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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Infrastructure, Attack Ads, And Conrad Burns' Legacy

Campaign Beat, Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.
"Campaign Beat" MTPR's weekly political analysis program.

On this episode of "Campaign Beat": Conrad Burns' legacy; analysis of the latest attack ads in the gubernatorial race; and Gov. Bullock's new (yet old) infrastructure funding plan.
Conrad Burns' Legacy

Former Montana Senator Conrad Burns passed away this week.

"To say he [Conrad Burns] was 'one-of-a-kind' is probably an understatement," says Sally Mauk.

"He was the first Republican ever to be re-elected by the people to the Senate in Montana," says Chuck Johnson. "He played a major role in telecommunications policy nationally, and he also had a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and brought tens of millions of dollars into Montana.

"But where he ran into problems was usually with his mouth. Conrad Burns had a knack of saying some kind of hurtful and mean things, and put-downs and I think they ended up catching up with him over the years. He couldn't seem to resist making kind of smart-aleck comments. That really came back to hurt him and insult a lot of people."

"I always looked forward to interviewing Senator Burns," Mauk adds, "because unlike most other politicians, you never quite know what he was going to say."

"He had a background in agriculture. He'd worked for an ag magazine and sold ads all over Montana. And I think [he] probably knew as many Montanans as anyone. When you traveled with him, he seemed to know every farm and ranch we passed by in the car. A colorful character, and lots of stories will be told about him in the coming days," Johnson says.

Attack Ads in Governor's Race

The issue of being a transplant has come up in a new campaign ad sponsored by the Democratic Governor's Association attacking Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte.

"It makes it seem like Greg Gianforte is a carpetbagger, which he most definitely is not," Mauk says.

"It's simply inaccurate to say he's from New Jersey, although this is something the Democrats have been repeating in fundraising letters and elsewhere for many months," Rob Saldin says. "I think by any reasonable standard — Gianforte has a perfectly good claim to be a Montanan. he's lived here since 1995. He's been a prominent and engaged citizen during those 20 plus year. He raised all his kids here. And the successful company that he founded was entirely born and bred right here in Montana.

"In addition to being false, this carpetbagger charge, it just isn't an appeal to what Lincoln used to call 'the better angels of our nature.' It's an attempt essentially to say that Gianforte isn't like us because he comes from some strange far away place, and that that makes him suspicious. In other words, it's a pretty cynical attempt to score political points by basically stoking fear of outsiders."

"The last time I looked, 54 percent of Montana residents are Montana natives and 46 percent are people who moved here from elsewhere, so I don't know how effective an ad like this is," says Johnson. "We used to see allegations about California — the same thing. 'Don't Californicate Montana,' that sort of thing. It kind of plays to a xenophobia that I don't know that's really there."

Another new ad, funded by the Republican Governor's Association, attacks Governor Bullock claiming his use of the state plane constitutes a scandal.

"I think their use of the word 'scandal' here is a bit overwrought," says Sally Mauk.

"I would agree," Johnson says. It's debatable whether he violated the law as such or if other governors did as well. I think there probably aught to be some clarification legislation ... the law is a little unclear now. I'm not sure it was in the best judgement to do these campaign events tied into stage government legitimate events, but that's what happened and I think this is an issue we're going to hear about a lot from Republicans. I think they think they've got a pretty good attack on Bullock with this one."

"Of course we should point out that Republican governors have done the same thing. Some have reimbursed the state, some have not. Governor Bullock has, as an afterthought I guess you'd say, decided to reimburse the state for that travel as well."

The next ad is Greg Gianforte's second of the campaign:

This ad has "not one, but two tractors in it," Mauk notes.

"And it also touches on the obligatory hunting and fishing," Saldin says. "I think this would be another like we saw last week. One of these positive introductory ads from Gianforte. The one thing that struck me in this ad is the line 'Washington is trying to control our land and our lives.' In addition to all the feel-good stuff and laying out some of the basic items on the Gianforte agenda, that line struck me as a shout-out to proponents of transferring federal lands to the states, even though Gianforte is on record opposing a transfer. That's a big issue for some libertarian-oriented Republicans, and that definitely is meant for them.

Infrastructure Plan Redux

Gov. Bullock this week unveiled a $200 million plan to improve Montana's aging infrastructure and it resembles a plan that barely failed in the last legislative session, dying in the House by one vote.

"This was probably one of the major issues of the last legislature, and I suspect it will be one this time," Johnson says. "Gianforte, to my knowledge, has not put out a plan of his own on infrastructure. The Bullock plan is pretty sparse in details, but it's a commitment on his part. What we've seen happen in infrastructure the last two sessions has been unsuccessful and heavily partisan. In the 2013 session, Republicans passed an infrastructure plan that Gov. Bullock vetoed on grounds that it would mess up the budget in terms of the structural balance. In other words he wanted to have the state spend the same amount as it brought in during the period, and that was highly controversial and he drew a lot of criticism. And Republicans have drawn a lot of criticism for killing the bill from last time. Meanwhile the needs around the state are certainly still there, and the cost ... is not going down. I think this will be a major issue, and we await the details of both candidates' plans."

"Campaign Beat" is hosted by MTPR's Sally Mauk, with UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin, and former Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Listen every Friday at 6:48 p.m. and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m., or via podcast.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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