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2020 Candidate Interview: Bryce Bennett For Secretary Of State

Sen. Bryce Bennett.
State Sen. Bryce Bennett is running for Montana Secretary of State.

Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Public Radio interviewed Montana's statewide general election candidates.

Bryce Bennett is the 2020 Democratic candidate for secretary of state.

Editor’s note: These interviews have been fact checked. See editor’s notes throughout this transcript. The audio is unedited save for a few snips for listenability.

Corin Cates-Carney: Bryce Bennet is the Democratic candidate for secretary of state. Thanks for taking the time.

Bryce Bennett: Thanks for having me.

Corin Cates-Carney: For voters who are just getting to know you and your candidacy, can you give us a brief introduction?

Bryce Bennett: Sure, yeah. I'm Bryce Bennett. I'm a fifth generation Montanan. I grew up in a small town in eastern Montana and those are the small town values that I grew up with. You know, working together to get things done, working with people no matter what their politics are. And that's the sort of leadership that I provided in the legislature, you know, pushing back on the influence of dark money, keeping access to our public lands, making sure that every eligible Montanan has a chance to cast their ballot and making sure that dark money doesn't have the final say in our democracy.

Corin Cates-Carney: You mentioned a few points there I want to touch on in a bit. But first, I want to ask why secretary of state? You've been a state senator, you've been a state representative. What made you want to step into the secretary of state position?

Bryce Bennett: Yeah, I never really had any great ambitions to run for a statewide office but this is one that deals directly with so many of the things that are incredibly important to me and I know are incredibly important to Montanans, you know. Making sure that dark money doesn't have the final say in our elections, making sure that every eligible Montanan has a chance to safely and securely cast their ballot and ensuring that our public lands stay in public hands, not being sold off to the highest bidder, like folks like my opponent are so eager to do.

Corin Cates-Carney: Talking about the role of elections in this position, state's top election official, are there specific changes you would want to make to the election system? You brought up wanting to make sure that everyone has equal access to voting.

Bryce Bennett: Yeah, I want to work with folks from both sides of the aisle. I want to bring Republicans and Democrats together, as I have throughout my entire time in the legislature, to talk about how we can ensure that these foreign hackers aren't able to get into our democracy, to make sure that people have full confidence that their voice is going to be heard and their vote is going to be counted on Election Day. I want to make sure that we're modernizing our elections so we can look at ideas, like the ones brought by Republicans from eastern Montana like Geraldine Custer (R-HD39), to look at things like automatic voter registration, things like online voter registration.

Corin Cates-Carney: You're talking about a few things. I want to, maybe talk specifics on one of them, one of those being online voter registration. Is that is that a policy you support and you'd like to see move forward?

Bryce Bennett: Absolutely. Yeah. I stand with the Republicans that carried that bill in the legislature, the folks that thought it was a good idea, our friends and our partners, our county clerks and recorders out there who thought that it was a smart idea for us to modernize our elections, to make sure that we're getting accurate information into our voter database and ensuring that every Montanan has a chance to participate. I know that folks in eastern Montana don't always have the same sort of access to our county election offices and making sure there's online options for them to securely register to vote is something that I think would be a benefit for all of us.

Corin Cates-Carney: And you talked about hackers in the election system. Is there specific ways that you see addressing, you know, possible threats to the security of Montana's election system? And do you see hackers as legitimate threat that could compromise election as Montanans?

Bryce Bennett: Well, I think that anybody that looked at what happened in the 2016 elections, as well as what's happening today, understands that there are hackers, both foreign and domestic, who are trying to undermine our democracy and people's faith in it. I mean, that's why I'm not going to sit on the sidelines like my opponent has done over the last four years in this office. I want to make sure that we're being proactive about it. I want to bring people to the table, you know, the National Guard cybersecurity unit. I want to bring folks from the private sector, people that have gone toe to toe with these foreign hackers, people that can stop them from being able to infiltrate our democracy because people's trust in the system is absolutely imperative.

Corin Cates-Carney: You mentioned working with the National Guard, testing out, probing or, you know, working through election security in Montana. That's something the current secretary of state is doing. Are there ideas, new efforts you could see putting in place during your tenure to improve election security in Montana?.

