Mon­tana Gov­er­nor Steve Bul­lock

Gov­er­nor Steve Bul­lock is a white guy from Mon­tana stump­ing on cam­paign fi­nance re­form. Can that alone win Demo­cratic hearts?

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - By NINA BURLEIGH @ninaburleigh

It’s barely 2019, but the 2020 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary is al­ready so packed with pos­si­ble can­di­dates that de­bate plan­ners must be plot­ting how to ex­pand their stages. One of the not-so-sub­tle ques­tions dog­ging the scrum is whether a white male can or should head­line a Demo­cratic ticket.

Amid Trumpian de­spair, in the post-obama, #Metoo uni­verse, a sig­nif­i­cant wing of the party has grav­i­tated to­ward the idea that none but star-qual­ity fe­male can­di­dates of color (Michelle! Oprah!) can hope to res­ur­rect the rain­bow coali­tion that elected Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. In a re­cent anal­y­sis, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie suggested that it will be eas­ier for a black can­di­date—male or fe­male—to get the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion be­cause of the grow­ing di­ver­sity of the party’s base.

But Steve Bul­lock is hop­ing to meet, if not tran­scend, the po­lit­i­cal mo­ment. The two-term Mon­tana gov­er­nor is among a crop of white male politi­cians from red states test­ing the pres­i­den­tial wa­ters, in­clud­ing Ohio Sen­a­tor Sher­rod Brown and for­mer Texas Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Beto O’rourke. Yes, he was one of just three Democrats to win gu­ber­na­to­rial con­tests in states that went for Don­ald Trump in 2016. And yes, he worked with a Re­pub­li­can-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture to ex­pand Med­i­caid. But his real pitch is fight­ing to get big money out of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

“If we want to ad­dress all the other big is­sues in our elec­toral sys­tem and our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem,” Bul­lock told Iowa State Fair vis­i­tors last sum­mer, “if we re­ally want to ad­dress in­come in­equal­ity, if we want to ad­dress health’re not go­ing to be able to do it un­til you’ve also ad­dressed the way that money is cor­rupt­ing our sys­tem.”

Cam­paign fi­nance, he ar­gues, is foun­da­tional— the con­nec­tive tis­sue that bridges the iden­tity pol­i­tics of the coastal elites and the kitchen-ta­ble is­sues of the Amer­i­can heart­land. Un­sur­pris­ingly, re­form­ing the sys­tem has been the cen­ter­piece of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

As Mon­tana at­tor­ney gen­eral, Bul­lock de­fended the state’s ban on cor­po­rate cam­paign spend­ing against a chal­lenge from Amer­i­can Tra­di­tion Part­ner­ship—a con­ser­va­tive ad­vo­cacy group with a his­tory of con­ceal­ing its donors—all the way to the Supreme Court in 2012. More re­cently, in 2015, as gov­er­nor, he per­suaded Mon­tana Repub­li­cans to sup­port a bi­par­ti­san cam­paign fi­nance re­form bill that re­quired all groups spend­ing money on elec­tions to dis­close their donors. Last sum­mer, he sued the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice and the De­part­ment of the Trea­sury over a de­ci­sion to no longer re­quire po­lit­i­cally ac­tive non­prof­its to iden­tify their

ma­jor donors to the gov­ern­ment. The case is pend­ing in fed­eral dis­trict court in Mon­tana.

Un­lim­ited cor­po­rate spend­ing and lim­ited pub­lic dis­clo­sure have “un­der­mined us, be­cause peo­ple don’t be­lieve the sys­tem is re­spon­sive to their ac­tual con­cerns,” Bul­lock tells

Newsweek. “They don’t think they have a shot at in­flu­enc­ing elec­tions, and that af­fects trust in in­sti­tu­tions.”

