Montana Commissioner of Political Practices office
The office of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

For weeks, political wonks across Montana have awaited an announcement on who will replace Jeff Mangan as the state’s next commissioner of political practices. Gov. Greg Gianforte gave them their answer Thursday, naming Butte native and longtime Montana attorney Chris Gallus as his pick for the post.

“Montanans deserve a political system that is transparent and ethical, and they count on an independent, nonpartisan, well-qualified commissioner of political practices to serve as a watchdog to preserve that system,” Gianforte said in announcing the news. “I have every confidence Chris Gallus will serve as commissioner with honor and integrity.”

The appointment comes after a legislative committee deadlocked in December on which of five candidates, including Gallus, to forward to Gianforte for his consideration. All five subsequently landed on the governor’s desk. Now, Gallus will face confirmation before the state Senate, already convened for the 2023 legislative session.

While fielding questions from lawmakers last month, Gallus shared his view that it’s not the commissioner’s role to craft policy but rather to enforce the laws and regulations approved by the Legislature. He expounded on that point in an interview with Montana Free Press Friday, stating that except in cases when the COPP directly requests a change, he views the office’s voice in the Legislature as a largely informational one.

“I really do feel strongly that we explain in no uncertain terms how [a proposal] affects the operations of the COPP and our obligation to fulfill the fundamental purpose of the law, which is transparency, whether it’s campaign finance, lobbying or whatnot,” Gallus said.

Gallus’ past work representing various conservative interests before the commissioner did give Democrats on the selection committee pause. Former commissioner Jonathan Motl referenced that work as well in speaking with MTFP Friday. Gallus’ background as an attorney is “an asset to the office,” he said. But, Motl added, he also has a history of pushing back against the COPP as the attorney representing political candidates who violated campaign practice laws.

“He can adapt,” Motl said. “There’s always hope. And he will be watched. That’s a highly visible office.”

With regard to that history, Gallus acknowledged that he has “vigorously represented” clients in disputes with past commissioners and did so “unapologetically.” But, speaking with MTFP shortly after taking his oath of office Friday, he added that in entering his new role, he intends to “draw a line and we’ll proceed from there.” He won’t be dredging up past cases, he said, and plans to recuse himself from issues involving previous clients he’s represented as an attorney or during his three decades as a registered lobbyist.

“I fully intend to defend the constitution of the state and the laws that we have in place,” Gallus said. “We’ll apply the facts on a case-by-case basis and move forward with what the law dictates, what the Legislature intended in adopting it and the administration did in signing each one of those [laws].”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...