Bryce Bennett: Well, you won't have to drag me kicking and screaming to use the National Guard cybersecurity unit. I mean, unfortunately, they were waiting on the sidelines for years before they actually brought this important team on board to make sure that our democracy is strong and secure.

Corin Cates-Carney: Some states have moved toward a system that is more geared to all mail about. Do you think Montana should have an all mail ballot system even after the pandemic?

Bryce Bennett: I think that Montanans want a choice. They want to have a secretary of state that's going to meet them where they are. And I think that means that we preserve vote by mail for the folks that want to use it. That's about 70 percent of Montana voters right now. And we make sure that there's in-person voting options for the folks that don't. I think we want to make sure that this is a democracy that ensures that every voice is heard and every vote is counted.

Corin Cates-Carney: You've mentioned several times dark money in politics and that being an issue that you have made pretty consistently a part of your campaign. Why is that something for the secretary of state to tackle?

Bryce Bennett: I mean, we need a leader in the secretary of state's office that is going to be a defender of our democracy and that comes at all different levels. We have to make sure that someone has a track record of pushing back on these special interest groups that are trying to drown out our voices with buckets of cash. You know, I'm proud of the fact that in the legislature I passed a bill like the DISCLOSE Act to ensure that every penny that has spent in our elections is accountable and transparent to the people of Montana. People want to know that our elections are powered by folks in this state, not the out-of-state special interests. And as secretary of state, I'll make sure that they know that every day.

Corin Cates-Carney: Are there new regulations you want to see put in place on disclosing money in politics in Montana?

Bryce Bennett: I think that we have to constantly be vigilant. I know that when we passed the DISCLOSE Act, we knew that we were able to push back on a lot of these shadowy groups that were trying to pour so much money into this state that they thought they could tell us what we're supposed to think and how we're supposed to vote. But we know as we're getting further along after passing that bill that they're trying to find new cracks in the system, trying to find new ways to sneak back into our democracy. So we've got to make sure that this is a democracy only powered by the voters here in Montana. And that's going to take a lot of continued work.

Corin Cates-Carney: What within the regulatory, I guess, powers that you would have as secretary of state could you address those issues of dark money in politics? Some of that is not up to the state. Federal races are going to be regulated at the federal level and Montana has the DISCLOSE Act, as you mentioned. So what as secretary of state could you actually regulate here?

Bryce Bennett: Well, I mean, you need to be an advocate. You need to make sure that you're using every power within the office and using the bully pulpit that's given to every statewide elected official here in Montana to do everything you can to call out these folks and be a partner to our commissioner of political practices to make sure that when these groups come to Montana, we're able to push back on them, make sure that they're not able to spend millions of dollars to try to drown out the voices of everyday Montanans. That's the priorities I have. I know that these groups are supporting my opponent, unfortunately, and I want to make sure and you know, in the face of that, I want to make sure that we have the ability to push back and ensure that Montanans are the only voices that matter on Election Day.

Corin Cates-Carney: What dark money groups are supporting your opponent?

Bryce Bennett: So there's a number of dark money groups that are supporting the land transfer. You know, groups like the American Lands Council that have been pushing an agenda to sell off our public lands to the highest bidder. And I know that they're backing my opponent. I will fight to make sure that our public lands stay in public hands.

Editor's note: Bennett says the American Lands Council has financially supported his opponent, Republican Deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. Jacobsen's campaign finance reports do not show that she has received contributions from ALC.

Corin Cates-Carney: Are there any dark money groups supporting you?

Bryce Bennett: No. I don't know why they would, because they know that I've been fighting them every step of the way and I'll continue doing that as secretary of state.

Corin Cates-Carney: Outside of elections one of the other roles of the secretary of state's office is reviewing, managing business records for businesses and nonprofit organizations. How would you tackle this part of the secretary of state's position?

