Lake County’s Tom Winter running for Congress
Tom Winter of Polson is running for one of the highest elected offices in the land.
With population changes recorded by the 2020 census, Montana gained a second seat in the U.S. Congress for the first time since 1993. Winter has declared himself a Democratic candidate for that seat.
Winter will face Laurie Bishop, Cora Neumann, Monica Tranel, and Skylar Williams in the Democratic primary next spring. Two Republicans, Mary Todd and Ryan Zinke, also have declared their candidacies.
Winter has split his time between Polson and Missoula for several years. He represented western Missoula County for one term in the Montana Legislature. Since the pandemic, he has been a full-time resident of Polson.
Winter served in the 2019-20 Montana House of Representatives and ran for the sole at-large U.S. Congress seat in 2020. He won the House seat against an incumbent Republican in a district that Donald Trump won by 11 points in the 2016 election. He feels his experience talking to voters helped “knit the community back together.” While in the legislature, Winter carried 24 bills, a record for a freshman lawmaker, and passed three.
“True public service is not about just winning an election,” Winter said in a recent online candidate forum sponsored by Democrats in Lincoln, Sanders and Mineral counties. “It’s more about standing by your community in its time of need.”
In an interview with the Leader this week, Winter addressed the economic struggles of many working Montanans, including the affordable housing shortage exacerbated by wealthy people moving into the state driving up real estate prices.
“I wish it was stoppable, but it’s not,” he said. “So we need to have policies in place to help us adapt as communities to stay intact, wealthy, and safe.”
It’s tough, he said, but he is on the front line working to address it. In the last legislative session, he put forth HB675, a property tax relief bill that would have completely erased the state portion of property taxes on homes valued at less than $450,000 by instituting a small property tax
increase on second homes in the state valued at over $1 million. This would ensure those who are able to afford and qualify for “super jumbo” rates on second homes valued at many millions of dollars help pay for the upkeep and building of the infrastructure that they use when they visit that home.
“We don’t need to necessarily de-incentivize second home ownership, but we need to make it at least fair. Right now, we are indirectly subsidizing people who don’t live here by making sure that the houses out in the woods are protected from wildfire. “We literally put our lives on the line to ensure that someone’s second house isn’t burned down.”
“With the current tax system, and the current way we invest our tax money in other things, government investment is tilted toward people and places that are already wealthy,” Winter said.
Access to affordable health care and to broadband internet are more examples, he said.
“Having access is one thing. Access is meaningless if you can’t afford it.” The federal government is working to bring those prices down, he said, and the recently passed infrastructure bill will greatly assist that effort for broadband. Winter works with a company that assists local and tribal governments in accessing grants and programs to improve broadband accessibility.
“The prosperity of all of us is intimately linked, especially the people we have just completely left behind for the last 40 years. If you look at the minimum wage or anything like that, investment in working families has been nearly non-existent. Investment is always going in the form of either tax breaks or not paying taxes for people and places that are already wealthy. That must be changed if we are going to even start to deal with housing, or any other level of inequality.”
“I think all federal policy should be tilted or in service of the single parent, or the family who’s struggling, the parent who works an extra night shift or have to work multiple jobs. They come home exhausted and can’t make their mortgage or their rent payment. They’re worried they won’t be able to afford to send their kids to college, or go to college themselves, and with health care, if something bad happens, they’re going to be bankrupt.”
“If the backbone of our community is teetering on the brink of financial and personal ruin at all times, we are all impoverished for it. We ration almost everything for the poor. And the ‘poor’ at this point includes much of the middle class anymore. We have a responsibility to one another, and to our communities, to ensure that people can avail themselves of essential life things like health care and housing. I really think the Representative’s job for the western district of Montana is to be a voice for people who are struggling,” he said.
“Montana knows how to deal with a gilded age of inequality such as we have right now,” Winter said, referring to the copper baron days in Butte and Anaconda. “Companies were killing people in the streets.”
“We dealt with the first gilded age by breaking the back of monopolies, pioneering legislation for the country on that. The root cause of all that was inequality of wealth and power, mostly concentrated at the top. This is the same song and dance we’ve seen before, and we know how to fix it.
“But we seem to have no political will to do so. I view it as my job in this campaign, and also in congress, to be that political will on behalf of the people.”
