By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Tracy Velazquez, Democratic candidate for Montana's sole seat in the U.S. House, said she wanted to debate Republican incumbent Denny Rehberg in Havre but he wouldn't agree to it.
Velazquez, campaining in Havre last week at the Great Northern Fair, also said in an interview that she supports widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes.
Velazquez, who owns a consulting company in Bozeman with her husband, Dennis Alexander, criticized Rehberg on a number of issues, including country-of-origin labeling.
"I think that Montana needs better representation," she said. "Right now I don't think Washington is looking out for people in Montana."
A native of Connecticut, Velazquez came to Montana 10 years ago. She received a bachelor's degree in social studies from Harvard University and a master's degree in business administration from Montana State University-Bozeman.
Before starting her own consulting business, Velazquez worked for nonprofit agencies like the American Cancer Society and the Montana State University Foundation.
Her experience gives her a good perspective on the needs of people in Montana, she said. If elected, she said, she will work on ensuring that Montanans can receive affordable health insurance and have access to quality health care and low-cost quality prescription drugs.
Other issues she said she supports include promoting availability of high grade Internet and cellular phone access, promoting the use of alternative energy and alternative fuels, and building better transmission lines, both to get cheaper power into the state and to make it easier to market Montana's power out of the state.
Velazquez said she wanted to add Havre and Miles City as locations for debates in addition to the four Rehberg proposed, but Rehberg declined.
Erik Iverson, Rehberg's chief of staff, said Monday that Velazquez had the opportunity to hold a debate in Havre if she wanted to.
Rehberg proposed four debates. While Velazquez asked to have more debates, she agreed to four after Rehberg's campaign declined to add more, Iverson said.
"That's what we feel is an appropriate number of debates," he said.
Velazquez asked to change the locations of two debates from Helena and Kalispell to Bozeman and Pablo, Iverson said. He added that if she wanted to have debates in Havre or Miles City, she should have asked to change locations to those cities.
Velazquez said traveling on U.S. Highway 2 to come to Havre reinforced her support for widening the highway to four lanes.
"As a fellow traveler I would appreciate four lanes," she said.
She said widening the highway would help the economy.
"I think it makes sense for a northern route across the state," Velazquez said.
Velazquez said Rehberg, who sits on the House Committee on Agriculture, failed his constituents when the committee amended the country-of-origin labeling regulations to be voluntary rather than mandatory. He needed to take a leadership role in that debate, she said.
"Why didn't he work with his colleagues to make sure it didn't happen?" Velazquez asked.
COOL, part of the 2002 Farm Bill, requires that certain agricultural products be labeled to identify their country of origin, beginning on Sept. 30, 2006.
Rehberg spokesman Brad Keena said Velazquez' comment ignores what did happen.
Rehberg sponsored an amendment that would have kept COOL mandatory and moved its effective date up a year, Keena said, but that failed in the committee.
"In the full House, Denny will continue his leadership effort in protecting COOL's mandatory status and he will be successful because we have the votes," Keena said.
Velazquez said Rehberg's failure to sign a letter requesting that the House fully fund Amtrak's request for a $1.8 billion budget also shows he doesn't support his constituents.
Montana Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus both signed a letter urging the Senate Appropriations Committee fully fund Amtrak's request.
President Bush has requested a $900 million budget for Amtrak.
"We're looking at an Amtrak budget that I don't think Amtrak can survive on and Amtrak has said it can't survive on," Velazquez said.
Keena said Rehberg didn't sign the letter because he was working on a bill in the House Committee on Transportation authorizing a $2 billion Amtrak budget.
"We were successful in getting that authorization," Keena added.
He said Rehberg's main concern has been making sure the Empire Builder will continue to run through Montana. Amtrak president David Gunn has assured him the Empire Builder will not be canceled to save money, Keena said.
Velazquez said Rehberg should have joined the senators and Gov. Judy Martz in asking Congress for the full $1.8 billion.
"Authorizing $2 billion is not the same as making sure Appropriations appropriates it," she said.
She said she is not familiar with the effort to rehabilitate the nearly 100-year-old St. Mary Diversion, the irrigation system that provides more than half of the water in the Milk River each year. Velazquez said she will research the project, but that she expects that she would support it to prevent negative impacts the failure of the system would cause.