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The two Democratic candidates for governor highlighted their differences and declared themselves the candidate who can beat U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte — the presumed frontrunner in the Republican gubernatorial race.

In their second debate, businesswoman Whitney Williams said she has the new ideas necessary to keep the governor’s office in Democratic hands, while Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney pledged to build on the work Gov. Steve Bullock has done during his two terms in Helena.

The two candidates faced each other at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture on Friday.

Williams subtly criticized the Bullock administration, pointing out cuts to mental health programs made during his tenure and saying she would make universal pre-kindergarten — something Bullock has unsuccessfully advocated for — a reality.

Cooney said he would continue to push for universal pre-kindergarten and would protect policies like Medicaid expansion, which happened while Bullock was in office.

On climate change, Cooney said he would build on the work of the Montana Climate Solutions Council — a Bullock-appointed group that is proposing policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the changing climate — while Williams suggested state government can start by making its buildings, cars and other assets more environmentally friendly.

To improve infrastructure across Montana, Cooney cited the success of the 2019 Legislature in passing bills to invest in buildings, roads and bridges.

Williams said even with these efforts, Montana’s infrastructure is inadequate. She vowed to bring in the private sector to help government improve infrastructure. She also said out-of-state visitors need to pay their fair share toward infrastructure — likely a hint at a sales tax, which Bozeman city commissioners and local lawmakers have long pushed for.

Williams repeatedly called out Gianforte, who she presumed will win the June Republican primary against Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski, of Kalispell. She said unlike Gianforte, she will protect public lands and ensure a woman’s right to choose.

“Greg Gianforte represents an existential threat to Montana,” Williams said. “… And if we’re going to beat him, we need new ideas, we need a new generation of leadership, we need someone who brings a new fresh perspective, a new outlook and proven experience as an executive to take him on because we know he is going to use every trick in the book and every dollar in that bank account.”

Cooney also attacked Gianforte but said the way to beat him is with a candidate who has experience and can continue Bullock’s legacy.

“What we don’t need is a governor coming in from out of state who is a multimillionaire who doesn’t understand our values because they don’t live our values,” Cooney said. “Montanans trusted me to be lieutenant governor, they trusted me to be state senator, they trusted me to be secretary of state and president of the senate and serve in the legislature. I know how to roll up my sleeves and go to work right of the bat as governor.”

Williams is a philanthropist and businesswoman from Missoula whose family has a long history in Montana politics. She entered the race in October. During her first quarter as a candidate, she raised $439,000.

Cooney entered the gubernatorial race in July. By the last quarter of 2019, he had pulled in $451,000.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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