MTPR

Candidate Profile: Greg Gianforte

Jun 19, 2018

Now that Montana's primary elections are over, we're profiling the candidates voters will choose in November to represent Montana in Congress. Today, Greg Gianforte, the Republican who won the special election last year earlier to replace Ryan Zinke, who was appointed Secretary of Interior. 

In May, I had the chance to visit Washington, D.C., and spend most of a Wednesday with Gianforte. Wednesdays here often start at 8:15 with what's called the Montana Coffee, when all three members of Montana's Congressional delegation co-host an early morning open house for anyone visiting from back home.

"This is a meet and greet, this is a way to say, 'welcome to DC,'" Gianforte tells me as he makes the rounds shaking hands and posing for photos with the 50 or so visitors in a spacious, wood paneled fourth floor conference room in the Russell Senate office building on Capitol Hill.

It wraps up at 10 'til nine, and then we're in an elevator.

"We have another meeting, which is what my day is like, it's meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting," Gianforte says, exiting on the ground floor to walk a few blocks to another Capitol Hill office building. "This is, once a week the (House Republican) conference gets together in the House, and this is kind of – it's our family meeting."

In between meetings, we sit down in Gianforte's private office for a 30 minute interview.

"I have a whole bunch of pictures of my kids and family in Montana, growing up," he says, describing his office decor.

His private office is adjacent to a warren desks and cubicles where eight staffers are crammed together under flourescent lights. In his private office, there's room for Gianforte's desk, a couple of small couches and a coffee table. It's nothing luxurious, and is ornamented with an animal hide, antler mounts and skulls.

"This is a mountain lion that I took in the Bangtails," he says, referring to skin the wall behind us. On another,  "a whitetail that was shot in the Gallatin Valley, and an elk that was taken also up near Clyde Park, and I have a wolf skull that came from Paradise Valley."

"You took the wolf?" I ask

"I was with the guy who took the wolf, so I can't claim a wolf myself," he says.

Gianforte says that it's important for him to stay in touch with folks back home.

"This is why I've committed to come back to Montana every weekend. This is not reality here," he says. "People are concerned about federal overreach negatively impacting our precious way of life, and that's what I see my purpose here to be, is to be the voice for the people in Montana to make sure that the federal government doesn't get in the way."

Gianforte has made changing public lands policy a signature issue. As a freshman Congressman who hasn't even served a full term, and from a state with just one seat in the House, he doesn't wield a lot of influence in DC, but he does sit on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Representative Greg Gianforte at a meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee in May, 2018
Credit Eric Whitney

The day I was on Capitol Hill he was voting for a rural water development bill he said would benefit constituents in Roundup. But his primary focus was on the Farm Bill, which funds the US Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of the U.S. Forest Service.

"Everybody wins when we manage our forest. We have more habitat, there's more hunting, the wildlife wins, our economy wins, and we have less severe forest fires. The only people that lose are the repeat litigants that are profiting from taxpayers."

Conservation groups that have sued repeatedly to stop public lands projects for violating environmental laws in Montana dispute having a profit motive.

But Republicans have long been frustrated by environmental litigation. In May, Gianforte successfully added an amendment to the House Farm Bill that aims to prevent that in one particular circumstance.

"What it is is, expedited permitting for salvage timber operations, to deal specifically with the standing dead trees resulting from forest fires," Gianforte says.

The amendment would require the Forest Service to complete Environment Assessments for salvage logging projects within 60 days of the end of a fire, and it would prohibit courts halting salvage projects during lawsuits.

"We need to make sure in all these cases that we have a public process where all voices can be heard, but then a decision can be made, and we don't get tied up endlessly in the courts. That's what happens today, and that's what we're trying to resolve," he says.

A federal law passed in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA provides a public process – it's the one that requires Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements. Lawsuits against proposed projects on public lands often cite NEPA violations as their basis.

"Is it time to get rid of NEPA?" I ask.

"I don't believe it is. NEPA serves a very important purpose, which is it creates a collaborative process for public input from all constituents, to decide what's best from a stewardship perspective, from an economic perspective. I think there are things that could be done to streamline it, because right now people proposing projects, there is a significant degree of uncertainty as to whether a permit will ever be issued. And there's some common sense things we could do, like shotclocks on permits. Say yes or no. I don't think every permit should be granted, but the continual maybe has become the new no, and I think we can do better than that."

Most days, several different groups of Montanans come to Gianforte's office to talk to him about their interests, they included real estate and distilling business the day I was there. Gianforte says he doesn't take meetings if they don't include someone from Montana, unless it's a national group with deep interests in the state.

In the evenings, Gianforte likes take Montana visitors on tours of the capitol building. But he says he has no plans to stay in DC permanently, becoming what he calls a “swamp creature.”

Representative Greg Gianforte in front of the Jeannette Rankin portrait in the US Captiol building during an evening tour he gave for visiting Montanans
Credit Eric Whitney

"A couple of weeks ago myself and 5 other members, freshemen members of Congress went to the White House for a meeting with President Trump to advocate for term limits," Gianforte says. "We've now introduced legislation that has his support. The legislation we've introduced would limit service in the house to 12 years."

"Twelve years would be the upper limit for you? Or you would do less than that?" I ask.

"It would," he replied. "I would abide by this term limit restriction."

That's assuming Gianforte can advance beyond the single election he's won so far. Congressmen in a sitting president's party don't always do well in mid-term elections, but Gianforte sounds confident in hitching his political star to Donald Trump.

"I am very supportive of the President, and I think, honestly you can judge the man by his actions. He's appointed well. I'm pleased that Ryan Zinke is Secretary of Interior, Sunny Perdue at Agriculture - what a crazy idea to have a farmer in charge of ag. It makes sense to me. I look at the overall team he's put together, I'm very encouraged."

But Gianforte says there are places where he's not aligned with the President, specifically on broad-based tariffs. Gianforte made these comments before President Trump announced $50 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese products, and before his summit with the leader of North Korea.

"He's a deal maker, " Gianforte says, "and we've seen public negotiations go on, and it's added volatility to our futures market for our ag producers. It's added volatility to the stock market, but I've been encouraged by the progress we've made in North Korea, and the progress that's going on. The relationship he's built with China so far. Now, will we get the result we want? We're not sure yet, but for the first time we have somebody who's standing up for America, and I think we'll get better deals."

My interview with Congressman Gianforte came almost one year to the day after he "bodyslammed" Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper at a campaign event. Gianforte initially blamed the reporter for the incident, but later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge for it, took an anger management class, did 40 hours of community service, paid restitution and gave $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

I aske him if he feels like the press is out to get him.

After a long pause, he said, "What has become clear to me, being back here, is that - I don't believe the national media is - the national media has - they've been focused on taking the President down, and not reporting the facts. Some people have used the term fake news, I would say I've seen that on a national basis in a very real sense, and - I find that less with the Montana media, but I would say it is a national problem, at the national level."

Republican Greg Gianforte is Montana's lone representative in the U.S. House. His Democratic challenger for that job this November is former three-term Montana legislator Kathleen Williams of Bozeman. Libertarian Elinor Swanson and the Green Party's Doug Campbell are also running for the seat.