After mailers, Missoula conservatives push back on outside spending in City Council races

The Montana League of Conservation Voters Action Fund has endorsed six City Council candidates due to their support of public lands, conservation and fighting climate change. Area conservatives say the political action committee should receive the same scrutiny that Missoulians for Missoula received earlier this week in the local press. (Missoula Current file photo)

Conservative members of Missoula’s voting block on Thursday pushed back on claims of outside money in local politics, accusing the Montana League of Conservation Voters of participating in next month’s City Council race with its own calls and endorsements.

Earlier this week, liberal candidates running for Missoula City Council sounded the alarm after a conservative political action committee based in Helena, dubbed “Missoulians for Missoula,” distributed misleading mailers to mailboxes in three city wards, suggesting the candidates were “wrong for Missoula.”

Social media took flight, with many saying that outside money had no place in Missoula’s municipal races. Three of the candidates targeted by the mailers also pushed back in an op-ed, writing in part that “meddling in the election process for our City Council races is against our democratic values.”

On Thursday, conservatives took similar issue with Montana Conservation Voters. The organization endorsed six City Council candidates, including Heidi West, Mirtha Becerra, Gwen Jones, Amber Sherrill, Alex Fregerio and Nick Shontz.

Missoula City Council member Jesse Ramos, who has assembled a team of candidates he’s dubbed “Team Liberty,” was critical of the organization. He said Montana Conservation Voters’ support of its chosen candidates was no different than Missoulians for Missoula supporting his field of candidates.

“Montana Conservation Voters is a dark money organization funded largely by the League of Conservation Voters that is headquartered on K Street in (Washington) D.C. with contributors from all over the world,” Ramos said. “We have no idea who these contributors are and have no way to monitor their dealings with the city.”

The organization is actually headquartered at 740 15th Street in Washington, D.C.

Aaron Murphy, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, said his organization is independent from the national organization. The state organization only endorses candidates that meet its core values, including the protection of public lands, open space, the environment and fighting climate change.

Murphy said any candidate from any party can seek the organization’s endorsement. The endorsement process involves a volunteer board of directors from the Montana Conservation Voters Action Fund.

“For 20 years, the MCV Action Fund has proudly endorsed folks from across the political spectrum who are committed to protecting our climate, our environment, and Montana’s public lands and open spaces,” Murphy said. “We’re not in the business of electing conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats. We’re in the business of electing champions who have the courage to prioritize conservation over partisan politics.”

A screenshot of the most recent financial report from the Montana Conservation Voters Action Fund. The fund had one contribution and one expense during the period ending on Sept. 30.

The Montana Conservation Voters Fund is listed by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices as an independent political action committee with addresses in both Missoula and Billings. The committee is supported by its organization’s members “to directly support the election of conservation candidates.”

The organization’s finance report showed a contribution to the committee of $38,000 on Sept. 6 from the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund in Washington, D.C. The most recent report, ending on Sept. 30, showed the Montana Action Fund had roughly $48,000 in the bank.

“I and many of my friends have received text messages from the Montana Conservation Voters telling us to vote for Mirtha Becerra in Ward 2,” said Thomas Graham, who accused the local media of being one-sided in its reporting of outside money in local races. “The League of Conservation Voters is a dark money group with massive national donors and transfers from one of the largest dark money groups in the nation.”

The registration form submitted by the Montana Conservation Voters Action Fund to the Commissioner of Political Practices lists the names and contacts of its local officers, unlike Missoulians for Missoula, which only identifies its treasurer.

The treasurer for Missoulians for Missoula never responded to a request for comment this week, though Ramos defended the organization.

“The local business owners who contributed to the (Missoulians for Missoula) PAC are patriots taking on the Missoula establishment,” he said. “The donors of Missoula Conservation Voters are risking nothing and hiding behind a dark money PAC.”

Murphy said Ramo’s remarks miss the point.

“Mr. Ramos can’t even get basic facts straight, and that speaks volumes about what’s going on here.”