Bryce Bennett: Sure. We need a secretary of state that understands that Main Street is struggling in the face of COVID-19, somebody that meets them where they are. You know, I want to create a one stop shop in this office so that businesses can get in, get out and get on with their day. I want to bring our businesses to the table, create a business council so we're listening directly to Montana's Main Street to tell us how we can best serve them, as opposed to having a bunch of bureaucrats in Helena deciding for them what our Montana businesses need. I'm going to bring them to the table. I'm going to listen to them directly and they're going to tell me how we can make this office effective for them once again.

Corin Cates-Carney: Creating a Montana Business Council, what exactly would that look like and who would be represented there?

Bryce Bennett: Yeah, we want to bring together Main Street businesses, big businesses, small businesses, rural, urban. We want to have a diverse selection of folks that have different challenges when it comes to how to make sure their business is able to recover in the face of COVID-19 and to thrive once again, so that we can hear from them directly about how this office can best serve them and making sure that we're cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy that has been laid before them under this current administration.

Corin Cates-Carney: So this would be an advisory council that you would create and solicit feedback and input on during your tenure if elected?

Bryce Bennett: Yeah, I mean, during the current or during this current administration, we've got a bunch of folks in Helena that think that they know better than Montana businesses and they've put a lot of red tape and bureaucracy in front of folks that are already struggling.

Corin Cates-Carney: Can you give us can you give us an example of that?

Bryce Bennett: Well, the website has been atrocious. I mean, I never expected to be speaking about a Web site for so much of this campaign. But what I'm hearing from folks all across Montana, and we just finished our Big Sky Business tour so I've had a lot of recent conversations with people about this, they're telling me that a process that used to take five minutes is now taking them hours. It's now something where they're having a call into the office, is now something where they're having to hire lawyers and accountants to try to get them through a process that should be simple. We need to make sure the folks are focusing a lot more on getting back to their business, putting food on their family's table than wading through Helena's bureaucracy.

Corin Cates-Carney: How would you make sure that the work is on the business registration side, the work in the election side is being transparent and open and accessible to the public?

Bryce Bennett: Well, I will do everything I can to make sure that Montanans know that this is an office that is serving them. And I certainly understand why they would have questions about what they've, what they're getting out of this office because of what they've seen over the last four years. I mean, we've seen an office that is a lot more interested in themselves and self dealing and, you know, handing out contracts to, you know, some of their biggest donors instead of doing the important work of helping Montana businesses, standing up for access to our public lands and ensuring that every voter has the ability to cast a ballot.

Corin Cates-Carney: As a secretary of state, you would be one of five statewide elected officials who would sit on the Montana Land Board, who would manage state trust lands. What are some of the priorities you would bring to managing those lands and how would you accomplish some of those priorities?

Bryce Bennett: Yeah, so I grew up swimming in Flathead Lake and hiking a Pompey's Pillar, exploring the areas outside of my grampa's hunting cabin outside of Zortman.You know, these public lands are very special to me and any attack on them is very personal. I mean, that's why in the legislature, I'm proud of the fact that I helped champion a bill that would put heavy fines on these out of staters that want to come in and put up gates and barbed wire to try to block off access to the public lands that we all own. You know, I fought the special interests that are trying to push an agenda that would sell off our public lands to the highest bidder. And I'm certainly concerned about the fact that when a reporter asked my opponent what her vision for the Land Board was, she said that she wasn't well versed on what the Land Board even did and after four years of serving in that office, if you don't know where the Land Board is, I can't imagine you're going to be our champion to protect access to those public lands.

Corin Cates-Carney: What's your explanation of what the Land Board does?

Bryce Bennett: Yeah. I mean, the Land Board does a lot of important things. I mean, certainly it comes down to protecting access to our public lands and making sure that our schools are able to get the funding that they need by using our trust lands for things like logging and oil and gas and grazing permits. I mean, there's a number of different uses out there. And I think that this is a win-win situation where we can accomplish both of these important goals. You know, I want to make sure that we are not only just protecting the access that we have today but I want to see them expand it out to make sure that there are more places for Montanans to hike and hunt and fish and explore. And I'm also eager to partner with all of the different groups out there to find out how we can best utilize our trust lands to ensure that our schools have the funding they need to make sure that every student in Montana gets a world class education.

Corin Cates-Carney: You're running against the current deputy secretary of state, Christi Jacobsen. She's the Republican running in this race. Why should voters select you?

