U.S. House candidate profile: Ryan Zinke

Republican House candidate Ryan Zinke gets sandwiches ready at Coal Appreciation Day at the Metra Park Plaza in Billings on Sept. 13. 

State Bureau photo by Charles S. Johnson

Editor’s note: This concludes a two-day series profiling the Democratic and Republican candidates for Montana’s open seat in the U.S. House. For Saturday’s profile of Democrat John Lewis, go online to this story.

HELENA – Speaking to the Montana Medical Association trustees here recently, U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke wasted no time telling the doctors what he thought will happen to the Affordable Care Act.

The consensus on “Obamacare” from experts Zinke said he listens to “is that it is a sinking ship that will be in Davy Jones’ locker soon.”

But the retired Navy SEAL officer said that when a ship is abandoned, “you don’t just jump in the ocean,” but need to transfer to a more stable vessel.

If Republicans can take control of the Senate and increase their House majority in November, Zinke said they can, and must, develop a better plan that provides Americans with access to affordable health care, while maintaining quality of care.

Zinke later brought up the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

“When they move through a village, they crucify,” Zinke said. “They chop heads off children. You’re not going to reform people that do this, and I would rather fight ISIS, I can tell you, in the deserts of Iraq than on the streets of America, because unless we stop this evil, it will come here.”

He said he was pleased that President Barack Obama is doing something, but added that the air attacks alone will produce limited results.

The next day, at Coal Appreciation Day at Metra Park Pavilion in Billings, Zinke threw in his support with the coal industry, noting it provides a $115 million annual payroll in Montana.

“We are not going to power our nation on pixie dust and hope,” Zinke told the crowd.

He said with coal and the oil and natural gas boom in the Bakken and elsewhere, the United States has the potential finally to achieve energy independence and possibly bring back some manufacturing jobs that went overseas.

“We don’t have to send our kids overseas for a product we have in this country,” Zinke added.

With his blunt, outspoken and at times macho approach, the former Navy SEAL commander seems to relish the battle for a seat that’s been in Republican hands since Democratic Rep. Pat Williams retired in 1996.

Zinke, 52, is the Republican nominee for Montana’s lone House seat. The former state senator from Whitefish faces Democrat John Lewis of Helena and Libertarian Mike Fellows of Missoula in the Nov. 4 election.

Zinke was born in Bozeman where his parents were attending college, and he grew up in Whitefish. He was the middle of three children born to a father who was a second-generation plumber and a mother who worked in real estate. The couple later divorced.

Zinke said it was his late grandmother, Esther Ibin, whom he mentioned in some TV ads, who influenced him the most. She came from a family of 11 children and left home at age 14 to work as a handmaid, or as a servant for a woman with modest means. At 16, the woman gave Zinke’s grandmother a loan so she could earn a teaching degree in St. Cloud, Minn. She went on to teach in a one-room school in eastern Montana.

“She was a very private person in her religious beliefs, which I think you have a right to be, but she was extraordinarily hardworking,” Zinke said. “She was thoughtful. She listened. I think she was fiscally very conservative. She thought the government shouldn’t interfere with private decisions, and her definition of private decisions I would say was much more extensive than it is today on the role of government. She was very independent.”

In Whitefish, Zinke was a top student, the president of his high school class for three years and a star athlete. A number of top colleges offered him football scholarships, and he accepted one to the University of Oregon.

Recruited as an outside linebacker, Zinke was switched to center where he started for the Ducks for two and a half seasons and blocked much heavier defenders. He earned all-conference and all-academic honors in the Pac-10 Conference and graduated with a degree in geology.

“He was one of the toughest guys I was ever around, and one of the smartest,” recalled Rich Brooks, then Oregon’s head football coach. “He just found a way to get the job done.”

Brooks still remembers Zinke telling him he wanted to be governor of Montana someday.

“He’s the type of player who to me is the ideal model collegiate athlete,” said Brooks, later coach of the St. Louis Rams. “He just had everything together. He was an outstanding individual on the field and off the field. I don’t know of a better guy to represent the proper ideals of our country than Ryan Zinke.”

After graduation, Zinke had planned to go to work as a deep sea diver for manganese nodules, which are precious metals. An Oregon alumnus and former Navy admiral told Zinke if he wanted to be a diver, he ought to consider becoming a Navy SEAL. It’s all voluntary, he told Zinke, and if you don’t like it, you can leave at any time.

“He was right – 23 years later,” Zinke said with a laugh. “But what he didn’t tell me, nor did he know, was how difficult SEAL training was, and this is from a kid who played Pac-10 football and (had) three-a-days and knew how to work hard.”

