Notebook: Most Montana politicians no longer use town halls for town hall events

Every politician has a way of doing things. Take Sen. Jon Tester, for example. He appears before large groups of people in person with his missing fingers and folksy speak. Some like him and some don’t. He vents frustration as well as anyone over D.C. politics, saying things like “I’ve got to tell you” and “listen, folks.”

He usually tempers this with a dose of optimism. “We can fix this.”

Sen. Steve Daines prefers a different method, holding “teletown halls” from his office in Washington. Sometimes he livestreams these calls on Facebook so you can watch him sitting there in his office. On one recent call, he sat behind his desk and toggled through callers on his computer, saying, “Hello Sandy from Cut Bank” and “We’ve got Skip from Miles City.” There’s no way to know if Sandy really was Sandy from Cut Bank, whom I’ve never met.

Rep. Greg Gianforte held a similar event just last month. I knew about it because I’d received an email five hours earlier. The subject line read “For Planning Purposes Only – Unreportable.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, unreportable, since people ought to know they have a chance to call in and ask their only U.S. representative a question or two. I tuned in later that night to listen, having received the access code.

Mr. Gianforte opened his call by stating his common pledge to Make American Great Again and his dedication to family values. He closed it with a poll ripe with selective questions. He said income was rising for all Montanans thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which has apparently found its way to America’s low- and middle-income earners. People like you and me. This is what Mr. Gianforte tells us.

While I don’t doubt his point of view, there wasn’t a chance to ask him more about these rising wages during the call. Nor did the chance come when Mr. Gianforte was in Missoula this month, where he opened the annual Economic Outlook Seminar at the Hilton Garden Inn and said many of the same things. “We have a booming economy,” he told the crowd. “Wages are going up the fastest for the lowest-income folks. It’s a very simple strategy. Let people keep more of their hard-earned money through tax reductions.”

During a break in the presentation, I asked Mr. Gianforte for his thoughts on Montana’s economy, beyond his oft-repeated talking points. Since he’d just addressed it in his opening remarks and the topic was fresh in mind, I figured it would be an easy question to answer. I wasn’t looking for a Leslie Stahl-type interview, taking up half his day with spotlights and prompters while following him around with a camera crew. Just a few words since he was there in Missoula, standing right there in the hotel.

Mr. Gianforte declined to answer, saying he’d provide a statement through his spokesperson back in Washington. That statement never arrived and Mr. Gianforte vanished down the hall with his wife, as if he’d never been there. He’d successfully dodged the media. The question on the economy must have been harder than I thought.

After a teletown hall this month, Mr. Gianforte said in a statement, “Thousands of Montanans from every corner of our state made their voices heard at this week’s (tele) town hall event. Their participation encouraged me, and their opinions, ideas, and feedback guide me as I serve them. I’ll continue meeting with Montanans throughout our state, and I look forward to listening to thousands of Montanans across the state at our next (tele) town hall event.”

I added “tele” to the statement, since it takes place over the telephone, not in a town hall.

Back in 1998 when I was a pup reporter at the Silver State Post in Deer Lodge, fresh out of college with stars in my eyes and two excellent degrees in philosophy and English literature from the University of Montana, Sen. Conrad Burns came to town. This was big news in Deer Lodge, big like the Rolling Stones coming to Missoula.

I stood waiting at a bridge over the Clark Fork River near Opportunity Ponds when Burns stepped from his SUV in a tweed blazer and cowboy boots. I was nervous, still thinking like a Marine who withers in the face of authority, uttering silly words like “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” I stood by watching and listening as Burns spent the morning chatting with the experts in toxic waste while spitting tobacco over the bridge into the Clark Fork, his polished boots glinting in the summer sun. I think they were shark or ostrich, or maybe alligator, but that’s probably my imagination. He was there in flesh and blood, regardless, the Jon Tester before Tester unseated him, doing politics the way it used to be done, in person and face to face, and not always with a smile.

Of course, not every reporter can be where the politician happens to be, and not every politician wants to be where the reporters are, unless it suits their agenda and plays into their political strategy. Not in a state like Montana. It’s too big, eight hours from one side to the next, and that’s on a balmy summer day when elk and hay wagons aren’t blocking the road.

Before teletown halls and Twitter, before livestream on Facebook, the old-fashioned telephone was a powerful tool and it worked as well as anything. Better in fact. You might actually get your elected official on the other end. Gov. Judy Martz was always happy to answer questions. Rarely was she unavailable to the press, at least until that thing with the laundry happened. Gov. Brian Schweitzer was a sure thing, though he would do most of the talking, making it hard to slip in an actual question. He was also fond of reading Montana history books when he wanted to be left alone. I like history books, too.

Today, Gov. Steve Bullock isn’t as free or as willing to take a call, though he does take time to speak with the press when he’s in Missoula. When he’s not, he relies on his press secretary to provide answers. This is especially true if you live outside the Helena beltway, which is really that little cluster of state buildings that feed political aspirations among those who work within. But even here, access is challenged and our state agencies and the people who run them have clamped down tighter than a U-Boat. They run a tight ship, that is to say, permitting employees to speak to the press only after it’s been cleared and you’ve provided your questions beforehand.

Sometimes these state officials don’t call back. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they even provide answers. I’ve had pretty good luck with some offices, like the Montana Department of Commerce. I haven’t had any luck with the Secretary of State.

Martin Kidston

Somewhere over the last two decades and that day with Burns on the bridge with his tobacco and off-colored jokes – and these current days with Jon Tester who is the last of his kind in Montana – something has changed. The wheels have gone off the tracks. Access is challenged, if not impossible. Politicians hide from their constituents, seemingly frightened to answer questions from the press on issues related to their own voting record. They permit their vague statements over social media to serve as the golden word, unchallenged and without question. No detail needed, so don’t bother asking.

I’d rather spit tobacco off a bridge with a politician like Burns and endure hours of meaningless banter for a story than sit through a video presentation and allow it to serve as news. But anymore, it’s all we’re left with. Canned statements, tweets and staged Q&As over the telephone where questions are filtered to avoid controversy and that potential misspeak.

The next time your elected official says he’s traveled to all 56 counties, just assume you didn’t get the invitation. But even if you had (you didn’t), it wouldn’t be worth your time. Our elected officials don’t work that way anymore.

Martin Kidston is a Marine Corps veteran, University of Montana graduate, long-time Montana journalist and founding editor of the Missoula Current.