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HELENA – Bozeman technology mogul Greg Gianforte is on a mission to create more good-paying, high-tech jobs and improve Montana’s economy.
Along the way, and whether by design or not, the Bozeman-based businessman also is bolstering his public and political profile across the state.
Gianforte founded Bozeman-based RightNow Technologies in 1997 and eventually sold it to Oracle Corp. for $1.5 billion in 2012.
These days, the former CEO has time, and a lot of money, on his hands. Rather than fade away into a quiet life of retirement, Gianforte is putting his resources to use to try to improve high-tech education in Montana in what he says is an effort to attract high-paying employers to the state.
“Since Oracle purchased our business about two years ago, I’ve been looking at ‘What’s the best thing I can do?’” Gianforte said Thursday. “Really, I’ve settled on spending the next 10 or 20 years working on trying to improve the economy of the state of Montana.”
With that in mind, Gianforte this week launched a new website, www.bettermontanajobs.com. The website, which prominently features Gianforte’s name and image, lays out “Greg Gianforte’s plan to create high-paying jobs for Montanans.” The thrust of the plan is to improve high-tech education in the state so technology companies that might bring their high-paying jobs to Montana will find a qualified workforce here.
The plan is fourfold:
- Promote the opportunities for high wage jobs in high-tech and high-tech manufacturing through op-eds, radio broadcasts and public speaking engagements.
- Create new organizations and support existing ones that provide for and reinforce high-tech businesses in Montana.
- Provide mentoring opportunities and events to encourage entrepreneurship in the state, and
- Educate and prepare students for high-tech careers through online computer programs, high school courses, scholarships, teacher training and engaging presentations.
Gianforte says there’s no reason the success of RightNow Technologies can’t be replicated throughout the state.
“As I travel around the state, I see an awful lot of people who’ve had to ship their kids out of state because there weren’t enough high-paying jobs here,” Gianforte said. “That’s really what’s motivating us. It’s the thread that ties together all the various components of all the programs I’ve been working on.”
With the launch of a new website and a statewide media blitz promoting his long-term economic plan for the state, Gianforte is publicly introducing himself to the people, and voters, of Montana.
While he may be one of Montana’s most well-known entrepreneurial success stories, Gianforte is not without his detractors.
Critics on the left say Gianforte and his wife, Susan, are wealthy benefactors of right-wing candidates and organizations bent on privatizing Montana’s education system and turning the clock back on abortion and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
The Gianforte family have been major donors to Republican campaigns, giving tens of thousands of dollars to state and federal to candidates and the Montana GOP between 2000 and 2012. Their political contributions have gone exclusively to Republicans or to conservative candidates in nonpartisan races.
Perhaps even more important than their direct political contributions might be the influence of the Gianforte Family Charitable Trust, which gave more than $335,000 to the Montana Family Foundation between 2006-2011, the most recent years for which records are available.
The Montana Family Foundation has been a leading conservative voice in Montana on social issues such as abortion, religious freedom and school choice. The group has actively opposed local efforts across the state to pass ordinances aimed at providing anti-discrimination protections to LGBT people.
Recently Susan Gianforte, chairwoman of the Montana Family Foundation Board, publicly urged the Bozeman City Commission to resist efforts by civil rights groups to pass a local nondiscrimination ordinance similar to those passed by the cities of Missoula, Helena and Butte.
For his part, Greg Gianforte said he thinks discrimination is wrong, but that minority groups should “not force others to participate in their world view.”
“We have many gays who work for us at RightNow Technologies,” Gianforte said. “I believe employers should hire the most qualified person. But I also believe our Constitution gives us our First Amendment right of free exercise of religion. I don’t believe churches or religious organizations should be forced to adopt the views of others. In particular, I don’t believe men should be able to go into women’s bathrooms. It becomes a public safety issue at that point.”
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said the Gianfortes are using their economic influence to actively oppose nondiscrimination policies that have broad public support. At the same time, Rivas said, the Montana Family Foundation has ramped its opposition to local equality efforts.
“Greg and Susan Gianforte and their foundation have been on our radar for years as funders and activists in the conservative right-wing movement in Montana,” Rivas said. “Their public donations to far-right groups like the Heritage Foundation and to tea party candidates are only a piece of the puzzle. The Gianfortes are significant funders and political power brokers for the right-wing movement in our state.”
The Montana Family Foundation, with the support of the Gianfortes, led the charge in the 2013 Legislature on major education initiatives aimed at using public tax dollars or tax credits to help pay for alternatives to public schools, such as charter or private schools.
The largest recipient of Gianforte Family Foundation Dollars is the Petra Academy, a private K-12 school in Bozeman that offers a “classical and Christian” education. From 2006 to 2011, the Gianforte Foundation donated $9.7 million to the school, and Greg Gianforte sits on the board.
