HELENA – Late at night in early February, Rep. Frank Garner drove back to Helena from Kalispell and concluded he needed to take a stand against “dark money” in politics.
The freshman legislator and former Kalispell police chief did just that last week.
He was the floor sponsor who steered Senate Bill 289 through the House on a 51-49 vote Thursday. Garner faced many questions, some hostile, from his Republican colleagues opposed to the bill, and he led the resistance to 15 amendments.
One of the major bills of the session, SB289 is sponsored by Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. It would require “dark money” groups, known for their anonymous attack mailers, to report all of their donors and expenditures in political campaigns, just as candidates and other political committees must do.
Without bothering to notify him, Americans for Prosperity-Montana sent critical postcards notifying its supporters of a Feb. 5 town meeting in Garner’s hometown of Kalispell. He learned about it from a Helena reporter.
AFP-Montana is part of the conservative political organization founded by billionaires David and Charles Koch of Wichita, Kansas.
The group called these meetings in the hometowns of Garner and several other Republican lawmakers who refused to sign a card pledging to oppose any expansion of Medicaid in Montana.
The legislators showed up uninvited to these meetings in their towns, as did many of their friends. By most accounts, the meetings turned out to be disasters for AFP-Montana.
Garner made the eight-hour round trip from Helena to Kalispell so he could be back to work in the Capitol at 7 a.m. the next day representing his constituents.
“I was driving back,” he said in an interview Friday. “When you have four hours at 11 o’clock on a mountain road in Montana in the wintertime, in between missing deer, you have time to think about why you find yourself in the place you do in life.”
As Garner arrived in Helena and drove by the Capitol late that night, he finally decided it was time to take a stand against dark money.
“It took that drive home in the middle of winter during the middle of the session to get my attention,” he said. “If that was the point, it worked. It got my attention.”
Had the group not sent out postcards criticizing him, Garner said he never would have helped lead the effort against dark money. The issue simply wasn’t on his radar previously.
As he said on the House floor, “If we don’t do it, and if we don’t do it now, and if we don’t take that stand, when do we?”
The Kalispell legislator never mentioned the conservative group in his floor speech or the interview.
“I don’t throw them under the bus,” he said. “To me, it’s the principle and that people deserve the right to know who’s influencing their elections and who’s trying to shape their state.”
Garner emphasized that he’s not the only person sticking his neck out on the dark money issue.
“It’s taken leadership for the Senate, from Sen. Ankney and trying to make a bill that would work with the executive and working with the members of this body to try to get at the end of the day enough votes to pass a bill,” Garner said.
Ankney asked him to sponsor the bill in the House, and Garner said he thought about it before agreeing to do it.
Garner said he notified the House GOP leaders of his intention and then stood up in the Republican caucus to inform his colleagues before the debate.
Ankney came away impressed after watching the two-hour House debate, saying, “I think Mr. Garner is quite a man.”
Garner is no renegade Republican. He voted solidly with House Republicans the previous week against all 74 amendments that Democrats tried to make to HB2, the state budget.
On the floor, Garner told fellow representatives to look in their desk drawers and think about the legacy left by the former legislators who had signed their names there. Then he asked his colleagues to think of the legacy they would leave for the future.
Garner was particularly troubled by an image that ran on the front page of a hometown newspaper, the Flathead Beacon, in February. It showed a drawing of a puppeteer’s strings controlling the Montana Capitol. The headline said: “Who’s Pulling the Strings?”
“Do we want the image that people have of this Capitol to be that one of the puppet strings, or one that represents the most worthy goals of the people that sent us here?” Garner asked. “As for me, I’m choosing to make elections more free and fair by increasing and improving disclosure.”
Garner said he’s received strongly positive reactions from voters from his district, but some don’t agree with the bill.
Asked if he expects a GOP primary opponent next year because of his stance against dark money, Garner laughed and said, “My guess is the printers in my area will have a little extra work next spring.”