HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock told a Leadership Montana gathering Thursday that he remains hopeful that civility eventually can be restored to the U.S. and Montana political systems, but it will take efforts by many to make the needed changes.
“I am still confident about the future of politics and civility in our system,” he said. “I think it’s going through a rough time. I look ahead to what we want in 10 years.”
Bullock, speaking at the event at Carroll College, listed some of the many challenges stand in the way of making elections more civil.
“We’re all part of this,” Bullock said. “Don’t look to just office holders or candidates or media or third-party groups to fix it. It’s up to all of you to demand better. It’s up to media to ensure they are cutting through spin. It’s up to elected officials to have to the courage to stand up for what we believe in and not just tear down those who have differing views.”
He also talked about the outside money being spent by third-party groups that far outnumbers what candidates spend.
Over the last five or six years, Bullock said he’s had a front-row seat witnessing civility, or the lack thereof, in Montana politics.
He discussed his 2008 victory over Republican Tim Fox in the race for attorney general and the ads run by Fox. He never mentioned Fox by name.
“Every single advertisement said, ‘Steve Bullock, schooled in California, worked in New York. No wonder he wants to take our guns away.”
Ten days before the election, Bullock said his eldest child took him to her show-and-tell at school. The questions raised and comments by the children were the same ones being raised in the various candidates’ ads.
Shortly before that election, Bullock said he and his wife, Lisa, viewed a contrast – or negative – TV ad his campaign was about to air. It was 15 seconds of dark and grainy background talking about Fox, and 15 seconds with a bright, sunny background telling what a wonderful person he was.
“I looked at my wife, and we decided if this was what it takes to win, I didn’t want to do it,” Bullock said.
Over the advice of some of his campaign staff, Bullock said they drove to another town to tape a positive ad.
(In response to a later question later about his relationship with Fox, who was elected attorney general last year, Bullock said he doesn’t agree with Fox on everything, but believes in many ways he’s doing a very good job.)
Bullock called his personal standard the “Mrs. Conner standard” after a woman who has known him for most of his life. She has donated $20 to him now and again, which represented a major contribution for her, he said.
“I would ask myself, ‘Mrs. Conner is investing in me. What would Mrs. Connor think of that investment?’ ”
When he ran for governor in 2012, Bullock said he set an additional standard for himself. He said he decided that if he wouldn’t do a contrast ad against his opponent if he wasn’t on camera himself.
As for negative ads, Bullock said, “How many times have you heard people say, ‘I can’t believe all those negative ads.’ But you know what, they work.”
If they didn’t work, spending on negative ads wouldn’t outnumber positive ads by ten to one.
Bullock told the audience about his legal actions aimed at trying to limit spending by outside groups.
As attorney general, he said he wrote the amicus or friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 27 state attorneys general urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to include the states in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case.
The U.S. Supreme Court paid no heed in its 5-4 decision, which has opened the floodgates for unlimited money to be spent on elections by corporations and unions.
Bullock told how Montanans in 1912 passed the Corrupt Practices Act, a ballot initiative aimed at disallowing corporate spending in campaigns. It was in reaction to the widespread corporate political corruption then, he said.
A group known as American Tradition Partnership challenged that Montana law, and Bullock successfully defended it before the Montana Supreme Court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed the Montana court.
“Was that a fight worth fighting to protect elections?” he asked. “I think it was.”