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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat': Sanders, Trump, And Gianforte's Easement Lawsuit

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

Bernie Sanders visits Montana, Rep. Zinke endorses Trump, and Montana Democrats smell blood over a 2009 lawsuit Greg Gianforte filed over a public access easement near his property in Bozeman. Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson, and Rob Saldin take you behind the curtain of Montana politics.

Sanders in Montana

Bernie Sanders made campaign stops in Montana this week, speaking for over an hour in Missoula, before moving on to Billings.

One of the issues he talked about in Missoula was his push to end the country's dependence on fossil fuels. That pledge also comes with a promise to spend $41 billion to create new jobs for workers displaced by the transition away from fossil fuels.

"People are very afraid of losing these jobs," says Sally Mauk, "and that fear is something that they can take to the polls."

"Yeah, and Republicans are going to seek to exploit that," Rob Saldin adds. "It has been one of the key themes that Gianforte's been pushing throughout his candidacy."

Sanders also took time in Missoula to gripe about the Democratic nomination process. Saying it's "kind of weird" that superdelegates pledged support to Clinton before anyone else entered the race.

Professor Saldin isn't impressed with that complaint, and offers a defense of the party nomination process.

"He [Sanders] also might have suspected that having kept the Democratic party at arms length, refusing to call himself a Democrat for all these years, up until he decided that he wanted to be the Democratic nominee, might have some costs. So it's not surprising that the superdelegates are lining up behind Hillary Clinton.

"The process we have right now for selecting presidential candidates, it's only been around since 1972, and so it's, in the big scheme of things, relatively new. It has opened up the process to allow candidates like Bernie Sanders and like Donald Trump -- these people who have not been a part of one of the two major political parties -- to jump in and potentially win the nomination. Trump already has, and Bernie Sanders, gosh if one or two things had fallen a little bit differently, he could easily be the Democratic nominee.

"Now for people like Bernie Sanders who want the people to decide, perhaps that's a good thing. But for those of us who think that political parties play a critical role, and that they're a critical mediating institution in our political system, there is something potentially troubling about having the system be open to just anyone who could swoop in from the outside and take a presidential nomination and become the face of a party. That really undermines the party as an institution."

Rep. Zinke Endorses Trump

Rep. Zinke is among those climbing on the Trump bandwagon.

"I think earlier, he'd been non-committal about Trump, so this was news that he was supporting Trump," says Chuck Johnson. "It's obviously part of an effort nationally by the Trump campaign to line up members of Congress and others on their team. This could be an issue that Democrats will go after him with, although I would imagine Trump would probably be a pretty strong candidate in Montana given our Republican history."

Gianforte's easement lawsuit

Democrats are making hay out of a lawsuit that Greg Gianforte and his wife Susan filed in 2009 over public access to a fishing site near their Bozeman property. The suit was settled four years later.

"It had to do with an easement that allowed public access to the river right next the Gianforte Property in Bozeman," Saldin explains. "Gianforte said the easement was invalid, and for a variety of reasons should be eliminated. The state rejected that, but did determine that some users had created paths of their own off the main path, that did in fact cross Gianforte property. The matter was resolved when those informal spur trails were put out of use and a fence was put up to keep people on the main path and off the property.

"The politics of this are really worth paying attention to. Public access has something like sacred status in Montana. For many Montanans, being able to access public land and water is an absolutely essential part of what makes Montana special. People don't like it when you mess with that. In this particular case, when you have a way of perceiving this as a rich guy dropping bags of money down to buy a trophy house on a multi-acre estate, then put up fences and kick people out their favorite fishing hole, that is potentially damaging, particularly because it so nicely plays into the narrative that Democrats have been trying to place on Gianforte -- that he's a rich guy from New Jersey who's not like us, doesn't share our values -- and this issue is just teed-up for a TV ad.

"We can already see both of the campaigns, I think, responding to this in a way. On Thursday, Bullock got the endorsement of the Montana Conservation Voters and staged a news conference on the banks of a fishing access site outside of Helena. Of course that endorsement was totally unsurprising, but it sure seemed to have been timed in such a way to pounce on this issue and keep it in the headlines.

"On the other side, I noticed this week that Gianforte's campaign rolled out six press releases since this story broke ... I suppose it's possible that the timing on all that is coincidental, but I think another interpretation is that the Gianforte campaign recognizes the potential damage that this lawsuit story poses, and is throwing out every shiny object it has to try to do something to shift attention away from this thing."

The easement was never closed, it's open to this day. The boundaries of it were changed because of the settlement reached, but the suit did not deny anyone access to the river.

"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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