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Democrats rally around 2024 candidates, Tester interrupted by pro-Palestine demonstrators

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Democrats rally around 2024 candidates, Tester interrupted by pro-Palestine demonstrators

Mar 04, 2024 | 7:12 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
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Democrats rally around 2024 candidates, Tester interrupted by pro-Palestine demonstrators
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U.S. Sen. Jon Tester speaks at the Mansfield Metcalf dinner in Helena on March 2, 2024. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Underdog Democrats rallied around 2024 candidates up and down the ballot at their annual Mansfield Metcalf dinner in Helena on Saturday. But a night Democrats typically reserve for in-party schmoozing and supporting statewide candidates was interrupted with protests from pro-Palestine demonstrators.

Protesters were there to confront U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, incumbent candidate and sole Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, to end weapons funding to Israel. Demonstrators said the senator hasn’t taken a meeting with them, which Tester’s staff said is not true. A Tester spokesperson said Monday the senator supports the efforts to reach a negotiated pause to release hostages, and a targeted response to avoid casualties.

Democrats are going to have to fight this election season to overcome Republican dominance at the ballot box in Montana in recent years. Republicans control the governorship and all statewide-elected offices, and they have a supermajority in the legislature. Tester is the only Democrat holding statewide office, and it’s expected to be a tight race for him this year.

At the dinner, Tester was minutes into his speech, when a pro-Palestinian demonstrator interrupted him waving a large Palestinian flag. He was later interrupted again by another protester who stood up on a chair to shout at the senator. Both activists were quickly removed by Lewis and Clark County deputies for trespassing with no arrests.

“Isn’t it great to be popular?” Tester told the crowd. He then asked the veterans in the room to stand up to be recognized.

“For the people who have served in the military in this room, the reason we have the country we have today, the reason those kids could stand up and do what they did, is because of the veterans who have served in the military,” Tester said to applause in the room.

But one of the protesters, Leticia Romero, was a veteran – telling the Daily Montanan she served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I stood up on the chair and I yelled ‘I’m a veteran, you’re funding genocide. We will not forget, we will not forgive,’” she said.

Democrats rally around 2024 candidates, Tester interrupted by pro-Palestine demonstrators
Pro-Palestine demonstrators gather to protest outside the Montana Democrat’s annual Mansfield Metcalf dinner in Helena on March 2, 2024. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Demonstrators held a candlelit prayer gathering outside the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall in 19-degree weather and heavy snowfall. There were approximately 20 protesters holding signs reading “Ceasefire Now Please” and “MT Jews 4 Ceasefire” that attendees passed as they drove into the venue.

The interrupting protester with the Palestinian flag, who requested anonymity when speaking with the Daily Montanan, said he had a responsibility as a Jew to speak out on the conflict in Gaza. He said Tester supported the purchase of weapons and bombs, and that the Senator has the power to stop it.

Tester is the chairperson of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee.

“They don’t get to just sit in their dinner, eating steak and mashed potatoes and patting themselves on the back and throwing up buzzwords about equality and safety while there’s people dying,” the protester said.

This isn’t the first time pro-Palestine Montanans have confronted Tester on his position on the conflict in Gaza. Last fall at a Butte town hall, Tester fielded questions from activists wanting to know why he hadn’t called for a ceasefire in Gaza. Tester responded at the November event Israel had the right to defend itself following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, as reported by the Associated Press.

Organizer Kimber Brown protesting in Helena Saturday said they want Tester to hold a town hall, something they said Tester has so far refused to do, so they can ask him to stop sending aid to Israel. They said Democratic leadership in the state, including Tester, are “complicit in this genocide happening.”

A spokesperson for Tester said in a statement Tuesday that Tester will always support Montanans’ right to make their voices heard and said the senator has met “face-to-face with Montanans that have a wide array of views on this difficult issue.”

Tester’s office refuted the claim Tester hasn’t spoken with MT for Palestine, pointing to a call between the senator with the organization’s leader Brendan Work, as well as meetings with top staff, to discuss the issue. A spokesperson said Tester’s staff continues to correspond with the organization.

“Senator Tester supports ongoing efforts to reach a negotiated pause agreed upon by both sides that would release the remaining hostages and save innocent lives,” the statement read. “Senator Tester believes our top priority must be the release of American hostages and allowing Israel to effectively counter Hamas — and that response must be targeted and avoid civilian casualties.”

In an email Monday, Work said he has not heard from Tester’s office since the fall, saying he talked with Tester and his chief of staff in November, but hasn’t heard from his policy advisor since October.

Republicans in Montana’s congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, introduced bills to bar Palestinians from entering the U.S., but neither bill has advanced.

Rallying around abortion rights, fighting “wealthy outsiders” and Tester’s Senate bid

Democratic candidates for statewide and federal seats gave Tester accolades, with Legislative Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena saying his race would drive turnout for the party this year, as opposed to last cycle.

“We’re gonna win some f**king legislative seats,” Abbott said.

Common themes across speeches included how Democrats were protecting rights to abortion and access to public land, and admonishing the current Republican administration for property tax increases.

Ryan Busse, candidate for governor, spoke to support he’s garnered from county commissioners who have been in legal fights with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who is running to keep his seat, about property taxes.

He said when he walks into commission offices they’ve told him “there’s not a single Democrat in this whole building,” but “they’re ain’t a single person in this building that’ll vote for that Greg Gianforte.”

Tester spoke to abortion rights, saying how Republicans passed anti-abortion legislation in the state but the courts stopped it due to the protections in the Montana Constitution. After the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion protections in Roe vs. Wade, Democrats in red states like Ohio and Kansas have seen success in establishing statewide protections and the issue is seen as a winner for Democrats nationally.

Candidates including Tester spoke about the wave of money that is going to be spent in the state this election cycle, as well as how the cost-of-living in the state has increased with access to affordable housing shrinking and the pressure of tight budgets in local communities.

“Montana ain’t for sale,” Tester said.

The eyes of the country will be on Tester’s race as it may determine the party majority in the U.S. Senate. Tester said his opponent, businessman Tim Sheehy, was an “out of state multimillionaire from the Minnesota burbs” hand-picked by U.S. Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Sheehy has endorsements across Montana’s Republican leadership, including Daines, Zinke, Gianforte and most recently, his opponent for less than one week Rep. Matt Rosendale.

“If you want to come here and you want to change life in Montana, like Sheehy wants to do, I suggest that you just go back to Minnesota,” Tester said.