HELENA, Mont. — Whitney Williams, a Missoula businesswoman and the daughter of a nine-term Montana congressman, on Thursday became the fourth Democrat to enter next year’s race for the open Montana governor’s seat.
Williams announced her first run for political office with a video pledging to boost economic opportunities for all Montanans, protect public lands and bring down health care costs. She later held a small rally outside the Montana Capitol.
“My parents taught us that being a Montanan was a privilege, but that it’s up to every generation to fight for it,” Williams said in the video.
Williams, 48, is the daughter of two prominent figures in Montana Democratic Party politics: former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, who was a congressman from 1979 to 1997, and former state legislator Carol Williams, the first woman to serve as minority and majority leader in the state Senate.
The younger Williams said before the announcement that her parents would be among her informal advisers, but she’s running on her own merits and not their legacy.
“I think mom and dad are going to be cheering from behind the scenes and helpful wherever they can be, but this is definitely my race,” she said.
Pat Williams said after the rally at the Capitol that he will do whatever his daughter asks him to do to support her campaign, but he is “scared to death” about her entry into politics.
“I’m trying to separate the dad from the politician here,” he said. “No dad wants to see his daughter come home with skinned knees, and this business is filled with skinned knees. So I’m scared, but I do think she can win, I really do.”
Whitney Williams entered a Democratic primary field that includes Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, Montana House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner and former state legislator Reilly Neill. They are competing for their party’s nomination to defend the seat that Republicans see as an opportunity to take back the office after 16 years of Democratic control.
Cooney said he welcomed Williams to the race and back to Montana after her “admirable work” across the nation and the world.
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“The governor’s seat is critical to protecting all the progress we’ve made in this state to expand access to health care, invest in public education and infrastructure and to keep public lands in public hands — that’s why I’m running,” Cooney said in a statement.
Williams runs a business that helps companies, individuals and foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pursue philanthropic projects and public advocacy. She also co-founded the Eastern Congo Initiative with actor Ben Affleck meant to help strengthen the African nation’s civil society.
Williams worked in the Clinton White House as then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s trips director, and later worked on her 2008 presidential campaign.
Williams spoke positively about her primary opponents, acknowledging she is less well-known than some and that winning the primary will take a lot of work.
But she didn’t hold back in her comments about U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, one of the leading Republican candidates for governor, repeatedly targeting him during her rally at the Capitol.
“With friendship and respect to those running in this Democratic primary, I can and I will defeat Greg Gianforte,” she said.
Gianforte, Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski are running for the Republican nomination.
Gianforte spokesman Dan Duffey said the congressman is “focused on his positive message” of bringing conservatism and executive experience to the governor’s office.
“Greg’s message is resonating with Montanans, it’s reflected by his sizable lead in polls and the record-breaking fundraising support he’s receiving,” Duffey said.
Fox’s campaign manager Jack Cutter said Williams’ entry into the race as a “well-connected insider” demonstrates the need for Republicans to nominate a strong candidate such as Fox. Cutter called Gianforte’s loss to Bullock in the 2016 governor’s race a “lackluster performance.”
Olszewski became the first candidate for either party to pick a running mate when he named state Sen. Kenneth Bogner of Miles City on Thursday as his choice for lieutenant governor.