He would like to be on the Education and Labor Committee if he is in congress. “There’s a lot of work to be done there that can immediately affect people’s lives in a positive way, especially in Montana,” where even small changes in pay can make a difference between affording food or not. “I can’t believe we even have to say that. “I believe in morals for our community, and standards. Right now we fall so short.”
Winter said the recently passed federal infrastructure bill and the upcoming Build Back Better plan apply directly to western Montana. He mentioned the dams on the Flathead and Kootenai and Clark Fork Rivers as critical investments made by earlier generations of Americans that it is up to this generation to invest in to keep going into the future. Another example: “Many towns are accessible by no more than two roads, or maybe just one. It matters that those things stay open and safe.”
“Those investments are not political,” he said. “It’s a fundamentally conservative argument, that at the very least we have to maintain what was given to us and pay it forward to future generations. We just have a lot of good stuff here that’s worth keeping. It’s incumbent upon me and my generation to really take the bull by the horns here. It needs to be done.” It’s not just “hardscaping,” not just rocks and concrete, that need rebuilding and maintenance, Winter said, but also what he called “civic infrastructure.” “The idea that we need to take care of each other, beyond just the government's job, has been falling apart as well.
“It includes things like hospitals, and ensuring elderly people can age in place, and child care, and ensuring the caregivers that work with them are not exploited. Because an exploited caregiver also might not be the best one.”
Winter is a union member, IBEW Local 206.
“Unions have been targeted by our government, working with corporations to hurt them,” he said.
He does not believe that labor unions are necessarily in opposition to business interests, but that they also work hand in hand. “If the workers are happy and well paid and taken care of, then they will be more productive. Study after study has shown that, but we’ve gotten into treating humans like commodities.”
“Every time we act like it’s not possible to take care of each other, or we need to treat each other so poorly, I view it as a slap in the face to the people that built what we’re losing. It hopefully cuts beyond party. That’s a particularly Montana view of things and also a community view of things. We owe it to ourselves and the people around us to not just to maintain the dams our grandfathers built, but to maintain a society that is equitable, fair, and prosperous, and not just for white people.”
Winter stressed the importance of working in partnership with Tribal communities and governments, as he did in the legislature, acknowledging and working to rectify losses forced on their people and cultures by the U.S. government.
“Montana Indians lead the nation in representation, with the highest percent Native American of state legislatures in the country. That’s meaningful, in a building where they would not have been allowed within some of their own lifetimes.” He credited Native efforts at continually working toward taking care of each other and their communities, and voting on behalf of their constituents, both Indian and white.
Winter recognized the importance of “working timberlands” and mining in the western Montana district he hopes to represent. “Working forests are essential for Montana’s broadly shared prosperity. And if it isn’t grown or harvested, it’s mined,” he said. “I’m driving my car made of metal and holding my cell phone made of rare earth metals and glass — if we’re going to really be responsible stewards and act in a way that cares about the environment, we need to acknowledge that resource extraction is fundamental to what we do, and it’s going to continue.
So it must be done responsibly, and equitably and fairly for the people that do the mining.” He said as the nation and the world move toward more renewable energy systems, mining is going to be changing, as more rare earth metal mines come into conflict with communities.
“What I want people to know is that, yes, things are very bad, especially in some of our rural counties. People are not making enough money. The social strife over the vaccine, and the unnecessary deaths of people from COVID, is ripping holes in families and communities. And there’s great resentment about people coming here, which I understand. But I want people to know it’s not lost. The tools are there. We’ve had this happen to us before a hundred years ago in Montana, and we dealt with it. We led the nation in responding to it. No one has taken away your right to elect people who take this seriously, and elected officials’ ability given by you as a voter, to make these changes.
Many functions of government, he said, whether it is the post office or the state department or the courts, have been “hollowed out” and therefore become less functional. “There’s a groundswell of support for fixing them, not as liberals or conservatives, but because they serve everyone.
“But fixing them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re spending a ton of money or making government big. A government that doesn’t seem to actively hate its citizens isn’t necessarily a big government. It’s just one that’s responsive.”
“The problem is not the process. We can do this. The tools are at our disposal. It’s simply the will to do it.”