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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Dem Gov Race Narrows; Obama And Bullock Meet; Lawmaker Stands By Violent Speech

'Campaign Beat' is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.

Listen now on Campaign Beat: A state legislator stands by his calls for violence against 'socialists.' Montana's two senators split their votes on impeachment. Democrats running for governor are down to two candidates. The AG race has a new twist. And did Barack Obama urge Gov. Bullock to change his mind about a Senate run?

Sally Mauk Holly, a state legislator, Republican Representative Rodney Garcia of Billings, made national news this week when he advocated for the shooting or jailing of, "socialists." And here's what Garcia had to say at a Republican Party gathering in Helena.

"We got socialist in Billings everywhere, and the constitution says — if you guys read it — either we shoot 'em or put 'em in jail."

[laughter from the room]

Well, Holly, the Constitution does not call for shooting or jailing socialists, and even though you can hear people laughing, Garcia wasn't joking, was he?

Holly Michels No, I was at this. It was a lunch where former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was giving a speech, sort of just to rally up the party in advance of election season. And there was that uncomfortable laughter in the room. I was looking around, some people were kind of cringing when Garcia said it.

I spoke to him after, the following day on Saturday, asked him to clarify his remarks and make sure I understood what he said correctly. I asked him what he meant. He said he thought the Constitution believes if someone's a socialist, they should be shot or jailed; that that was an appropriate response. I followed up by clarifying, asking say shooting could result in someone dying. That's a pretty serious thing to say. I just want to make sure you think that's what should be done. He said yep, that's what the constitution says we should do. He couldn't point specifically to where in the Constitution he was getting, where he was interpreting that.

I think one thing that's interesting and important to note with this. When Garcia ran for the State House in 2018 his opponent, Amelia Marquez, she ran as a Democrat. And she does have a role within the party. She's the eastern member at large for the board, but she also identifies as a democratic socialist. I talked to her on Saturday and she reiterated that she does, her beliefs, she would align sort of along Bernie Sanders, that political spectrum. But I asked Garcia specifically if he thought that his opponent, Amelia, should be shot or jailed for her beliefs. And he said, yeah, he felt that was an appropriate response.

Mauk The state Republican Party has called for Garcia to resign his House seat over this. But Holly, not only is he not resigning, he's announced he plans to run for the state Senate.

Michels Yeah. The party state party on Saturday put out a statement denouncing his comments, saying that they felt it was incredibly inappropriate and didn't have a place within the party. And then we saw House leadership on Monday send a letter. Speaker Greg Hertz, Speaker Pro tem Wylie Galt and Majority Leader Brad Tschida all asked him to resign. And like you said, he said, no, but I am going to now run for the state Senate seat in Billings. There's a Democrat that holds that seat. Now, Margie MacDonald, who's seeking reelection, Garcia said that he spoke with the Associated Press and said that he's gotten some positive feedback from it, he's gotten some criticism, but he thinks it's up to voters to decide what happens next to him. Republicans had some discussion about if there was a way to perhaps remove him from office, that you would need a two thirds vote of the Legislature to do that. And they're not in session right now. So they're kind of without much ability to take any action. But we'll see what happens with that Senate race if he does win that race.

Mauk One can assume he will not be welcomed with open arms into the Legislature by the Republicans or Democrats.

Rob, President Trump was, of course, acquitted this week in the Senate. And Montana's two senators split their votes with Democratic Senator Jon Tester voting to convict.

"This is a no brainer. He absolutely, unequivocally is guilty of both Article 1 and Article 2 of the impeachment," Tester said.

And Republican Senator Steve Daines voted to acquit.

"I am voting to acquit President Donald J. Trump for the good of our country. Let it be seared in our minds forever more. Impeachment must never, ever again be used as a partisan weapon," Daines said.

And Rob, Daines feels confident that the majority of Montanans agree with him, not with Senator Tester.

Rob Saldin Yeah, he's probably right. And you also see what happens to people who cross the president. It looked by the end of this thing, I think you saw a split open up within the Republican caucus in the Senate. You had some acknowledge that the president did exactly what he's been accused of and that his actions were inappropriate. But with the exception of Mitt Romney, they all then pivoted to argue that while Trump's behavior was improper, it just didn't rise to the level of removing the president from office. And then you have another group of Republicans that basically held to the White House line that absolutely nothing bad happened. Indeed, that the president's behavior was perfect. And Daines is part of that latter group. To my knowledge, and he's had many opportunities to say something different, but to my knowledge, he's never come even close to acknowledging the obvious that Trump clearly did exactly what he's been accused of. It's plain as day in the transcript of the call. The president's chief of staff acknowledged that. The president himself acknowledged it in front of a bunch of reporters on the White House lawn, and so on. Now, I think reasonable people can disagree about whether Trump's actions do, in fact, warrant removal from office. But to me, it's sad to see people like Daines pretend as though there's absolutely no problem whatsoever. And I suspect that however politically expedient his position may be now, that in the long run, his unqualified support for the president will be a black mark on his record.

Mauk Holly, The number of Democrats running for governor shrunk by one this week when state legislator Casey Schreiner dropped out of the race. And he simply couldn't raise enough money to compete with his primary opponents Mike Cooney and Whitney Williams.

Michels Yeah, so Casey Schreiner was House minority leader in the most recent legislative session, so he did have a little bit of name recognition and a little bit of ability to launch his race for governor. He wasn't someone people hadn't heard of before, but like you said, really failed to gain much traction. I think he ended up raising about $85,000 dollars over his campaign, which is pretty small compared to we saw Whitney Williams, her first quarter report, she brought in about $439,000 and Cooney has raised about $450,000. So he just couldn't really compete there, struggled to gain traction.

