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Shared State is a podcast about our current political moment and the complex people and beliefs that shape Montana. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts, and catch Season 2 on Yellowstone Public Radio Tuesday nights at 6:30 beginning March 15.

Shared State Episode 09: For This And Future Generations

Shared State Episode 09: For This And Future Generations
Shared State Episode 09: For This And Future Generations

What can we learn from the ways political corruption shaped Montana's past? And how can we keep up with all the special interests trying to influence voters today?

Listen now on Shared State Episode 09: "For This And Future Generations"

Sarah Aronson John Adams is one of the people who's helped make Shared State over the last few months. You might recognize his name from the credits. He's the editor in chief at Montana Free Press. But he used to have a different job title.

How long has it been since you are technically a reporter?

John Adams Well, I still do occasionally do some reporting, but I think it's been about five years since that title was actually behind my name — or the only title behind my name.

Sarah Aronson When you were a reporter, what type of news did you focus on? Like what kinds of calls and e-mails were you getting on a typical day?

John Adams Yes, I was the Capitol bureau chief for the Great Falls Tribune. So a lot of the phone calls and e-mails that I fielded had to do with things that were going on in government or politics and elections. So, you know, I'm talking to the politicians. I'm talking to campaign operatives. I'm talking to people who follow and track money and politics, those kinds of things.

Sarah Aronson Can you tell us a bit more about money and politics?

John Adams There's a lot of it. Too much, I think most people would say. Yeah, it's really what drives our politics. Especially the last 10 or so years, it's been the predominant force in shaping our elections and what we know about elected officials and what we know about the issues. A lot of that's informed by the advertising that we're bombarded with for those months leading up to Election Day.

[ad]: I"Montana: where Steve Bullock lobbied for a corrupt government bank financing terrorist-friendly governments."

Sarah Aronson You know, on my way to the studio I heard like three ads, and they were not endorsed by the candidates. And I was like, where's this coming from?

[ad] "Bullock goes to Washington. Club for Growth Action is responsible for the content of this advertising."

Sarah Aronson I think that's what we're supposed to be talking about today, right?

John Adams Yeah, exactly. Yeah. In fact, I got one yesterday. My wife got one yesterday. And it sort of purports to be this very straightforward, you know, 'just so you know, these are the facts about a particular candidate.' There's no images. There's no pictures. It's just laid out in sort of a chart format. And it's meant to look very official, but it's very much aimed at attacking Senator Steve Daines and supporting Governor Steve Bullock. And it's from a group that, I looked on their sebsite, and it turns out there it's run by the governor's former chief of staff.

Sarah Aronson How did you get into studying this? Like, why were you interested in tracing the money, following the money?

John Adams Well, as an investigative reporter and a political reporter, it's always an important idea to follow the money, because money controls or influences so much of what happens in politics and in government.

Sarah Aronson John says when you're talking about campaign finance, there are really two categories you need to keep in mind.

First, there are the clear, upfront donations from individuals or businesses to candidates. That money has limits. You can only give so much to a particular campaign.

And then there's the money that's harder to trace and regulate: Dark money.

John Adams Where dark money comes in is we don't know who's spending the money. We don't know who is funding the campaign for or against a particular candidate. And the reason that's a problem is because then we don't know what might be happening behind the scenes. And so that's where the potential for corruption comes in.

Sarah Aronson I'm Sarah Aaronson and this is Shared State, a podcast about what's driving Montana's 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us. This is Episode 9, "For This and Future Generations."

What can we learn from the ways political corruption shaped Montana's past? And how can we keep up with all the special interests trying to influence voters today?

[voice montage] We, the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains; and desiring to improve the quality of life, quality of opportunity, and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations, do ordain and establish this Constitution.

Sarah Aronson All of the political mail and online advertisements popping up as we get closer to Election Day, they're just the most recent example of how political groups and special interests are trying to sway Montana voters.

John Adams You know, in Montana, we have a long history of opposing money in politics, because we have a history since the founding of the state of having a lot of corruption in our politics.

Sarah Aronson Much of that corruption had to do with a resource that shaped Montanans politics and economy: copper. The people who made their fortunes in that industry, they wanted to influence.

