The third-floor ballroom on the University of Montana campus was perfectly still Monday night. Save for a few whispered exchanges, the 120 people gathered there sat in rapt attention at tables littered with pens and notecards, some with arms folded, nearly all with eyes firmly fixed on Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Twice in the span of an hour, the tech mogul turned Republican politician repeated a line he’s used in the past: There’s more that Montanans share in common than separates them. He spoke of nightly dinners with a political diversity of guests hosted at the governor’s residence, of cross-aisle relationships forged during his 2017-2020 term as the state’s sole congressman, and of a 2021 Legislature that, he said, featured “a lot of bipartisanship.”
“I think good ideas come from Republicans, Democrats and independents. They can come from anywhere,” Gianforte said.
Bipartisanship was the title topic of Monday night’s dialogue, organized and hosted by UM’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. And the words “bipartisan” and “bipartisanship” appeared 20 times in audience questions delivered by the evening’s moderator, David Bell, chair of the Mansfield advisory board and CEO of the legal malpractice insurance firm ALPS. Gianforte used the terms a total of nine times in his responses, which drew heavily from the last legislative session and his time serving in Washington, D.C.
Speaking of the latter, Gianforte recalled his experience serving on the U.S. House’s Natural Resources Committee, a body he called “hyper-partisan” and, invoking a basketball reference, a constant game of “shirts and skins.” Democrats and Republicans would “go at each other” every meeting, Gianforte said, and he refused to engage. Instead, he continued, he invited Democratic California Rep. Jared Huffman and other Democrats to dinner at his home in Bozeman, towing their car out of the snow after it got stuck in his pasture. Huffman later ascended to chairmanship of the committee in 2020, and the relationship came full circle that year when a portion of the St. Mary’s Diversion Dam in north central Montana washed out.
“Huffman had no reason to let me get a funding bill through Natural Resources to pay for the repair of St. Mary’s. But I went and asked for a favor, and I reminded him that he’d still be stuck in a snowfield if I hadn’t dug him out,” Gianforte said, eliciting chuckles from the audience. “He gave me the hearing and we got the bill passed.”
As for the 2021 Legislature, Gianforte listed several examples of issues that generated “broad bipartisan support,” including raising teacher pay, establishing new funding for addiction recovery, incentivizing trade-based education and allocating billions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Overall, Gianforte said, lawmakers sent him more than 500 bills, 69% of which had “80 to 100% approval” from the Legislature.
“Now it’s not 80 to 100% of just Republicans,” Gianforte said. “That’s 80 to 100% of all the members. So there is very broad-based support.”
According to a post-session report by Legislative Services, Gianforte signed 577 bills into law in 2021. An additional 131 resolutions were adopted that did not require his signature. A May 2021 analysis by Montana Free Press showed that 610 of those successful proposals were sponsored by Republicans, and 98 were sponsored by Democrats. A separate analysis revealed that 61% passed both chambers with 20 or fewer “no” votes, and roughly three-quarters generated fewer than five electronic and phone messages from constituents.
The political landscape of the Capitol in 2021 — with Republicans controlling every statewide office and a 98-seat majority in the Legislature — colored several of the questions posed to Gianforte on Monday. One, submitted by Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, asked why “almost every single bill the Democratic legislators sponsored” was killed. Moderator Bell asked whether bipartisanship under such firm GOP control is more about policy concessions or ensuring that Democrats are respected and heard. Gianforte pushed back on the premise, saying it’s the Legislature’s job, not his, to determine what proposals reach him, all the while reiterating his willingness to consider input regardless of party affiliation.
“There are certain things that I campaigned on that are core principles that I will never compromise,” Gianforte said. “But there’s a lot of gray and there’s a lot of nuance around coming up with a solution. So as long as a core principle is not involved, I’m happy to take input from anybody. If it builds one more vote, you’re that much closer to getting the thing done.”
Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, partly disagreed with Gianforte’s characterization of the 2021 session, during which two of the four bills she carried passed with bipartisan support. Interviewed after the event, Marler said the goals and aspirations touted Monday evening weren’t always present in the House chambers, but she doesn’t place that at the governor’s feet. Rep. Mark Thane, another Democrat from Missoula, echoed Marler’s assessment.
“The comments the governor made about leadership within the House and the Senate being where you marshal the troops is important,” Thane said. “For the first time, there was a clear [Republican] majority along with an executive from the same party, and that made it more challenging for some of the priority items that we as Democrats might identify to get their due consideration.”
Gianforte’s description of his role in the policymaking process — trusting lawmakers and legislative leadership to guide deliberations and reviewing what they send him to sign — stood out to Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan. In truth, Salomon said, executive involvement should come much earlier, with various departments and agencies and even the governor’s office itself helping to resolve potential issues before a proposal lands on the executive’s desk. Otherwise, he continued, the process “takes too long.”
“You want to know what you’re up against all the way through,” Salomon said.
While Gianforte offered few specifics Monday regarding issues that hold promise for bipartisan work in the 2023 Legislature, his dialogue did get lawmakers in the room thinking along those lines. Salomon identified housing, escalating staff vacancies in state agencies and impending budget gaps generated by the expiration of one-time federal COVID dollars as areas ripe for Democratic and Republican cooperation. Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, said Gianforte has shown a commitment to working with her and others on addiction and recovery issues. During the event, Gianforte singled out Boldman as an ally in addressing issues within Montana’s foster care system.
Thane, who sponsored two bills that did not pass last session, said that while it’s unclear how the priorities of Democrats and Republicans might align in 2023, he sees an opportunity for collaboration on jobs and the economy. He walked away from Monday’s dialogue feeling “more optimistic.”
“I see a willingness to collaborate,” Thane said. “I’ve always believed in the principle of constructive dissent. I think it’s important that you get all perspectives represented around the table because the best decisions are made only after all those ideas are put forth. And I think that’s what I heard the governor say tonight, that he values that. So that’s encouraging to me.”
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