Montana Citizens for Right to Work filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to block Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan from pursuing legal action against the political committee over a violation of state campaign practice law. In its complaint, MCRTW has asked the U.S. District Court in Helena to rule Montana’s Clean Campaign Act unconstitutional.

As outlined in the complaint, MCRTW distributed roughly 16,000 campaign mailers in late October 2020 to voters in 20 Montana legislative districts. The mailers included a candidate survey, information on each candidate’s position regarding a state right-to-work law and a “reply memo” encouraging recipients to contact the candidates about the issue. 

Days after the mailers were sent, Trent Bolger, senior adviser to the Montana Democratic Party, filed a complaint against MCRTW with Mangan’s office. The complaint alleged that several Democratic candidates mentioned in “a negative light” in the mailers were not notified by the organization in accordance with the Clean Campaign Act. The law applies to mailers sent within 10 days of an election and requires political committees to furnish copies — by hand delivery, email or fax — to all candidates referenced but not endorsed “on the date that the mailer is postmarked.”

Mangan issued his decision March 10, 2021, finding that MCRTW had violated state law. Mangan eventually fined the organization $8,000 for the violation, according to the complaint, and informed MCRTW that he could pursue legal action if the fine wasn’t paid.

Monday’s complaint requested that Mangan be blocked from such action and also argued that the Clean Campaign Act “discriminates against protected speech based upon viewpoint” and violates the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. MCRTW took particular issue with the law’s specificity about postmark dates, stating that it “effectively requires political committees to provide copies of voter mailers to candidates before the voters themselves receive them.”

“The Clean Campaign Act … burdens political committees such as Montana Citizens by requiring them to provide a candidate with a campaign mailer if it references the candidate without endorsing him or her,” MCRTW’s complaint says.

Mangan’s office informed Montana Free Press that the commissioner is aware of the lawsuit but has not yet had a chance to read it. MCRTW is represented by Missoula-based attorney Quentin Rhoades and former state lawmaker Matthew Monforton, an attorney in Bozeman. The organization, headed by Executive Director Randal Pope, supported a slate of bills during the 67th Montana Legislature that would have required employers to obtain written consent from employees to deduct union dues from their wages and implemented broader right-to-work provisions. Those right-to-work bills failed prior to the Legislature’s mid-session break.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.