John Adams So in the late 1800s there were a few guys in Montana that you might have heard of. They ran different mining companies and smelters and mining related businesses in Butte and Anaconda. And they controlled huge, vast sums of wealth and resources in this state.

Sarah Aronson These three men earned a nickname for themselves: the Copper Kings. Marcus Daly, whose company Amalgamated Copper was based in Anaconda; William Clark, who had a variety of banks and businesses and smelters and other mining resources, and he was the Butte copper King; and then F. Augustus Heinze, who was another Copper King of much smaller scale, but also influential in Butte. And these three men, in their competition with one another, use their vast sums of wealth to influence the politics of the state. In some cases, they tried to buy Senate seats. In some cases they tried to buy-off the Legislature. And in some cases they tried to buy-off judges or even voters. So, I mean, for most of Montana's history, from the late 1800s into the early part of the 20th century, these men dominated politics, and they did it by corrupting public officials.

Sarah Aronson When I try and picture that, I'm imagining, like, a smoke filled backroom and some guys with fancy jackets and cigars. Is that what it was like, or how would you frame it?

John Adams You know, if you look at the political cartoons from that era you wouldn't be too far off. There did seem to be a lot of cigar smoking in Butte in that time period.

Sarah Aronson But these copper kings, they didn't always get along.

John Adams Clark and Daly were archrivals. I mean, these guys hated each other. And one of the big things that they were fighting about is where the state capital should be located. Montana was a brand new state and there was this big fight about whether or not the capital should be located in Helena, which Clark preferred, or in Anaconda, which is where Daly's empire was — The Anaconda Copper Company — at the time it was called Amalgamated Copper Company. And so they had this huge fight about where the capital should be and voters were gonna choose.

Reports from that area say that on Election Day, agents for both men fanned out all across the state and literally bribed corruptible voters with five dollar bills, cigars or whatever else they thought they could use to get them to vote. Ultimately, Clark won that battle and the state capital was located here in Helena. But that era, that fight and those things that were happening in that period, it really set the tone for Montana politics for the next decade. You know, corruption was king and votes for something that could be bought and sold. And that was just kind of the culture in Montana at its very birth.

Sarah Aronson What were the puzzle pieces that needed to fall into place in order to start making change?

John Adams It had to get to a point where the public was just so outraged at the companies' influence over their politics that they really needed to stand up and do something. And in 1911, the Legislature had two primary objectives: send a reform-minded senator to D.C. and pass a statewide direct primary law.

Sarah Aronson Is this a response to the party leaders choosing candidates?

John Adams Yeah, exactly. So that was the idea, that if we can take the control of who selects the candidates out of the hands of a small handful of bought party leaders, then the voters would have more influence over the outcome of those elections and they would be more likely to be able to elect reform-minded candidates who weren't in the pocket of the company.

But, The Amalgamated Copper Company, they managed to stall the vote on that bill long enough that some newspapers speculated that during the that the stalling on voting on that bill, that they openly bribed legislators and they got enough legislators to vote against the measure. And so that came out of the 1911 Legislature without either of those reforms having passed.

Sarah Aronson I think a common narrative that I've heard around Montana is that in the battle between the corrupt corporate interests and the people, the people eventually won. How did that happen after all of these failed reforms?

John Adams That is kind of the popular narrative, but it's not quite that simple. The fact of the matter was Montanans had had enough. And not to sound too hyperbolic about it, but there really was a wave of aggressive reforms that swept the state after that 1911 Legislature. In the next year Montana voters passed two major pieces of legislation: the Corrupt Practices Act and the direct primary law. And so these laws went into effect in 1912. And at the time, newspaper editors across the state that weren't working at newspapers owned by these copper barons, heralded this as, sort of, a dawning of, you know, getting corruption out of politics in Montana.

Sarah Aronson The Corrupt Practices Act; that sounds so official. What was included in that legislation?

John Adams So, it wasn't the first anti-corruption bill that passed in Montana. There were existing laws on the books banning bribing, banning direct influence of officials. But reformers in the early part of the 20th century recognized that the direct corporate contributions to candidates' political campaigns was actually a major corrupting force in elections. And so the law in 1912 tried to prevent that.

