MISSOULA — On Day 11 of her campaign for the U.S. Senate, Amanda Curtis released a six-point plan to improve education for students.
The Democrat and high school math teacher greeted former students and shared the most notable moment on the road so far — her time in Indian Country.
And the state representative from Butte continued to spread the message that she is the ordinary person Montana voters have wanted to send to Washington, D.C., for a long time. She smiled and smiled, even through the long interruption of bells pealing during her speech on the University of Montana campus.
“I feel like I’m in school, and the announcements keep coming in,” Curtis said. “I’m taking it like a good luck charm, that we’ve got music behind our speech today.”
Montana Democrats nominated the freshman lawmaker to take on U.S. Rep. Steve Daines in the race for the U.S. Senate seat. U.S. Sen. John Walsh, a Democrat, bowed out of the race after a New York Times article showed the veteran plagiarized his final paper for the United States Army War College.
In her talk, Curtis continued to stress her humble beginnings and her middle class status, and she made appeals to students, Native Americans, military veterans and the estimated 139,000 Montanans with student loan debt. She noted Montana students graduate with an average debt of $27,475, putting the national college debt at $1.2 trillion.
“Today, rising student loan debt has become an economic crisis, deterring our young people from going to college and saddling graduates with insurmountable debt,” Curtis said.
At the event, UM student Topher Williams praised Curtis for being a member of the working class, and he laid blame at the feet of Daines for the economic trouble students experience. If students feel disenfranchised, he said, it’s because Daines has voted to cut Pell grants and increase interest rates on student loans.
“Now it’s our chance to send a Montanan (to Washington, D.C.,) who understands what it’s like to be in our shoes, who understands what it’s like to work through college, and understands what it’s like to be a working Montanan,” Williams said.
Daines is a Bozeman entrepreneur and clear favorite in the race, and Republicans see the seat in Montana as one they can pick up to help secure control of the U.S. Senate. In response to the criticisms, candidate spokeswoman Alee Lockman said Daines is a father of four who knows the importance of quality schooling, and he understands the rising cost of college makes it difficult for students to pursue higher education.
“That’s why Steve joined both Montana senators in voting for legislation to remove the threat of doubling interest rates on student loans and provide a sustainable, long-term solution to student loan interest rates,” Lockman said.
She also stressed Daines is fighting to grow the economy so small businesses can create jobs and Montana students can stay here and work after graduation.
The seat Curtis wants is the one Democrat and longtime U.S Sen. Max Baucus held before being tapped as the U.S. ambassador to China. A political power shift hangs in the balance in Washington, so the leap Curtis took from the classroom to the campaign trail thrust her onto the national stage almost overnight.
At the event, she faced a wall of video cameras and smattering of students and other audience members, and she spoke over a quiet but persistent video battle that played out right in front of her.
Brian O’Leary, with America Rising, continually adjusted and lifted a camera to try to film Curtis, and Andrea Marcoccio, head of the Montana Democratic Party, squared off with him step for step, pushing up a posterboard to try to block the conservative political action videographer from taking footage.
“When any Montanan imagines what it would feel like, they’re probably exactly right,” Curtis said of launching into the spotlight. “It’s hard to put into words, but one thing that’s prepared me very well is being a teacher.”
Teachers make more decisions before the first bell rings than many other professionals make in the course of an entire day or even a week, and they do it with little resources, she said. She is the clear underdog, but Curtis said she’s aiming for a win, and she believes Montanans of all political stripes are ready for her victory.
“They’re hoping for this,” Curtis said of her election. “Democrats, Republicans, and Independents have been wanting a voice in this democracy and feeling under-represented.”
At the campaign event, Curtis fielded questions from UM students, media and others, and she heard comments from a mostly friendly audience. She shook the hands of children, and she hugged at least one of her own former high school students, Tiffanie Taylor.
Taylor, who studied algebra under Curtis in a “rough” alternative school, is studying sociology and psychology at UM. She said unlike some of her other high school instructors, Curtis was open and welcoming, and the political newcomer has her vote.
“I wish her the best of luck. She made a huge impact on me when I was in high school,” Taylor said.
If Curtis proves the political pundits wrong, she’ll have an impact on Taylor and other college students with her plan to bolster access to higher education. She shared the highlights in her speech:
Push for legislation that would allow students who have outstanding student loan debt to refinance at a fixed rate of 4 percent.
Preserve and expand access to the Pell Grant program for low-income students. Establish an automatic cost-of-living adjustment to the maximum grant.
Invest in career and technical education programs.
To prevent default on student loans, shepherd legislation that would provide students with annual counseling under the federal loan program.
Protect student loans for military veterans and expand tuition assistance for them.
Invest in education on Montana’s reservations.
“Nothing has been more memorable than my time spent in Indian Country listening to the unique Native American perspective on issues that face all of us,” Curtis said.