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2020 Candidate Profile: Greg Gianforte For Governor

Greg Gianforte
Greg Gianforte

This week we’re publishing profiles on both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor. Shaylee Ragar brings us this look at Republican Greg Gianforte and his second bid for Montana’s executive office.

In a hard hat, cowboy boots and jeans, Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte toured a construction site in Bozeman in early September.

The 62,000 square foot building will house FLIR Systems, a company that develops high-tech equipment that’s used in lasers in both military and civilian applications.

During the tour, Gianforte asked the company’s vice president a question

“Hiring a lot of Bobcats?”

It’s a little hard to hear over the sound of the shop, and we’re social distancing because of the ongoing pandemic. Gianforte asks if they’re hiring Bobcats.

Montana State University, home of the Bobcats, is the flagship campus in Bozeman, where Gianforte and his wife have lived for more than 25 years. MSU is also the home of the Gianforte School of Computing, a namesake after the family pledged millions to fund it.

Gianforte’s question about hiring Bobcats gets at the core of his campaign for governor. He’s a business guy and he says he can help businesses grow with Montana workers.

"We need more good paying jobs in Montana."

After the tour, I interviewed Gianforte at his home in Bozeman. He said Montana’s economy is sluggish. He pledged to jumpstart it.

"Currently, Montana is 44th in the country in wages.”

That ranking comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There’s lots of ways to rank and measure the state economy. Gianforte is right that Montana trails much of the nation when it comes to wages. If we use another measuring stick, like a report from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry last month, Montana has the seventh fastest wage growth in the country. Gianforte said it’s easy to grow fast when you’re at the bottom.

Democrats have held the Governor’s Office in Montana for 16 years and Gianforte argues it’s time for Montana to move in a new direction.

Gianforte contrasts himself against his opponent, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, as being someone who knows how to run a business and how government can make it easier.

Gianforte says the work he’s proudest of is building RightNow Technologies. The software company started in his home in 1997 and grew to employ about 500 people in Bozeman and added offices in Germany, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom.

"Many people said you can't start a global technology business in Montana and as an engineer, an electrical engineer, I love challenges. Especially, when people don’t think something’s possible and that just kind of gets me fired up."

In 2011, RightNow was bought by a Califonina tech company, Oracle, for nearly $2 billion.

Not long after, Gianforte made his way into Montana politics and became known to many as more than just a businessman. He is a staunch fiscal conservative, belongs to a fundamentalist Christian faith and is someone with lofty political goals.

Gianforte’s personal wealth has boosted his political ambitions. He loaned his first campaign for the governor’s seat $6 million in 2016. So far this election cycle, he’s loaned $3.5 million of his own money to his campaign.

Gianforte lost the governor’s seat in 2016 to current Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. Bullock beat Gianforte by four points the same year that Republican President Donald Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points.

Seven months later, Gianforte ran in a special election for Montana’s lone U.S. House of Representatives seat and won. The night before the election, Gianforte assaulted a reporter at a campaign event, which he initially blamed the reporter for and later pled guilty to. He paid a fine and took an anger management course.

Now, three years later, he’s turning his attention back to state government.

"You combine that Montana work ethic with good leadership and people can prosper. And I want to see more Montanans prosper."

As Montana’s governor, Gianforte says he would do away with burdensome regulations and bring a customer service environment to state agencies. He says he wants to revise licensure laws for trade workers to make licenses easier to obtain.

Gianforte plans to find these burdensome regulations by doing a top-to-bottom review at each state agency. He says that for each new regulation added, he’ll insist that two other regulations are repealed.

"We need regulations for public safety, to protect the environment, but we've piled regulations on top of regulations and that red tape prevents people from growing their businesses and creating jobs.”

Gianforte released what he’s calling a Montana Comeback Plan, which outlines some of these goals.He wants to put new leaders at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resource Conservation and "streamline permitting processes to eliminate needless delays." He’s said he wants to replace the leaders of most state agencies.

"DEQ and DNRC have become the project prevention departments," he says.

According to the DEQ, state permits for projects can take anywhere from 30 days to a few decades to approve. These work plans must stand up to environmental protections outlined in the Montana Constitution and state law.

People like Andrew Stefalo support Gianforte for his views on business and industry.

"As long as Gianforte doesn’t mess with mining he has my vote."

I met Stefalo at the Labor Day Parade in Dillon. Gianforte walked in the parade with his wife, Susan, and other Republican candidates.

Stefalo works at the talc mine outside of Dillon. He said he’s sees Republicans as more favorable to the mining industry than Democrats

I asked Stefalo what he’s looking for in a candidate for governor. He said someone who protects the way of life in Montana.

"Like protect ranching, farming, that’s a big thing because I come from a ranching family. And just like I said, public lands is a big thing."

Gianforte says that making state regulations more business-friendly is crucial during the coronavirus pandemic when so many are struggling.

Montana has continued to see a rise in new daily COVID-19 cases since July. Gianforte has said that Montana needs to protect people most vulnerable to the virus along with addressing what he’s called the “economic pandemic”.

"And we need to adopt public policy that protects the most vulnerable and gets our economy running again, minimizing the risks, but we gotta get on with our lives."

Gianforte said it’s time to get the economy going again and open businesses up. He said government mandates, like those requiring masks for some people, aren’t the right approach to address COVID-19 and that he’d focus on personal responsibility and guidelines instead of mandates.

Gianforte, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, says the president has led well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We may well have a vaccine in less than a year at scale and it was really the leadership of President Trump that allowed that to happen."

The United States has 4 percent of the world’s population, but 20% of all coronavirus cases and deaths worldwide.

I asked him if that statistic worries him or is that is indicative of any failing.

"The thing that scares me are politicians in our communities that are not enforcing the rule of law and letting rampant rioting go on. That's the thing that's really scary to me. And we see it in Portland, we see it in Wisconsin, Minnesota."

Gianforte is referring here to protests that erupted after George Floyd was killed in an encounter with police in Minneapolis. Gianforte said that people have a right to protest peacefully, but he condemns rioting and violence.

More than 200,000 people have died due to COVID-19 in the United States. At the time of this interview, 109 people had died from the virus in Montana.

Shaylee Ragar: I mean we’re still seeing a surge in cases in Montana, we’re still seeing a surge of cases in the U.S., is that just to be expected, is that how we should continue to live?

“Well, we've lost more people to car accidents in Montana this year than we have to COVID. I'm not saying that any death — every death is tragic. But because of the president's leadership, there is not a single person in this country that didn't have access to a respirator if they needed it."

The statistic about car accidents was accurate at the time of our interview. Since then, the number of COVID-19 related deaths has surpassed those due to car accidents this year in Montana. More than 200 people have now died.

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic fallout will require immediate attention from Montana’s next governor. Gianforte’s pitch is that the state needs new leadership to navigate this crisis and to take Montana’s economy to new heights. He says he has the experience to take on that role.

The Cook Political Report has dubbed Montana’s governor's race the most competitive in the country - a toss-up - meaning either party has a good chance of winning.

Election Day is November 3.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.