He's the second Democrat to drop out of this primary. We saw another former state legislator, Reilly Neal of Livingston. She left the race earlier this year. She was also really not able to raise much money. She brought in about $1,000. So now that primary is kind of left with just the two big names, Cooney and Williams.

Mauk In a video announcing his withdrawal, Schreiner laid out what he thinks the choice is for voters this election year.

"Our state is at a crossroads. Will Montana be a place where everyone has a fair shot? or will we give in to the wealthy, out-of-state special interests? Will we take on the challenges of education funding, rising health care costs, or will we just slash state services?"

And Holly, I think that is a very concise summary of Democrats' messaging and probably just about every race this year.

Michels It is, yeah. We've heard pretty similar messages from Cooney and Williams, talking a lot about the future of Montanans at stake. This is why, in their belief, what Democrats would like to see; education, we hear a lot about public lands, and just protection of Montana values is something that is really common with everybody in that governor primary. I think we'll be hearing a lot more. They're having their first debate next week in Billings where a lot of these issues will come up. It's interesting that Schreiner dropped out before that. So it'll be a much different landscape with just those two squaring off in that debate.

Mauk Rob, there was an interesting twist this week in the Democratic primary race for state attorney general. A supporter of Missoula legislator Kimberly Dudik filed a complaint against her primary opponent, Raph Graybill, alleging he does not meet the eligibility requirements to run for attorney general.

Saldin Yep. State constitution says that to be eligible, you have to be admitted to the Montana bar and to have practiced law for five years. And this complaint came from Dave Wanzenried, a former legislator from Missoula, a supporter of Dudik.

Mauk Dudik originally tweeted out her own doubts about Graybill's eligibility. But then she deleted that and released a more neutral statement, repeating that she did not file the complaint. But, Rob, it's hard to believe it's anything but politically motivated, whether she initiated it or not.

Saldin Yeah, yeah, it is Sally. I mean, it's pretty hard to believe that Wanzenried would do something like this and never even mention it to her. I mean, these two are tight. He's endorsed her. He's held a fundraiser for her at his house. And as you say, it's even more difficult to believe, given Dudiks statements about the complaint. They're kind of all over the map. She initially said she was deeply concerned and it appeared that he was ineligible. But then she did a total 180 and kind of said that, well, she hopes the commissioner rules that Graybill is eligible and she's sending her best wishes to Graybill and his family. So it comes off as a little disingenuous.

You know, then one final point Sally. She also told Corin Cates-Carney that the complaint can't be politically motivated because she didn't file it herself. Well, that part is clearly not true. And given her time as a legislator in Helena, it's again, kind of hard to believe that she doesn't know that it's actually fairly common that these kinds of complaints aren't filed by people in Dudik's position, but that they find a surrogate to do it on their behalf. And this would, at first glance at least, have all the hallmarks of that. So you've got to wonder what's really going on here. It seems as though this could certainly be interpreted as kind of a desperate move to sideline an opponent who has a clear edge in this campaign, right? Graybill has outraised her. He has the state Democratic establishment behind him. And he even has an endorsement from Dudik's hometown mayor, John Engen of Missoula.

Mauk Holly, these complaints often are frivolous. You know, the ones done in the heat of a campaign. And it's hard for journalists to know when actually to consider it news.

Michels Yeah. This is a discussion we have a lot when we're deciding if we're going to write stories about when these complaints are filed, when they're submitted to the commissioner of political practices. Oftentimes the person who submits it will send us a copy trying to get our attention about it. For complaints that aren't ethics complaints, so if they're campaign finance or political practice violations, they're not public right away while the commissioner weighs if he's even going to accept that complaint or not. And I think some of them are just dismissed as frivolous. The commissioner won't even look at investigating them. This is one that he did say he will accept and investigate and issue an opinion on it, which probably will likely get appealed in court. So that's one that we had some discussions about, knowing that this was filed with the hope and intention that there would be headlines calling into question Graybill's ability to be on the ballot and run for office. So it's a tough decision for us to make, just knowing that the intent is to get a headline, you know, negative against an opponent a lot of the time, I think I was looking on the commissioner's web site last night and a little less than half of the complaints that he gets are dismissed for a lack of finding. So that's something we keep in our heads as we're writing this.

Mauk Well, we will follow that ruling for sure.

And finally, Rob, Governor Steve Bullock met this week in Washington, D.C. with former President Barack Obama. And Politico reports — or their interpretation of the meeting anyway — was that it was to urge Bullock to enter the U.S. Senate race. But apparently Bullock is still saying no way.

Saldin Right. This is a plotline that never dies. Look, it remains blatantly clear that Bullock is by far the best positioned candidate to run for the Senate. That if anything, has just become more apparent as time has gone on. But he's not done any of the things that a normal candidate for Senate would do. And he's said so many times that he's not interested, that he's not going to do it. I guess some Democrats are still holding out hope that they can twist his arm into doing it. And if Obama can't do it, probably no one can. But Bullock is under a lot of pressure and he probably will be until that filing deadline passes, which is March 9.

Mauk We only have 9 more months of all this and we will keep trying to make some sense of it all.

And Holly and Rob, thanks and I'll talk to you next week.

This is Campaign Beat, a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio featuring University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin, Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

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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