HELENA – Before speaking in Helena on Thursday, Greg Gianforte walked into the office of Gov. Steve Bullock, who he hopes to unseat in this fall's election, and hand-delivered a folder that contained a letter to his opponent and a pledge to not accept any money from political action committees.
"I refuse to accept any campaign contributions from special-interest PACs, state and federal," read the first line of the pledge, released by Gianforte's campaign just a day after the Bozeman businessman formally announced he would seek the Republican nomination for governor and as he completed a two-day rally tour. "I will tear up and/or return any special-interest PAC donations previously sent to my campaign. Montana voters deserve a clean campaign focused on the issues."
John Malia, who works in the Citizens' Advocate Office, was at the reception desk outside Bullock's office when Gianforte arrived, saying simply that he was dropping it off for the governor. Malia said he gave the folder to Tracy Stone-Manning, Bullock's chief of staff.
Meanwhile, Bullock was in Billings, talking with students at City College at Montana State University-Billings about workforce development, joined by John Cech, deputy commissioner for academic and student affairs for the Montana University System and Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Pam Bucy.
"It's news to me," Bullock told a reporter there. "I'll take a look ... and respond at that point."
On Thursday evening, Bullock affirmed his commitment to election transparency in a statement on the sixth anniversary of "the disastrous Citizens United decision" by the U.S. Supreme Court, which eliminated some restrictions on how corporations spend money in elections.
"I will continue to fight for fair, transparent and accessible elections because I, along with all Montanans, believe that our elections should be decided by 'we the people' – not by a small number of wealthy people who seek to hide their money and motivations," he said in the statement.
The incumbent governor's campaign manager, Eric Hyers, did not say whether Bullock would sign the pledge and described it as an empty gesture from Gianforte, who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups that fought against a 2015 bill that expanded campaign disclosure requirements.
"Look, for Gianforte to be taken seriously, why doesn't he start by pledging he won't spend or funnel more than $1,300 of his own fortune into this campaign?" Hyers said in a written statement. "Here's a guy that's dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into groups who lobbied against Montana's DISCLOSE Act. And a guy that has a Koch brothers' PAC, Aegis PAC, soliciting funds on his behalf on this very day."
Aaron Flint, Gianforte's campaign spokesman, fired back.
"It's a pretty simple pledge for the governor to sign or not to sign," he said. "Particularly as the governor has been out there gallivanting all across the state using taxpayer dollars. It seems Bullock is trying to buy this race with taxpayer dollars because he's having a little trouble raising money."
Gianforte co-founded RightNow Technologies with his wife, Susan, and became a multimillionaire when Oracle purchased the company in 2012 for $1.8 billion. He has previously said they controlled about a quarter of the stock at the time of the sale, worth more than $300 million.
Montana Democrats have shadowed Gianforte's campaign stops throughout the state this week with their own news conferences about the businessman's candidacy.
In Helena, Democratic Party Director Nancy Keenan downplayed Gianforte's pledge, one she said the multimillionaire was well-positioned to make.
"He's a self-funder, he can write the check," Keenan said. "So it's pretty easy for him to say, 'Oh, we're not going to take any money' when he can write the check for millions and millions of dollars."
In his letter to the governor, Gianforte took a congenial, serious tone, sending Bullock "warm greetings" and hopes for "a positive, spirited race."
"I am committed to rejecting any special interest PAC money," he wrote. "I simply won't cash their checks. Any checks sent my direction have already been returned, or torn up. ... I'd ask that you join me in this effort."
Gianforte has not ruled out personally donating to outside political groups. If he did, Flint said Gianforte would "not directly" benefit from those contributions.
Campaign finance reports through the end of 2015 do not list any contributions to Gianforte from political action committees and all the refunds listed in his expenditures appear to be to individuals.
He brought in $162,771 between Aug. 17 and Sept. 30, and another $221,677 through the end of 2015, according to his reports. Of that, $12,814 were in-kind contributions from Gianforte himself. Additionally, several members of his family have donated the maximum contribution of $650 each.
On Bullock's most recent campaign finance report covering Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, he reported receiving $12,140 from 20 PACs and $216,042 in total donations during that time. On his prior filing covering July 1 through Sept. 30, he reported receiving $9,806 from 18 PACs and $283,779 total.
Gianforte started Thursday in a Hoven Equipment warehouse in Great Falls, where the lectern and 24 folding chairs were set up next to towering farm implements.
Supporters talked over coffee and maple bars as they waited. When Gianforte began to speak, his remarks were interrupted by applause, cheers and, at mention of the family's old Ford Bronco, a quip from the audience that elicited a chuckle from the candidate.
To the supporters gathered in Great Falls, his remarks were fresh even though Gianforte had given largely the same speech in Billings, Sidney, Lewistown and Kalispell a day earlier.
He vowed to remove "job-killing" business regulations, eliminate the business equipment tax, support gun rights, develop the state's natural resource industries and focus more on customer service than enforcement, in part, by placing "someone from industry" or business at the helm of state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Quality.
"I'm here to tell you very definitively, Montana can prosper again," he said to applause.
Gianforte declined to answer media questions, saying: "We're going to have time to sit down. Today, I'm here for my supporters."
The candidate also made stops in Missoula, at Advanced Technology Group downtown, and Bozeman on Thursday.
Holly Michels and James DeHaven contributed to this report.