He may be on to some­thing. The new Demo­cratic House ma­jor­ity is ex­pected to make cam­paign fi­nance leg­is­la­tion one of its top pri­or­i­ties, and as Democrats be­gin declar­ing their White House in­ten­tions, the is­sue is be­com­ing a clear ide­o­log­i­cal marker. “I don’t think we ought to be run­ning cam­paigns that are funded by bil­lion­aires, whether it goes through su­per PACS or their own money that they’re spend­ing,” Sen­a­tor El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts told re­porters af­ter she an­nounced the for­ma­tion of a pres­i­den­tial ex­ploratory com­mit­tee in late De­cem­ber. “Democrats are the party of the peo­ple.”

Amer­i­cans over­whelm­ingly sup­port cam­paign spend­ing re­form. A poll last year by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found 77 per­cent of those sur­veyed agreed that “there should be lim­its on the amount of money in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions can spend” on po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. Only 20 per­cent agreed with what is es­sen­tially the law un­der the Cit­i­zens

United rul­ing—that they should be able to spend as much as they want. Nearly three-quar­ters of the pub­lic thinks it is “very im­por­tant” that ma­jor po­lit­i­cal donors not have more in­flu­ence than oth­ers, while an ad­di­tional 16 per­cent viewed this as “some­what im­por­tant.”

Stephen Spauld­ing, chief of strat­egy at the gov­ern­ment watch­dog group Com­mon Cause, in­sists that fight­ing “dark money”—po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions from out­side in­ter­ests that don’t have to dis­close their donors—can mo­ti­vate vot­ers and is a bi­par­ti­san is­sue. Ac­cord­ing to a Wes­leyan Me­dia Pro­ject re­port pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics, such groups have spent more than $750 mil­lion to help or harm can­di­dates since 2010 and were re­spon­si­ble for more than 38 per­cent of TV ads dur­ing the 2018 elec­tion cy­cle.

“Out­side the Belt­way, vot­ers do not view re­duc­ing the un­due in­flu­ence of money in pol­i­tics to be a par­ti­san is­sue,” Spauld­ing says. “Too many of them think spe­cial in­ter­ests have too much sway in our elec­tions and in the halls of power.”

Spauld­ing points to a smat­ter­ing of bal­lot mea­sures lim­it­ing dark money and spend­ing that vot­ers ap­proved in both red and blue states dur­ing the midterms. In Phoenix, for ex­am­ple, vot­ers over­whelm­ingly sup­ported re­quir­ing donors to lo­cal cam­paigns to dis­close con­tri­bu­tions of more than $1,000. In Den­ver, vot­ers passed a “Democ­racy for the Peo­ple” ini­tia­tive, which will cre­ate a vol­un­tary pub­lic fi­nanc­ing sys­tem for city elec­tions. “Vot­ers care about this is­sue and want elected lead­ers to stop talk­ing about the prob­lem and start ad­vanc­ing so­lu­tions,” he says.

The new House mem­bers sup­ported by the Jus­tice Democrats PAC, in­clud­ing vo­cal fresh­men like New York’s Alexan­dria Oca­sio-cortez, have made op­po­si­tion to money in pol­i­tics a pri­mary is­sue. The or­ga­ni­za­tion sup­ports only can­di­dates who do not take any cor­po­rate PAC or cor­po­rate lob­by­ist money, and the pro­gres­sive law­mak­ers have joined it in call­ing for a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to abol­ish pri­vate do­na­tions to politi­cians and cam­paigns. They in­stead want pub­lic fund­ing for cam­paigns.

Such strict stan­dards could wound pop­ulist up­starts like O’rourke, who spurned PACS but was the No. 2 re­cip­i­ent of oil and gas money in the midterms, hav­ing ac­cepted more than $492,000 from in­di­vid­u­als as­so­ci­ated with the in­dus­try. A fight erupted over his ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity among on­line leftists in the last weeks of 2018.

