Montana Public Radio

Bullock's Closed Door Event In Butte Fuels Presidential Campaign Speculation

Apr 26, 2019

On the day after the legislative session ended, Gov. Steve Bullock was at the historic Carpenters Union Hall in Uptown Butte on Friday for a somewhat mysterious event with constituents.

I tried to follow the crowd into the back room where a podium and chairs were set up, a big pot of chili was stewing, and Gov. Bullock was chatting with locals. But I was turned away at the door.

Nora Saks: My name’s Nora, I work for Montana Public Radio.

Unidentified Person: You needed to sign one of those [Non-disclosure agreements].

Unidentified Person 2: It’s a private event.

Saks: It’s a private event? Can you just tell me what’s going on?

Unidentified Person: It's a private [mumble]

Saks: Is that a non-disclosure agreement? Yes? Ok thank you.

Since no reporters were allowed inside, I caught up with Cody O’Neil outside the Carpenters Union Hall to find out what he had heard. He was wearing a Hi-Vis jacket, and said he’s a member of the local laborers union.

"I guess they’re doing some kind of commercial with the governor involving the union, so I just was called by my rep and came to be a part of it."

That’s similar to what a Facebook message circulated by an organizer with the grassroots Butte Area Rising Coalition inviting members to an “important gathering of local Democrats” said.

The message mentioned that everyone would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and that, "Upon entering you will see Gov. Steve Bullock who will talk to us about his plans for the 2020 election. There will be a film crew present to video us interacting with the governor in a Town Hall type setting."

The film crew was certainly there. But in the hallway after the event when a local TV reporter asked Gov. Bullock directly about his plans for 2020, Bullock neither confirmed nor denied any presidential aspirations.

"You know, the Legislature just left town, they left 300 bills on my desk, so I have quite a bit of work to do to sort the rest of that out, and haven’t made any decisions what I'd do after I get to serve governor."

As he squeezed past the media on his way out, I asked him why he chose to come to Butte today.

"To talk to folks both about what the session was and how it impacted regular folks. One of the bills we passed was a foreign money ban; meaning that foreign corporations, foreign individuals can no longer spend in our elections. And the history of Butte being such that really, really was all about corporate spending. But then regular Montanans took our elections back, it was a great place to talk about the good work that’s been done there too."

Saks: Last question. Why was it a private meeting if you were talking about the legislative session?

"I wasn’t just talking about the legislative session, I was just talking to union folks. I didn’t actually set the meeting [mumble], but yeah. Thanks!"

After Gov. Bullock and the film crew took off, I spoke with local Heather Lynn Meeks, who was leaving the Carpenters Union Hall with a big smile on her face. She described the meeting as a town hall style forum.

Heather Lynn Meeks outside a private event for Steve Bullock in Butte, Friday, April 26, 2019.
Credit Nora Saks / Montana Public Radio

"It was very exciting. We haven’t had a politician, besides Tester, come and do any sort of a town hall function in Butte in a really long time. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear people talk about the state of the state, the state of the country, and where they think we’re going from here."

Last summer before the midterm elections Butte was a political battleground. Sen. Jon Tester came to campaign with veterans, and Donald Trump Jr. held rallies on behalf of Republican candidate Matt Rosendale.

Meeks confirmed that she had signed a non-disclosure agreement, and that Bullock did not say anything about running for president.

"All I can tell you is that I’m very excited to see where Mr. Bullock ends up after he's done being our governor."

On his way back to work, local labor union member Cody O’Neil said Bullock’s emphasis on campaign finance reform really hit home.

Cody O'Neil attended Gov. Bullock's private event at the Carpenters Union Hall in Butte as a representative of his local laborers union, April 26, 2019.
Credit Nora Saks / Montana Public Radio

"It’s definitely an issue to know what these peoples’ agendas are that are putting millions into, especially for us little guys. It sounded like he had a lot of thoughts and plans on middle class Americans like myself having better wages and whatnot."

As for the big question of if or when Gov. Bullock will announce that he’s entering the growing field of Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election, O’Neil said, "He didn’t actually mention anything specific. But he said to keep our ears open and that he was going to let us know. So I’m anxious to find out if I just met the future president."

Gov. Bullock has made multiple trips to Iowa in recent months and hired staff there; behavior that typically indicates he's at least exploring a run for president.