By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
The 2016 election season kicked off in Missoula on Thursday with the Republican party’s leading gubernatorial candidate accusing the state’s top Democratic of poor leadership, and vowing to shake up state agencies.
Democrats also rallied across the state, including Missoula, where they billed Greg Gianforte as a right-wing outsider looking to extend large tax breaks to the rich and implement values steeped in biblical ideology.
Arriving with his wife and campaign team, Gianforte delivered his stump speech to a roomful of supporters at Advanced Technologies Group in downtown Missoula. He spoke briefly of his own successful startup – Right Now Technologies in Bozeman – and blamed Gov. Steve Bullock for layoffs in timber, mining, and oil and gas.
“It’s all because Washington, D.C, is assaulting our natural resource industries and our state sovereignty,” Gianforte said. “In D.C., they think a prairie chicken (sage grouse) is more important than your job. There’s at least one politician in Helena who is too chicken to stand up to them.”
Gianforte, who announced his candidacy for governor earlier in the week, accused Bullock of failing to lead on infrastructure, saying community needs across the state remain unmet. Earlier in the day, however, Democrats said it was legislative Republicans who killed a bonding bill that would have funded the state’s infrastructure needs.
Gianforte made no mention of the Legislature. Rather, he directed his attacks at Bullock and described the current administration as “a stunning combination of incompetence and complacency.” He said Montana remains 49th in the nation in wages, though figures presented by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry this week placed the state at 47th.
“While the governor has failed on infrastructure, he has managed to grow the size of government,” Gianforte said. “State spending has gone up by 20 percent. Our government is getting bigger, and our jobs are going away. Working families are hurting and those on fixed incomes are getting hammered.”
Gianforte’s speech lasted roughly 15 minutes and included few, if any, policy announcements. He said he would appoint a business owner to run the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and a landowner to head the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Gianforte also vowed transparency, saying he would not use any funding from political action committees. “If we have checks, we’ll tear them up,” he said. He did not take questions from the media during or after the event.
Aaron Flint, a member of the campaign, told the Missoula Current before Thursday’s event that Gianforte would not be speaking with reporters. Flint said Gianforte’s state tour was fast-paced and aimed at supporters.
“Gianforte has probably spent more time in eastern Montana in the past four months than Steve Bullock has in the last four years,” Flint said. “This is an announcement tour. We’ll have plenty of time to do one-one-one interviews and sit-downs.”
Two hours before Gianforte arrived in Missoula, legislators from western Montana rallied at Union Hall for a Democratic rally, where they branded Gianforte as a multi-millionaire from New Jersey.
They said the GOP’s top candidate had aligned himself with special-interest groups working to privatize public lands, overturn Montana’s efforts to shed light on dark money, and use tax-payer dollars to support religious schools.
“He has criticized seniors for taking Social Security, saying there was an obligation to work and the concept of retirement isn’t biblical,” said Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula. “He also opposes a women’s right to make her own health care decisions.”
Dudik, who is running for reelection in House District 94, accused Gianforte of carrying an out-of-state agenda that would benefit Montana’s wealthiest residents. She said Gianforte intends to give tax breaks to millionaires while raising taxes on the working-class.
“These tax breaks would blow a $30 million hole in our budget,” Dudik said. “Our state cannot afford that. If his tax breaks are given, then the other people in Montana will be picking up the tab.”
Rep. Andrew Person, D-Missoula, questioned Gianforte’s motivation to run as the state’s next governor. The question played as a common theme among those present at the Democratic rally.
Person, who is seeking reelection in House District 96, said the state’s economy was strong, with more Montanans now employed than ever before. He said last year’s wage growth was the sixth fastest in the nation, the state’s budget was balanced, and the state coffers held a large rainy day fund.
However, Gianforte said the state was sitting on an estimated $90 million account that belongs to the taxpayers, not the government.
“JP Morgan describes Montana as the most fiscally prudent state in the country,” Person said. “It’s because we’ve got a balanced budget and a big reserve fund, and we didn’t do it by raising taxes. That doesn’t just happen. It happens with strong leadership from (Bullock).”
Democratic supporters also praised Bullock’s recent executive order ending discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Gianforte made no mention of equality in his speech.
Dave Kendall, chairman of the Missoula County Democrats, said Gianforte has spent millions of dollars fighting the state’s anti-discrimination efforts.
“He has personally tried to stand in the way of Montanans who are gay from making commitments to each other through marriage, or equal protection under the law,” Kendall said. “He wants to take away our rights and impose his values. That’s his real agenda.”