I talked to somebody who knows a lot about this.

Jeff Wiltse What it was intended to combat was what one reformer at the time described as "small politics."

John Adams Jeff Wiltse's a professor at the University of Montana, where he teaches history, and he actually wrote a paper for the Montana Law Review several years ago that explored this.

Jeff Wiltse It wasn't, you know, William A. Clark giving ten thousand dollars to a legislator to get that Legislature to vote for him for U.S. Senate. I mean, that was clearly prohibited by the earlier Corrupt Practices Act. Rather, this was about preventing amalgamated mining in particular, but private economic interests more generally, from engaging in smaller acts that could be very, very pervasive, but were nonetheless smaller acts that gave them undue political influence within the state.

John Adams The measure passed with 76 percent of the vote. So it was just a huge repudiation of the corrupting influence that the company had on Montana politics. But I think one of the most interesting things about the Corrupt Practices Act is the kind of simplified narrative that's formed around it in the decades since. Like you said, the story goes that Montana voters bested Montana's copper kings, which is kind of true, but it really doesn't get at the deeper dynamics that have been playing out for years before the bill actually passed.

Sarah Aronson John, we're talking about dark money in the election today, you know, in the year 2020. Why is it important for us to look back in the early 1900s?

John Adams At the dawn of the 20th century, Montanans had been dealing with rampant corruption. And it took years and a lot of hard fighting, and political fighting and organizing for them to pass reforms that attempted to limit the influence that these giant corporations were having on their politics. And so this was a this was a hard-fought battle. And all of that hard-fought effort to reform and clean up Montana's elections, and clean up Montana's politics was essentially rolled back a few years ago when the United States Supreme Court called that law unconstitutional.

Sarah Aronson The case that John's talking about goes back to 2010 when the Supreme Court decided Citizens United by a five to four vote.

[newscast] "The sharply divided justices declared that the law violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech for all, even corporations."

John Adams What Citizens United said is, corporations have the same rights as people, as individuals, to spend money on elections, to have their voice heard in elections. Money is speech, they ruled. And the Montana Corrupt Practices Act ran counter to that. The Montana Corrupt Practices Act said corporations aren't people and they don't get to directly spend money and give to campaigns in our elections.

Sarah Aronson Soon after the High Court's ruling, a conservative dark-money group sued the state of Montana, saying that because of Citizens United, the Corrupt Practices Act was now invalid. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the law, but the appeal went all the way back up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Adams And the United States Supreme Court said, no, we told you in 2010 in Citizens United that that behavior was allowed. And so they struck down the Corrupt Practices Act. And that really opened the gates again to corporate spending and anonymous dark-money spending in Montana politics.

Sarah Aronson It's hard not to feel disheartened when you say that. Am I being cynical?

John Adams You know, it really depends on your viewpoint. I mean, some people believe that they should be able to spend as much money as they want on political speech; that limiting political speech is a violation of their First Amendment rights. So if you hold that view, that money is the same as standing on a corner holding a sign, then you probably are OK with the current state of affairs. But if you don't like the idea that unlimited sums of corporate cash can flow into political campaigns that maybe aren't directly going straight to the candidates, but are absolutely benefiting one candidate or another; then you probably have a problem with this.

Here's Wiltse again.

Jeff Wiltse I think we are in a place right now, sort of politically, both within Montana and as the nation as a whole, in which special interests — not just corporate interests — but special interests have enormous political clout and enormous political influence. And this is precisely what reformers were trying to prevent. And yet I would argue that it's worse now than it has been probably in any time since the late 19th and early 20th century. And I think the primary reason why it's worse now than it's been any time in 100 years is because of Citizens United.

John Adams So that's not to say that Montana has fully regressed back to the days of the Copper King. Because, you know, in the wake of Citizens United, and in the wake of Montana losing its challenge to protect the Corrupt Practices Act, there was activity going on here at home and in the state Legislature where the state was trying to pass another piece of campaign finance reform. It was called the Disclose Act.

