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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Greg Gianforte's Montana Tour Fuels Political Speculation

Greg Gianforte speaking to the Conrad, Montana Chamber of Commerce
Eric Whitney
Greg Gianforte speaking to the Conrad, Montana Chamber of Commerce

Not everybody's summer road trip around Montana generates headlines at every stop, but Greg Gianforte's does, and Gianforte is not just anybody. He's been meeting with local chambers of commerce, like a group of about 10 people at the Sport Club restaurant in Shelby recently.

Gianforte is one of Montana's most successful entrepreneurs, he started a software company in Bozeman that he recently sold to Oracle for over a billion dollars that still employs hundreds of people in the Gallatin valley at wages far above the state average.

And he might be running for governor.

"I am considering it. It's a very important decision, my wife and I are praying about it, and when we've deliberated through it and have a sense of peace, then we would make the decision," Gianforte says.

For the last two weeks Gianforte and his wife Susan have been visiting 30 cities and towns from one end of Montana to the other, talking about their idea to boost the state's average wage by getting people who've left the state to return, and to bring their high paying jobs back with them and work remotely instead. He says telecomuters could have a big economic impact.

"If a small, rural town in Montana had just five or ten people move back home, that would be five or ten homes that either had to be purchased or built, that creates construction jobs. It's five or ten additional families that would enroll in the local schools, making the schools more vibrant. [It would] be five or ten families that are buying downtown."

Gianforte says that's what his road trip around Montana is all about, that it has nothing to do with a potential run for governor. But outside observers see it differently.

Chuck Johnson is the recently-retired state capitol bureau chief for Lee Newspapers. He's covered Montana politics for four decades.

"If he's running for governor, and I don't know if he is or not, but it sort of looks like he is," Johnson says, "it's a great way to kind of get your name out for the issue you want to emphasize, which is the need for good paying jobs in Montana. And, gosh, it looks like the tour will end shortly before the Republican convention later this month in Helena. From my standpoint it looks like a good way to come into the convention and get known around the state for your issue, and then announce your candidacy later."

The executive director of the Montana Democratic party, Nancy Keenan, says it's clear to her that Gianforte is running.

"I do not trust Mr. Gianforte. I do not," Keenan says.

Keenan calls Mr. Gianforte a billionaire, but admits she doesn't know his net worth. And even though he has said he is paying for his tour to promote telecomuting, Keenan is suspicious.

"He's not disclosing basically who's paying for it, and I think Montanans deserve an honest answer. If you're going to run, run. But don't hide behind a tour that is advocating for jobs."

Political observer Chuck Johnson calls the Democrats' response to Gianforte's announcement that he's thinking of running, textbook election tactics: Rain on the parade of any potential opponent early, often, and hard.

Johnson says Gianforte has no obligation to file any kind of campaign finance reports with the state if he's not actually running. But, less clear is – if he does decide to run, would he have to retroactively report activities he did before announcing, like his current statewide tour?

"I don't know the answer to that," says Johnson. "We've seen Mr. Gianforte raise his public profile in Montana the last year or so. He taught an entrepreneurial course at Carroll College, I think he spoke at the graduations of Montana Tech and and Rocky Mountain College in 2014, but I don't know his obligation to report. That would be up to the state election laws and what the commissioner of political practices says."

That's all speculation until Gianforte actually says yes or no to a run for governor.

"I appreciate your desire to probe in this area," Gianforte says. "I haven't made up my mind. The focus in this tour is really to find ways to bring more high wage jobs to the state. I think telecommuting provides an opportunity to do that. And we're thrilled with the warm reception we've gotten in the communities we've visited so far, and we look forward to visiting in the other communities in the state."

Warm reception is a pretty accurate description of the two meetings Gianforte had that I attended, in Conrad and Shelby. He didn't talk at all about politics at either meeting.

On Main Street in Conrad, population 2,600, local business owners Kit Finlayson and Vanessa Bucklin liked what they heard in the hour or so Gianforte spent with their local chamber of commerce.

Main street, Conrad, Montana.
Main street, Conrad, Montana.

Asked about Gianforte's motivation for his current statewide tour, Finlayson said, "I think that he was successful, and you can just tell that he really cares about small communities in our state, and wants to take his talents and bring that to more people so that it can really help the state and the small communities."

"He's got a real passion for entrepreneurship," said Bucklin, "and that's encouraging, and it's contagious."

Finlayson and Bucklin said they weren't aware Gianforte was running for governor. 

"No, I didn't, Bucklin said, "that'd be great!"

"That'd be awesome!" said Finlayson. "He sounds like a great guy."

But for now, all Greg Gianforte will say about running for governor is that he hasn't yet decided whether to do it. On his tour to talk about recruiting telecomuters to come home to Montana, that's pretty much all he wants to talk about. When I asked him whether Montana's current governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, needs to be replaced, by himself or anyone else, there was a long pause, and then he said:

"Today I really want to focus on the telecommuting, because I think that was the purpose of these meetings, and that's where we focused the discussion."

Democrats want to talk about Gianforte's conservative ideology; like his financial backing for the creationism museum in Glendive, and for the Montana Family Foundation, which has opposed the legalization of same sex marriage, and his advocacy for public funding for private schools. If Gianforte does run for governor, those positions would alienate him from Democrats, but hold appeal for other Montanans.

Chuck Johnson points out that Governor Bullock only won his job in 2012 by about 7,500 votes.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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