Bryce Bennett: I think there's some pretty strong contrasts between the vision that I have for an office that once again works for the people of Montana and what we've seen over the last four years. As I was saying before, when it comes to the Land Board I've got a record of standing up for public access to our public lands, where she is telling reporters that she doesn't even understand what the Land Board does, while these extremist groups like the American Lands Council are backing her because they know that she'll push the agenda that will sell off our public lands to the highest bidder. I mean, I'm the only person in this race that has a track record of pushing back against the influence of dark money, because I want to make sure that Montanans are the ones that have the final say on Election Day. And certainly when it comes to business services, I want to make sure that folks are able to get in, get out and get on with their day by creating a one stop shop and a business council where we can listen directly to Montana businesses cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that she's put up over the last four years.

Editor's note: Bennett says the American Lands Council supports Jacobsen. YPR was unable to find evidence of an endorsement of ALC for Jacobsen or campaign contributions.

Corin Cates-Carney: Can you give a few examples of some of the bureaucracy or red tape that you would cut down, as you said?

Bryce Bennett: Well I think it comes down to customer service. I mean, my opponent --

Corin Cates-Carney: Do you have specific examples of policies they put up that you would get rid of?

Bryce Bennett: Well the problem is that they gutted the office. I mean, there's fewer people in the office right now that are able to answer folks' questions, help them register their business, get them through this process. I mean, I want to create a one stop shop where we give people a checklist so they know from A to Z exactly how to get their business going from the point where they first have a dream of starting a business to the day that they're opening their doors. We want to make sure that instead of asking them to do a wild goose chase across state government, talking to different departments, why not give them a clear path? And the secretary of state can truly be Montana's business office once again.

Corin Cates-Carney: Would your plan involve additional hiring then at the secretary of state's office?

Bryce Bennett: You know, I don't want to create any more bureaucracy. I don't want to add any more expenses than we absolutely need to. But I also know that what I've heard from folks out there is that they're concerned about the fact they're not getting the customer service that they're used to from this office. There are fewer people to answer their questions. Fewer people to guide them through the process. And starting a business can be complicated, especially during COVID-19. So I want to make sure that our Montana businesses know that they have a partner in the secretary of state's office.

Corin Cates-Carney: So, yes, hire some some staff back.

Bryce Bennett: You know, I want to make sure that Montana businesses, our entrepreneurs are able to get their questions answered and get the services they need to ensure that they're able to focus a whole lot more on their business and a lot less on the bureaucracy up in the capital.

Corin Cates-Carney: In trying to improve that, in trying to maybe hire additional staff with the current economic situation in Montana and budget could be tight, how do you see those plans moving forward in what could be a tight budget session?

Bryce Bennett: Well, I know the Montana businesses are struggling right now and they need to have a partner in the secretary of state's office that is going to look out for them to make sure that they have the ability to get back to the important work of putting food on their family's table. So we're going to look to make sure that they're focusing a lot less on wading through the bureaucracy at the capital and are able to get quick answers so they can focus on their business instead.

Corin Cates-Carney: Are there any other issues that are important to your campaign that you'd like voters to know about?

Bryce Bennett: Well, I think that we've had a great opportunity to talk about battling dark money, making sure that Montanans are the ones that have the final say in our democracy, making sure that every eligible Montanan has a chance to safely and securely cast a ballot. You know, pushing back on the partisan politics that has so corrupted this office over the last four years and making sure that we have ethics, you know, at the core of what we want to see in our secretary of state's office moving forward. You know, I've got a career of working with Republicans and Democrats to get things done for the people of Montana. That's a sort of bipartisan leadership that has gotten me the endorsement of secretaries of state from both parties. I mean, folks like Linda McCullough, a Democrat, and Bob Brown, a Republican, people that say that I'm the sort of person that will put politics aside to make sure this office works for the people of Montana.

Corin Cates-Carney: Once again, Bryce Bennett is the Democratic candidate for secretary of state. Thank you for taking the time.

Bryce Bennett: Thanks so much, man.

Corin Cates-Carney is the Flathead Valley reporter for MTPR.