Bul­lock is more cen­trist on pro­gres­sive Demo­cratic is­sues like im­mi­gra­tion and health care, but his de­sire to over­haul cam­paign fi­nance runs deep. Mon­tana banned dark money more than a hun­dred years ago, af­ter the so-called Cop­per Kings—three wealthy min­ing in­dus­tri­al­ists—bought al­most the en­tire po­lit­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus in the state, from the U.S. Se­nate down to the lo­cal sher­iffs. The legacy of their in­flu­ence ex­ists to­day in the form of the largest Su­per­fund com­plex in the United States: vast open pits leak­ing acidic water pol­luted with heavy met­als around Butte, the re­sult of re­laxed min­ing stan­dards in boom times. “The his­tory of Mon­tana,” says Bul­lock, “re­ally is the his­tory of first cor­po­rate con­trol over our elec­tions and the cit­i­zens fi­nally say­ing enough is enough.” On the na­tional stage, Cit­i­zens

United not only pro­motes “quid pro quo cor­rup­tion,” he says, but has an

“Peo­ple don’t think they have a shot at in­flu­enc­ing elec­tions, and that af­fects trust in in­sti­tu­tions.”

ef­fect on po­lit­i­cal be­hav­ior even be­fore the cash is spent. Bul­lock pointed to Repub­li­cans’ fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions amid their fran­tic push to over­haul the tax code in 2017. “My donors are ba­si­cally say­ing, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’” Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris Collins of New York told re­porters.

De­spite Bul­lock’s ef­forts, the Supreme Court struck down Mon­tana’s ban on cor­po­rate cam­paign spend­ing in a 5-4 de­ci­sion in 2012 with­out hear­ing oral ar­gu­ments. But the gov­er­nor be­lieves the le­gal bat­tle was pro­duc­tive be­cause it cre­ated a fac­tual record of the pat­terns and ef­fects of cor­po­rate spend­ing that did not ex­ist when the court is­sued its Cit­i­zens

United rul­ing in 2010.

“The Supreme Court threw out 100 years of Mon­tana his­tory and tra­di­tion that, at the end of the day, elec­tions should be about peo­ple talk­ing to peo­ple,” he says. “That made me more res­o­lute to say...we’ve got to fig­ure out a way for peo­ple to have trust in their elected of­fi­cials.” In June, he signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der re­quir­ing com­pa­nies bid­ding for state con­tracts to dis­close their po­lit­i­cal spend­ing.

Bul­lock’s cru­sade against dark money has won him sup­port from both par­ties in Mon­tana. “He does have some good pro­gres­sive views but comes across as a Mon­tana good ol’ boy,” an anony­mous Re­pub­li­can op­er­a­tive opined to Politico Mag­a­zine last year. “He would be a re­ally good gen­eral elec­tion can­di­date.”

But, of course, the pri­maries come first. And as the new House fills with di­verse mem­bers who lean left, pro­gres­sive law­mak­ers grab the bully pul­pit for pop­ulist is­sues, and con­tenders of color launch broad­sides against Trump, it’s un­clear how much oxy­gen there will be for Bul­lock and cam­paign fi­nance re­form. More­over, Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders, the demo­cratic so­cial­ist from Ver­mont and an­other po­ten­tial 2020 can­di­date, has al­ready claimed the anti-cor­rup­tion man­tle.

Nev­er­the­less, that seems to be where Bul­lock is most com­fort­able. When Newsweek asked him where he stood on free col­lege, “Medi­care­for-all” and abol­ish­ing Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, the gov­er­nor laughed, and his spokesman redi­rected the in­ter­view to the topic of dark money. (For the record, in Mon­tana Bul­lock froze col­lege tu­ition and ex­panded Med­i­caid, and he has crit­i­cized a num­ber of Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies, in­clud­ing the “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy that has led to fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions at the bor­der.)

For now, Bul­lock will talk dark money as he uses his Big Sky Val­ues PAC to travel to early-vot­ing states like Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Mon­tana’s se­nior sen­a­tor, Jon Tester, thinks the White House is the ul­ti­mate goal. “Yeah, he’s run­ning,” he told re­porters in De­cem­ber.

Bul­lock him­self is more coy. “I’m about to walk into a good leg­isla­tive ses­sion,” he says, “and that’s what I’m fo­cused on.”

COST CUT­TING Clock­wise from top: A 2015 rally, on the fifth an­niver­sary of the Cit­i­zens United rul­ing, call­ing for an end to cor­po­rate money in pol­i­tics; War­ren, who is op­posed to su­per PACS; Bul­lock.

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