Sarah Aronson Right. So can you tell me why some lawmakers felt the Disclose Act was necessary?

John Adams You know, in some ways, it actually kind of reminds me of the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act. It was trying to address the problem that was cropping up despite prior reforms. What we saw were these groups pouring money into political races at the last minute. And a lot of that was happening in Republican primaries.

And so what happened in the Legislature in 2013 and in 2015, were a handful of Republican legislators who had been on the receiving end of those dark-money campaigns, they stood up and they said, enough is enough.

[legislative debate] "Today is our day to bring light to the darkness, to have the courage it takes to change the course of events, to hear the cries of the people of Montana, and to act.

"Today is the day for us to tell all those who seek to use dark money to influence our elections that there will be no safe harbor in Montana."

John Adams So Republicans and Democrats really came together to push this legislation through, and then to Governor Bullock's desk, who signed it. And basically what it does is, it requires a group that engages in last-minute advertising in elections to disclose how they spend that money to influence Montana's elections.

Sarah Aronson The Disclose Act made it easier to follow the money because it required more transparency from some of the groups funneling cash into those Republican primaries and other races since. They're often registered in a confusing way, as 501(C)(4)s. That category can cover up important information about a group's financing.

John Adams Technically, they're supposed to be social welfare organizations. Anna Massoglia from the Center for Responsive Politics said, with this kind of spending, it's easier to try to influence voters without ever giving them the context of who you are and why you're invested in a certain race or issue.

Anna Massoglia In some cases, when the donors to groups have been disclosed, conflicts of interest have been revealed, where the donor may have a stake in the outcome of the election. In other cases, at a more basic level, voters who see spending by a group with a very innocuous sounding name, like, 'voters—' or 'patriots for'; when the average voter sees these ads by a group that appears to be legitimate, they might perceive them as more reliable information as they go to the polls, than if they were seeing it from giant donors.

Sarah Aronson This whole thing strikes me as an uphill battle. One hundred years ago, it took a lot of corruption happening and a lot of unsuccessful reforms before the Copper Kings actually lost their grip on our state's political strings. And after Citizens United, we're in a new landscape of trying to keep track of who's trying to influence what. It sounds like, maybe there are reasons to be optimistic since the Disclose Act passed in 2015, but what has changed in the landscape that we might be on the lookout for this November?

John Adams Well, first, I think it's worth pointing out that the Disclose Act, what it doesn't do is it doesn't have any effect on federal elections. So our U.S. House race, our U.S. Senate race, the presidential race, those aren't impacted by the passage of the Disclose Act. And so I think that's important for listeners to understand. But, yeah, that's a good question, and one that a lot of campaign finance experts and election integrity advocates are asking, too. These people are usually saying two things about Montana's current landscape. The Disclose Act is working to a degree, but we don't know what we don't know. And that's the scary part, is the money that's being spent in ways that is never revealed and that the public never has any idea is being spent.

[newscast] "As of this year, digital advertising is expected to exceed TV and print advertising for the first time ever."

John Adams A lot more people are online engaging with each other and with their content and their media on smart devices, streaming devices and those sorts of things. And the technology has far outpaced the laws governing political advertising on these technologies, on these platforms.

And so, sure, we still have postcards. We still have television ads. We still have all of those ways of politicking that campaigns have traditionally participated in. But with more and more people cutting the cord, these political campaigns and these political advertisers have a vast array of new tools and microtargeting to reach voters. The exact voters that they want to reach. This is what's so dangerous about this, is since 2015, the technologies that allow companies to find individual voters online who they think are most likely swayable in an election, and then target them with the message that the technology tells them is the most likely message to sway them.

[newscast] "While ads you see on TV stations like this are regulated, the ones you click with your mouse have no government oversight."

"They aren't regulated at all."

John Adams l when it comes to oversight, the Federal Elections Commission is basically defunct. State and federal laws are antiquated. Watchdogs can't keep up with the advertising that's happening online across all these various platforms, because most of these platforms don't require full disclosure of who's advertising to who.

