A former top executive of RightNow Technologies, the Bozeman company founded by Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, said her pick for governor is incumbent Democrat, Steve Bullock.
Over the last month, Susan Carstensen has written two letters to the editor in which she argues that her former boss is not the right person to lead the state. She worked at the company for almost 13 years as chief financial officer, chief operating officer and senior vice president.
“I don’t believe that his success in business translates to success in public service,” read a letter published today.
Although not unheard of, Carstensen admits her public opposition is unusual for the small, tight-knit business community in Montana. It also highlights the political involvement of former RightNow leaders. Republican Sen. Steve Daines, once a vice president at the company, has campaigned in support of Gianforte.
In an interview, Carstensen said did not intend to attack Gianforte, who she called “a great businessman.”
“My goal is to say he’s not the only voice of business,” Carstensen said. “We’ve always had very different points of view. It never changed our working relationship and I wouldn’t expect it to in the future.”
Campaign spokesman Aaron Flint said the fact Gianforte worked alongside Carstensen so well for so long was evidence of his management ability. He also dinged Bullock for a public falling out with his former lieutenant governor, Angela McLean, late last year.
"Susan Carstensen's liberal politics are no secret in Bozeman, and the fact that Greg promoted someone with differing political beliefs to such a prestigious position in the company is testament to Greg Gianforte's leadership and ability to motivate a diverse team,” Flint wrote in a statement. “What a contrast between a high-wage job creator like Greg Gianforte and a career politician like Steve Bullock, who locked his female Lieutenant Governor out of her Twitter account, and forced her out of office.”
Carstensen, the current interim CEO of Utah-based software company Workfront, joined RightNow in 1999 as CFO and left the company as the Senior Vice President of Customer Experience after it was bought by Oracle in 2012 for nearly $2 billion.
She has long donated to Democratic campaigns, finance records show, and volunteered for political causes. For instance, in the last year she worked for Early Edge Action, an advocacy nonprofit organized to support Bullock’s proposal for universal preschool. She also was a speaker at an Equal Pay Summit organized by the governor’s office to discuss the gender wage gap.
She is one of seven Montana business leaders who founded OpenSourceMT, an independent political action committee, to support Bullock’s reelection. Other members include Senior Director of Mergers at Oracle and former RightNow VP of Operations Kim Scurry, Submittable CEO Michael FitzGerald of Missoula and NorthFork Financial President Bill Stoddart of Bozeman.
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To create “the right conditions for better jobs and economic futures,” the groups says the state needs to support public education, promote inclusion and diversity, protect the environment and public access, and invest in infrastructure. On their website, they argue that Bullock has more clearly supported those policies.
After Carstensen wrote a short letter to the Chronicle earlier this month, replying to writers who touted Gianforte as a business leader, she said some members of OpenSourceMT, as well as other Montana business people hesitant to openly identify as Democrats, had emailed her and urged her to write a more detailed letter.
She also said she had sat down with members of Bullock’s campaign staff to ask “what else I could do to be helpful [and] we settled on a letter.” She said campaign staff helped her gather and confirm stats about the state economy and Bullock’s record on business issues.
Montana campaign finance law allows campaigns and committees to assist or direct volunteers, as was the case with Carstensen’s letter. Even if she had been paid for the letter or written it as an OpenSourceMT representative, the strategy conversations would be legal, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said. Campaigns can pay grassroots organizers for their work and coordinate with independent committees, so long as that time and expense is properly reported on state election disclosure forms and, if it qualifies as a contribution, does not exceed limits.
Carstensen signed her letters to the editor as an individual rather than as a founder of the independent committee, but the parallel messages are clear.
“Governor Bullock understands what attracts companies, big and small, to Montana: a strong public education system, access to public lands, fiscal discipline, responsible investments in infrastructure, and a culture that welcomes all perspectives,” she wrote. “Greg has a record of opposing these things. Regardless of where he is from or how long he has been in Montana, he doesn’t share those values or support those policies.”
Among other criticisms, she decried Gianforte’s opposition to a non-discrimination ordinance in Bozeman, saying that those protections are needed, in part, to draw LGBT workers and inclusive-minded companies to the state.
She also said that his business credentials do not translate into a preparedness for public office. For instance, Carstensen said RightNow was built on a model of cutting costs for companies “by eliminating and outsourcing jobs overseas.” RightNow offered customer service software that automated and centralized some aspects of customer interaction that previously might have been handled by call centers or on-site staff.
“Just because he was part of a business that created 500 jobs in Montana, I don’t think there’s any direct connection that he therefore could create jobs as governor. There’s just no correlation,” she said.
Flint did not respond to criticisms in Carstensen’s letter.
His statement did include a link to a 2013 Bozeman Chronicle story about the Montana Democratic Party apologizing to Gianforte for false claims it made in mailers about the company itself outsourcing workers to India. The fliers targeted Steve Daines, a former RightNow vice president, in his bid for U.S. Senate. Still at the helm of RightNow, Gianforte sued the party for false claims but requested the judge drop the case after the party sent the apology letter.