Montana’s governor says bipartisan compromise has no place when it comes to certain core principles.

During a Mansfield Center dialogue Monday night, Missoula businessman David Bell spent an hour asking Gov. Greg Gianforte various questions the audience submitted related to bipartisanship. From the banter on Zoom, it was clear that some were disappointed with some of the governor’s vague answers while others enjoyed the discussion.

Because the discussion topic was the “Challenges and Opportunities of Bipartisanship,” Bell started off by asking listeners to push back against their personal biases, knowing that the audience included people with varying political perspectives. Bell then started with an easy question as to why Gianforte invites people to dinner.

“When we separate ourselves with technology, space or time, it’s harder to understand other people. It’s much easier to understand other people when there’s a relationship and I don’t know any better way to do that than over a meal,” Gianforte said, touting his Italian lineage.

When asked what he does to work with Democratic legislators and encourage compromise, Gianforte said he meets with leaders of the majority and minority party every week, and shortly after he was elected, he called every legislator.

“I think there were a few people who were shocked to hear from me. I wanted to know their views. I think good ideas come from Republicans, they come from Democrats, they come from independents,” Gianforte said. “We can disagree on stuff, but we don’t have to call each other names.”

He gave a shout-out to Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, saying he doesn’t agree with her on much, but he shares her concern about kids in foster care. He then told a story about pulling a Democratic Congressman out of the snow by his house, which he said later gained him a hearing in the House Natural Resources committee for the Milk River Infrastructure Project introduced by the entire Montana delegation.

In the Legislature, Republicans have the majority in both Houses, holding 62% of the Senate and 67% of the House. The 2021 session was the first in 16 years with a Republican governor. Gianforte said he vetoed only 17 bills; the Legislative record indicates 15.

When asked about bipartisan efforts he’s made or anticipates in the Legislature, Gianforte twice said that legislation is a messy business, but that two-thirds of the bills passed by the 2021 Legislature had more than 80% support. That means of the 707 bills passed, 220 did not have such broad support, while some bills that pass are fairly bland, such as those that clarify wording in previous laws. He said bills in the next session would also have broad support.

Bell said some voters see bipartisanship as “working together and making concessions to move the ball forward,” particularly in an evenly divide Congress. Bell asked Gianforte to define bipartisanship, particularly in a situation of majority rule.

Gianforte said it’s better to take half of what you want rather than risk losing everything. But he said he is unwilling to compromise on any of his “core principles.” He didn’t say what those principles are, and Bell didn’t ask. But he said he has a simple mission statement of creating more jobs and protecting the Montana way of life, but he didn’t elaborate. He also said he wants to reduce regulation. Many things were listed in his Montana Come Back Plan.

“This is not about what Greg wants for Montana. I campaigned on a set of principles – that gave me certain authority because I was elected on those principles. Those are the ones that I’m not going to compromise,” Gianforte said. “I’m a light-touch guy. We don’t want a heavy hand in our government.”

Quoting Robert Ingersoll’s phrase, “If you wish to know what a man really is, give him power,” Bell asked Gianforte what the test of character is for a party or people in power.

“The ultimate test of character is if you do what you said you were going to do,” Gianforte said.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Montana’s constitution, a document often praised for its environmental and personal privacy protections. One audience member asked Gianforte what he likes about the document.

“The fundamental rights, the three-part governmental system, the bicameral legislature … it’s complicated. It’s really hard to get things done. I’m so thankful for that, otherwise we’d have more government,” Gianforte said.

Bell listed four things that produce conflict – term limits, mass media, social media, political parties – and asked which is worse. Gianforte said he liked term limits, but they don’t contribute to bipartisanship.

“I would point to social media primarily. There are always two sides to every story,” Gianforte said. “What I see on social media is just one side of the story.”

Unlike former Gov. Marc Racicot who gave an earlier Mansfield Center talk about the decay of American democracy, Gianforte said “we’re a long way from the demise of democracy.”

“A piece of paper called a Constitution is not going to protect our freedoms,” Gianforte said. “It’s the engagement of citizens and the willingness of talented people to put their lives on hold to serve for a period of time to protect this experiment and freedom that we have.”

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