Prairie Lights: A second opinion on that triple endorsement

Ed Kemmick

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Unsurprisingly, three Montana daily newspapers, all owned by Lee Enterprises, have come out in support of Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in the special election to fill Montana’s vacant (and only) seat in the U.S. House.

You can read what the editorial boards of the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian and the Helena Independent-Record had to say, or you could just glance at one of them, because they all said essentially the same thing: that in these perilous times we need somebody who can get right to work, which they claim Gianforte is ready to do.

All of them, as if to prove that they’ve been awake over the past several years, also expressed some concerns over Gianforte’s ability to represent Montanans, as opposed to pursuing ideological aims.

The only surprising thing about the endorsements was that they were all published on the same day, May 14. There was a swell of criticism and scorn on social media by people who saw the same-day triple endorsement as an example of corporate manipulation by Lee Enterprises, an attempt by the Iowa-based business to meddle in Montana politics.

I might have laughed at that criticism even a year or two ago, since in my many years with the Gazette, and before that with the Lee-owned Montana Standard in Butte, I never saw any overt attempts at corporate dictation, or even of political collusion among several Lee papers.

But three endorsements on the same day, all making virtually the same points, with the same reservations?

As Martin Kidston pointed out at Missoula Current (and republished here), the Missoulian was against Gianforte when he ran unsuccessfully for governor just half a year ago, raising more than a few good reasons he didn’t deserve to win. And keep in mind that the Missoulian editorial board’s reversal on Gianforte’s qualifications came barely two months after Mike Gulledge, already publisher of the Gazette, was named publisher of the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic as well.

He is also a vice president for Lee, where he previously “had responsibility for” Lee newspapers in Montana, Wyoming, California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

I don’t believe Gulledge or anyone else at Lee is taking orders from the GOP, but the endorsements sure look, at the very least, like a cold-blooded attempt to curry favor with that party, which now controls both houses of Congress and the White House.

As I mentioned above, the endorsements all came with reservations about Gianforte’s willingness to do what is best for Montana, rather than becoming an ideological warrior. I wish I could share their implied optimism that Gianforte can suppress his ideology and do what’s right for our state.

Gianforte did create a successful business that employed a lot of people, but he has used that success to dump tens of millions of dollars into causes that are not merely philanthropic and not merely Christian, in the sense of doing good work to help those in need.

A lot of that money has gone to support reactionary political causes, and a lot of the money ostensibly given to religious organizations has also been used for the same purpose, given that religion is so heavily involved in politics these days. In 1925, the prosecution of a science teacher in Tennessee for teaching evolution was already highly politicized.

Ninety years later, the rejection of evolution by natural selection is more political than ever, wrapped up as it in the broader rejection of science by so many politicians, including the president. After you read the endorsements in the Lee papers, read Derek Brouwer’s fine article in the Missoula Independent, “Muddy the waters: Ken Ham, Greg Gianforte, and the creationist assault on science in Montana.”

Brouwer reported on a recent creationist conference in Missoula, which included the high priest of “creation science,” Ken Ham.

“Forty minutes into his opening lecture,” Brouwer wrote, “Ham roused the crowd to applause with a message for the U.S. Supreme Court: ‘You didn’t invent marriage,’ he said. ‘God did!’ I started counting conference speakers’ complaints about transgender rights, but stopped after the sixth. By that point, I was trying to find my bearings again. I had come for a conference about science. Junk science, sure, but science nonetheless. Instead, I was sitting in the red-hot center of America’s latest culture war.”

Brouwer also wrote about the Montana Origins Research Effort, another creationist outfit. That group’s most recent seminar, Brouwer said, was held at Grace Bible Church in Bozeman, which is the Gianforte family’s home congregation and where the senior pastor, the Rev. Bryan Hughes, “preaches young-Earth creationism.”

The Gianforte Family Foundation donated $2 million to help Grace expand its building, Brouwer reported, and gave $1.3 million to Bozeman’s Montana Bible College, where Hughes is an instructor.

And, of course, there is the Petra Academy in Bozeman, where the Gianforte children were educated and to which the Gianforte Family Foundation has donated more than $11 million. Greg Gianforte is also a former board chairman at Petra Academy, which teaches biblical creationism as well as evolution.

You might also read the story I wrote in December 2014, when Gianforte had not yet run for office but was getting more deeply involved in Montana politics.  As I reported then, the Gianforte foundation was a major backer of the Montana Family Foundation, ground zero for Montana efforts to fight gay rights and women’s reproductive freedom, and a leader in the fight to fund private schools with public money.

In 2012, the Gianforte foundation’s grant of $280,000 to the Montana Family Foundation made up more than half the organization’s budget—while helping to pay the $114,658 salary of Jeff Laszloffy, then the family foundation’s only employee. In that sense, I guess, Gianforte was a job creator.

I bring all this up not to mock Gianforte’s religious beliefs, or to argue that he has no right to believe whatever he wishes, but to show that he has thrown his ardent support and a good portion of his wealth into promoting marginal causes animated by right-wing fundamentalism.

If the editorial boards for three Lee papers want to believe Gianforte will turn off the tap, or tamp down his strong beliefs, after being elected to Congress, I will only remind them where wishful thinking about the possible election of Donald Trump has gotten us.

In many ways it all comes back to Trump. It is amazing to think of everything that has happened to Trump and by extension to the rest of the country since those three endorsements were made just a week ago today. God only knows where the country will be a week from now.

But what we need in Congress is not another blind believer in the GOP gospel, a politician willing to sallow his pride, his intelligence and his decency in voicing full-throttle support for the least qualified, most dangerous national leader in the history of this country.

One last bit of reading I will recommend is Anne Helen Petersen’s recent Buzzfeed report on the U.S. House race in Montana. This is an article that might make you proud of Montana, where common sense and bipartisanship are not extinct virtues, as they are in so many other parts of the country, especially in Washington, D.C.

As several Montanans told Petersen, Gianforte’s defeat at the hands of incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock last fall was partly owing to the reluctance on the part of many Montanans to put control of all three branches of government into the hands of a single party, based on the reasonable theory that a monopoly on power does not encourage compromise or creative thinking.

The Lee editorialists want us to believe it’s a good thing to have Gianforte in Washington, where he can “get things done” with the Republican president and GOP-controlled House and Senate. We don’t need a “no vote,” they argued, apparently thinking a “yes man” is somehow more desirable.

We might need a no vote more than ever, to halt whatever desperate measures are attempted as Trump seeks to hang onto power. In any case, if the Trump implosion continues at the current rate, a Democratic congressman from Montana might be voting with the majority in a year and a half.

I haven’t yet mentioned the Democratic candidate, Rob Quist, because this is not primarily about his qualifications; it’s about the lack of them on the part of Gianforte, which didn’t seem to trouble the Lee editorial boards. But it troubles me so much that I felt I had to say all this, even at the risk of alienating readers sick of politics and wary of journalists “telling them how to think.”

Rob Quist is not the perfect candidate. I would have preferred the nomination of Abraham Lincoln, but he wasn’t available. And yes, I am aware that Lincoln was a Republican. So what? A couple of my distant relations once dwelt in the Garden of Eden, but I still think you should judge me on my own merits.

And judge Gianforte on his, not on his vague blandishments or the promises he makes with his fingers crossed behind his back.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.