Veterans' Issues Take Center Stage In Montana Politics
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump suggests that voters in Montana will punish Jon Tester for campaigning against Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to tell you that Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state.
INSKEEP: The president was talking on Fox News after Tester made charges on NPR and elsewhere that sank Ronny Jackson's nomination. Now, in 2016, President Trump won Montana by more than 20 points. So what are voters in Tester's home state saying now? Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney sends this report.
ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Jon Tester says he's doing his job serving as a check on the executive branch. He's usually pretty accessible to the local press but has kept a low profile this week. Tester's aides say he's doing spring planting at his farm and isn't available for interviews. But hours after Trump went on Fox to denounce Tester, a group of local veterans held a press conference at Tester's request in front of his Missoula office. Cliff Larsen says Tester really cares about veterans.
CLIFF LARSEN: He's demonstrated that throughout his career in the Senate.
WHITNEY: A Vietnam-era Air Force vet, rancher and former Democratic state lawmaker, Larsen pointed out that Tester co-sponsored eight veterans bills signed by President Trump.
LARSEN: He's helped to create these local service centers so veterans have a place to go.
WHITNEY: Tester is one of 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election this year in states that Trump won, and some Republicans here see the Ronny Jackson incident as an opening for them. They've criticized Tester's publication of anonymous allegations that Jackson abused alcohol and improperly dispensed drugs. Here's Al Olszewski, who's running for the GOP nomination to challenge Tester in November, at a candidate forum last week.
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AL OLSZEWSKI: Our own senator from Montana, who bullied a fine man to the point where he decided to pull himself out of the confirmation hearings.
WHITNEY: Voters in Missoula, arguably the most liberal city in this state, were not buying that argument. Virginia Arensburg, who's semiretired, faulted President Trump for nominating someone who appeared unqualified.
VIRGINIA ARENSBERG: I think Tester was doing his job to make sure that whoever we have serving our veterans is someone who's well-qualified and a person of upstanding character.
WHITNEY: Rusty Ede is a self-employed homebuilder who did three tours in Iraq as a Marine. He thinks it's important to support the president, who he respects for picking military leaders as top advisers. But Ede also gets a weekly email from Tester on veterans issues, and he thinks he really cares. I asked him who he's siding with in this dustup with Trump.
RUSTY EDE: It's not an easy call, but I would go with Tester on that one.
WHITNEY: Veterans are an important constituency in Montana, where nearly 1 in 10 residents has served in the military. Tester is hoping that voters will trust him over President Trump when it comes to having veterans' best interests at heart. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula, Mont.
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