only state that did this executive order, again recognizing the 1st Amendment, I've said to anybody that wants to bid on major state contracts I can't tell you that you can't spend or contribute in our elections, but if you're going to you just have to disclose all that money that you're spending or contributing. Think about if the federal government did that because contracts with almost every company in this country, at least you'll add the sunshine and transparency which is what the Citizens United decision, as wrongful and horrible as that was, it was still premised on voters would know who is trying to buy their elections. By adding that sunshine and transparency I think it will change corporate behavior.

Henderson: We have a number of issues to get through. You're an attorney. Do you think that there should be term limits for members of the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals at the federal level?

Bullock: I don't.

Henderson: Why not?

Bullock: Because I think we have seen time and time again it's sort of the wisdom of a judge, the more time that he or she is on the bench, it actually accumulates and changes. I've argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, I'd love to think it's non-political. What Mitch McConnell did at the end of Obama's term demonstrates otherwise. So I am open to expanding the court from 9 to 11. I know that our courts are substantially overburdened. I think that we should add judges both at the circuit court and the district level but I don't think term limits is how we actually get there to get a more enlightened judiciary.

Henderson: Your party is having a robust discussion about health care. What would be your cure or reform in that regard?

Bullock: I think we have to make sure everybody has accessible and affordable health care. I think we can get there with a public option, the ability to buy in. It is outrageous that Costco can negotiate prescription drug prices but the federal government can't. That goes back to money in politics. I think you can -- medical billing and out of network charges so what I would do is actually build on the advances that we've made with the Affordable Care Act, not rip it away and start all over because you've got about 165 million people that have employer sponsored health insurance. I don't think the answer is to take that away from everyone.

Murphy: Another issue we hear a lot about from democratic voters is climate change and climate policy. What in your plan would stand out? What would you tell voters that is something you have proposed that helps you stand out from the field in that arena?

Bullock: Well I think a number of areas. Look, in going back to money in politics, the Republican Party is the only major political party in the world that no longer acknowledges that climate change is real and that used to not be the case. The first George Bush actually said we should lead from the White House on this. I think we have to take immediate and durable action. You see this impact in Iowa, in the West our fire seasons are about 80 days longer than they were 3 decades ago. Science says we have to be carbon neutral by 2050. I think we can do it 2040 or even earlier as an entire world. Step one, certainly rejoin Paris. Step two, it was so great to see that even the auto industry didn't want to roll back these fuel efficiency standards. I direct that all federal lands are net zero emissions by 2030 and I think we need to make federal investments to move this along. There's a few things democrats aren't always talking about. It's hard to care about the end of the Earth if all you're thinking about is can I make it to the end of the month, meaning that we have to make this a climate opportunity, not just the crisis that it is, and say we can create good jobs and not leave communities behind as we do it. And I think we also have got to recognize that as republicans aren't even acknowledging they want to take any steps we can't wait another 30 or 40 years. So some of those things, I've doubled my wind, quadrupled solar in Montana. We've been able to do it by saying here are opportunities both for economic development and to preserve our planet.

Henderson: What is your view on pipelines? They're harvesting oil up in your region. There was a big kerfuffle in Iowa among some democrats about extending the Dakota access pipeline through Iowa. Is that a good idea?

Bullock: I don't know about the Dakota access through Iowa. I'd be the only one in this field that the Keystone would actually run through the state. I've also dealt with twice in Montana pipeline breaches in the Yellowstone River and that is the longest free flowing river in the country. So I was pretty vocal with the Trump administration that I think you have to do a number of different things, one of which give the assurances that you wouldn't have breaches in the pipeline, so the safety and security part of it. There should be adequate consultation with our tribal nations, which there hasn't been. And as we're approving these we have to look at the overall effect on climate and that is what a court has even said.

Yepsen: Governor, way too many questions, not enough time. Immigration, what do we do?

Bullock: What do we do? We recognize right now the biggest problem with our overall immigration system is Donald Trump. He's using it to rip families apart and rip this country apart. We need comprehensive immigration reform. We need to take care of our dreamers. We need to actually find a path to citizenship for those without documentation. And we need border security. But we have a bureaucratic system with about 450 judges and 950,000 cases. We've taken away money from the northern triangle countries. What we need to do is get rid of this President and get back to some sanity in our overall immigration policy.

Murphy: Social Security, what needs to be done there to make that program solvent?

Bullock: It's a commitment that we make from the first paycheck as we're taking money out of ours and it also shows how we actually treat all of those around us. So at the end of the day to make sure it's funded you've got to lift the cap on the higher end and then you can --

Murphy: Raise or eliminate all together?

Bullock: Raise, raise. And then you can get to a sustainability of funding and you could actually at the lower end increase the benefit.

Henderson: How do you keep China from stealing intellectual property? Do you have to reopen something akin to the Transpacific Partnership?

Bullock: First, you don't do it on the backs of farmers and ranchers and that is exactly what Trump has done. He said we have to address IP but he has done it with this blunt instrument of tariffs. I think that you can both, you can use some of the, albeit they're slow, the WTO and other international institutions, and I think that you make it pretty clear that you can't be investing in the highways and other companies that are stealing at the end of the day our property. But we can't do this alone. Trump has made America First into America Alone. We're not the only country dealing with IP theft, although he wants to make it so we're just a sole actor. That's not the way you lead in this world.

Yepsen: Governor, we've got a minute left. I want to ask about student debt. What do we do in this country about all the students and former students carrying incredible amounts of debt?

Bullock: Yeah, and it is, I had to pay off $175,000 in real terms, today's term of student debt along the way. So I think you can do a number of things to make it more affordable. You could actually cap the student loan interest rates. You could increase Pell eligibility. You could crack down on the fly by nights, the for-profits that are really taking a lot of money out of this. I'm not one that says we should pay off all $1.6 trillion of student debt. We're not even talking about the fact that 68% of the people in this country don't even have a two-year degree and what are we doing for them along the way? So I think that we can actually make the debt load more bearable without saying that we're going to eliminate it for everyone.

Yepsen: We've got to go in just a second. Are you worried about your party moving so far to the, too far to the left to win a general election?

Bullock: I'm concerned that a lot of the stuff that our party is at times talking about doesn't connect with the farmer in Rippey, Iowa or someone in Ottumwa and we can't become the party that is disconnected from people's daily lives, we can't become a party that just represents coasts and urban areas. I think I'm a person that could make those connections all the way and as a Governor who has had to balance a budget actually get things done, bring a little bit more of a pragmatic yet progressive actually getting progress done perspective.

Yepsen: Governor, I'm out of time. Thank you for being with us today.

Bullock: Thanks for having me.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.