Eric Feaver is president of MEA-MFT, the state’s largest labor union, which represent 18,000 public employees, mostly teachers. Feaver said he applauds Gianforte’s efforts to bolster high-tech education in the state but opposes his efforts to “privatize” Montana’s public schools.
“Where we draw swords with Greg Gianforte are his assumptions and his assertions that public schooling in the state doesn’t work, and that in order to feed the high-tech industry that we need to privatize our public schools either through tax credits or pay vouchers,” Feaver said. “He has his hands all over those efforts in the last Legislature to privatize our public schools.”
Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation and the group’s chief lobbyist, dismisses Feaver’s criticism of Gianforte as the words of a man in charge of one of the largest Democratic power bases who is focused more on the system than on the students.
“Kids are in danger of dropping out,” Laszloffy said. “This goes back to the passion Greg has for education. It’s not a one-size-fits-all system anymore that works for kids. We have to tailor make our education programs to fit the needs of our students. That’s all we’re asking for so parents and kids have choice.”
Though he denies having an interest in running for office, Gianforte has taken steps to wield influence within Montana’s Republican political circles.
The Gianfortes joined current congressman, U.S. Senate candidate and former RightNow Technologies Vice President Steve Daines as “platinum sponsors” of this weekend’s Montana GOP Winter Kickoff candidate training event in Helena. The only other platinum sponsors were congressional candidates Ryan Zinke and Matthew Rosendale.
“Certainly, Greg and Susan have been good donors of ours, and not just this cycle or last,” said Bowen Greenwood, executive director for the Montana Republican Party.
Greenwood said he hasn’t heard any talk of Gianforte’s political ambitions, but he isn’t surprised people are taking notice of him.
“Anytime anybody starts raising his profile, people are going to start assuming they’re running for something,” Greenwood said.
Gianforte said he only spoke at the Republican kick-off event at the request of the party.
“I’ll speak to any group that gives me a forum to evangelize about high-tech education and high-tech manufacturing,” Gianforte said. “I’m not running for office. This is about trying to improve jobs in the state.”
While he may not be currently seeking public office, Gianforte appears to be treading on a path once taken by his good friend and former vice president.
Prior to 2007, Daines was unknown to most voters and party activists. In April of that year, Daines launched a statewide campaign urging Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Legislature to “give back” a portion of the state’s estimated $1 billion surplus in the form of $1,000 checks to taxpayers.
With the launch of giveitback.com and the associated advertising blitz — which prominently featured Daines’ name and image — Daines soon was known to conservative activists and Republican voters.
A few months later, at the Republicans’ 2007 summer convention, the party still was reeling from recent losses. That previous November, Democrat Jon Tester ousted party patriarch Conrad Burns in a bruising U.S. Senate race. Over the course of the first quarter of the year, Legislative Republicans were dealt a series of policy and budget defeats at the hands of their chief political nemesis, Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Daines’ appearance at the 2007 GOP convention — his first since he was a delegate in 1984 — marked his arrival as a top GOP hopeful. Daines and his wife, Cindy, sponsored a booth for giveitback.com, they hosted an ice cream social, and they were platinum sponsors of the Friday night banquet dinner.
But like Gianforte today, Daines in 2007 was noncommittal about his political aspirations.
“I’m going to keep campaigning on behalf of the taxpayers of this great state,” Daines told a reporter for the Missoula Independent. “I’ve got the best job in Montana. I actually get to create jobs in the state rather than just talk about it.”
In 2008, Billings Sen. Roy Brown surprised no one when he tapped Daines to be his running mate in the gubernatorial race against Schweitzer. Though the Brown/Daines ticket easily was defeated by Schweitzer and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, Daines had become a household name with many Republicans.
In 2010, Daines announced he planned to challenge first-term incumbent Sen. Jon Tester in the 2012 general election, with the caveat that if Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg decided to run for that seat, then Daines would switch to the House race. When Rehberg jumped into the Senate race, Daines sailed through a three-way Republican House primary with 71 percent of the vote. He went on to win in the the general election by defeating Billings Democrat state Sen. Kim Gillan by a 53-43 percent margin.
Montana State University political science professor David Parker said those who help to build political parties through donations and activism eventually help set the direction of the party.
“Folks who have a lot of time and have a lot of financial resources are definitely important to building the fundraising apparatus for parties and candidates in the state,” Parker said. “That’s generally true for either party.”
Parker said right now there are no clear frontrunners in the GOP bullpen to challenge the top Democrats in the state in 2016, when Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is up for election, or in 2018, when Tester would face reelection.
If someone wanted to build early party support for a candidate — or a candidacy of their own — now would be the time to start laying the foundation, Parker said.
“Certainly this is going to be an opportunity for people who want to have influence and be involved in politics on either side of the aisle,” Parker said. “That’s exactly what people do when they’re thinking of the long game: building those relationships and building those bridges.”
This story was first published in the Great Falls Tribune, where John S. Adams previously worked as chief of the Tribune’s capital bureau.