And then you have platforms themselves like Google and YouTube and Facebook, have some stricter regulations of political advertising and microtargeting, but others like Roku and Tuby and Hulu, they don't have clearly defined policies or obvious enforcement mechanisms, and so we don't know who's spending money on those platforms to target which voters with which messages, and how much they're spending. So there's just a lot there that we don't know on how campaigns or third party groups are using these technologies and platforms to micro target and influence voters.

Sarah Aronson John, the other day I was sitting down to learn a Neil Young song via this, like, guitar tabulator app, you know? And I got, like, an ad for one of that Senate races. And I was I was so furious, like, how could you find me here? I'm just trying to learn a a guitar song.

John Adams That's a really great example. So, some third-party buyer has data that platforms provide to them. So they know everything about you. They know your general age group. They know where you're located. They know your political leanings. They have an entire profile on you that they sell to these advertising companies who then use that information to, in turn, sell advertising to these dark-money groups. Or it doesn't even necessarily have to be a dark-money group. It can be a political campaign that admits how they spend the money.

But here's the rub. If a political campaign discloses on their Federal Election Commission filings that they spent $50,000 on this firm for advertising purposes, all we know is that they spent $50,000 on this firm. We don't know what that firm did with that $50,000 dollars, who they targeted, what message they targeted them with.

The courts have said that the antidote to bad political speech is more political counter speech. But if you, as a candidate, or as somebody who supports an issue, don't know who's being spoken to and with what message, how can you counter that speech? And so that is the big concern that we have today with with this modern era of politicking, is unless you happen to be sitting at your computer with your phone, and recorded that video of that ad that was presented to you; and unless that they included on that ad any information about who paid for it — which some of these platforms don't require — you don't even know who spent the money. So for you to go and file a political complaint against them is almost impossible. That is the real danger with our current politics, is that all of this advertising is going onto these digital platforms, streaming devices, cell phones, everything else. And there are no state or federal laws on the books that really require these online streaming platforms to rein this in. So that's where we are today.

Sarah Aronson When I look back to 1912 and, sort of, draw a parallel with today, I wonder what kind of pushback or response we can have as citizens. Does the onus fall upon us as individuals? Or is it possible that there could be a community response? Like, when we look back in history, what can we learn?

John Adams The public sentiment that led to the eventual passage of the Corrupt Practices Act and the direct primary law didn't just happen overnight. It wasn't just something that, you know, voters were really upset about what happened in the Legislature just a year prior, and ran this successful campaign to fix it. This was something that had to build over time. This was something where the public was getting fed up over many, many years of seeing this kind of corruption. And the way that's gonna happen today is if enough voters, enough individuals, enough people get fed up with the way that our politics are run, the way that our campaigns are run, the way that so much money — so much money — is spent. In the Montana Senate race alone, as as you and I are talking, more than $70 million has already been spent in that election.

You know, I think the only way we're gonna get to where we can kind of rein-in this out-of-control spending in elections is going to be if there's a groundswell of action from individuals, organizations and institutions that believe that voters should have the power, not these these big special interests and their deep pockets.

There is one issue that affects every other issue you care about. No matter what issue you care about, no matter what issues matter to you, whether it's guns, whether it's abortion, whether it's the environment; all of those issues are directly affected, more than anything, by money in politics; by special interest influencing behaviors. And so I think that it's incumbent upon us as citizens, as voters, to take this stuff seriously, to be engaged, to pay attention — regardless of whatever your political beliefs are — and question the way things are done, question the status quo. And if you don't like the way our politics are, then demand from your elected officials that they do something about it.

Sarah Aronson John, thanks so much for your insight on this, I hope you stay sane for the next few weeks.

John Adams Thanks Sarah, you too.

Shared State is made by Montana Free Press, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Public Radio. This episode was reported by John Adams. Nick Mott is our editor. Mark Silvers is our producer. Editorial assistance comes from Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney, Brad Tyer and John Adams.

This is our last reported piece for this series. Don't worry. We'll be back next week with a breakdown of the election results and a bit of a forecast for where Montana politics will go next. If you'd like this show, let us know. Leave us a comment on social media or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Sarah Aaronson. Thanks for listening.

John Adams