In his tenure with the SEALs, Zinke had a number of assignments, including serving on SEAL Team One, where he led counterinsurgency and contingency operations in the Persian Gulf and the Pacific theater of operations.

He served two stints on SEAL Team Six, from 1990-93 and from 1996-99 as a team leader, ground force commander, task force commander and current operations officer in support of national command authority missions. These were widely reported to be hunting down criminals in the former Yugoslavia.

In 2004, Zinke said he was assigned to be deputy and acting commander of a combined special operations task force leading 3,500 special operations forces in Iraq. He was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat and four meritorious service medals.

The 2014 book about the SEALs, “Eyes on Target,” devoted a chapter to Zinke. It said he was “responsible for killing or capturing 72 known enemies, insurgents and terrorists.”

Zinke admitted that he got in trouble and was ordered to reimburse the Navy $211 for a one-way plane trip from Virginia to Montana in the mid-1990s. Zinke said he was scouting out potential sites for SEAL training missions and charged the Navy, but the Navy disallowed the airfare. He said he was not reprimanded, but ordered to pay back the money.

“Was I perfect?” Zinke asked. “No. Was it embarrassing to me to have nine years of travel claims formally reviewed and audited? Yes. You know what, if I were to do it again, I would have done things differently. I learned a valuable lesson. My lesson learned is you’re accountable.”

Earlier, as a SEAL in California, Zinke said he met and married his wife, Lola, who was in law school. They have a daughter, Jennifer, a former Navy diver who is married to a Navy SEAL, and two sons, Wolf and Konrad.

While in the Navy, Zinke went to night school to obtain master’s degrees in business administration from National University in San Diego and in global leadership from the University of San Diego.

Zinke retired from active duty in the Navy in 2008.

Although proud of his career in the Navy SEALS, Zinke said, “I’ve never viewed being a SEAL any better or any worse than anyone else who has served. I think any service is honorable, provided you leave the service honorably.”

After retiring, Zinke formed two businesses, including one that uses advanced technology in industries such as aerospace, natural resources and national security.

He was elected to the Montana Senate in 2008 and served four years.

Instead of running for another term in the state Senate, Zinke ran for lieutenant governor on the ticket headed by Neil Livingstone of Helena in 2012. They placed fifth in the seven-way GOP primary.

Zinke remained active in politics in 2012 when he helped form and chaired a super PAC known as Special Operations for America (SOFA), which ran an independent expenditure campaign against President Barack Obama’s re-election.

Zinke resigned as the group’s chair before starting his U.S. House campaign, but several complaints to the Federal Election Commission have alleged there was illegal coordination between SOFA and Zinke’s campaign. SOFA has made independent expenditures in the House race. He has denied the charges, and the FEC has not ruled yet on the complaints.

It hasn’t been an easy campaign for Zinke by any stretch, but he wasn’t expecting it to be.

Zinke eked out a 5,175-vote win over former state Sen. Corey Stapleton in the five-way Republican primary in June, polling 33.2 percent of the vote.

Spurred on by another GOP candidate, state Sen. Matt Rosendale, who loaned his campaign $1.1 million, Zinke spent about $1.5 million in the primary. As of June 30, Zinke had about just $97,000 left in the bank, compared with Lewis’ $623,000. Zinke said he expects his summer fundraising to turn around that gap.

Some of his primary opponents and prominent Republicans questioned Zinke’s conservative credentials and his stance on abortion, although he’s since been endorsed by the National Right-to-Life Association and Montana Right-to-Life.

His legislative record was more moderate in 2009 and turned sharply conservative in 2011, according to interest group ratings, although he received high scores from the Montana Chamber of Commerce both times.

“In the first session, the bills were not as contentious,” Zinke said.

His votes on natural resource and environmental issues, which sometime were at odds with those other Republicans, reflect the fact that Glacier National Park was in his Senate district, Zinke said. The park is the top economic driver in Flathead County, he said.

Asked why Montanans should vote for him, Zinke cites his background as a leader. Zinke’s recent advertisements have contrasted his leadership experience with that of Lewis, who worked for former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for a dozen years, including as his state director.

“I think where we are in America today, we do need more leadership than more politics,” Zinke said. “I’m an optimist that America can rebuild and our exceptionalism can be restored, but it’s going to take teamwork and working together. That’s what I’ve done all of my life.

“I don’t yield to pressure, only higher principle, and I will put America first. I think my background shows significant leadership, education, experience and a track record of doing what I say.”

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