Barrett: Careful review of policy reveals Cooney as best choice for governor

Evan Barrett

Since 1968 I’ve known and worked with every Montana Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Senator and Congressperson, Republicans and Democrats alike, from Forrest Anderson to Jon Tester (except Steve Daines).

I feel comfortable evaluating candidates for Governor, Mike Cooney and Greg Gianforte. Not an intimate of either, I’ve known and worked with both – 40 years with Cooney, about 20 years with Gianforte.

I’m philosophically progressive, but I’ve made every effort to be objective in my review. My conclusion is a vote for Mike Cooney for Governor. I looked at several policy areas: public education, public land and stream access, taxation, and non-discrimination; as well as money in politics and media access.

Mike Cooney believes that our limited state tax dollars for education should go to public education and not diverted to private schools, a stark contrast with Gianforte’s strong advocacy for public money going to private schools. Both are firm and open advocates for their positions, but mark this one for Cooney.

Cooney has been a consistent advocate for public lands and stream access, a critical issue to all Montanans. While Gianforte “talks the talk,” his history finds him walking a different walk. In 2009, when I was with Governor Schweitzer, Gianforte filed a lawsuit against the state to end an easement for public access to the East Gallatin River that crossed his property. Though ultimately resolved, that lawsuit spoke volumes to Schweitzer and many others that Gianforte’s words about public access rang hollow. Combine that with support for sale of public lands that is consistently advanced by Montana Republican Party leaders, and my choice on this important issue is clearly with Cooney.

Both candidates say they oppose a general sales tax. I have had dozens of tax discussions with Mike Cooney over 40 years; in every discussion he’s adamantly opposed a sales tax. My history on this with Gianforte is different. In 2002 or 2003, I moderated a Montana Ambassadors public policy panel discussion where Greg Gianforte was a panelist. On taxes, Gianforte spent virtually all of his time strongly calling for a state sales tax. He now says his support for the sales tax was only hypothetical. But his strong, adamant sales tax advocacy on that panel was certainly not hypothetical. So, on the sales tax, I’m more comfortable with Cooney.

On whether Montana should have a state law and/or local ordinances against discrimination, Gianforte’s public record is terrible. He has consistently opposed non-discrimination ordinances (NDOs). I personally appeared before the Bozeman City Commission in support of the very NDO that Gianforte was the most visible opponent. Gianforte also provided over a million dollars to organizations that oppose NDOs, essentially supporting discrimination. Mike Cooney 100% supports non-discrimination, which is where Montana’s Governor ought to be.

In 2012, 75% of Montana voters at the ballot box adopted by initiative a state policy that money did not equal free speech and corporations were not people. Cooney, like Governor Bullock, has been a strong proponent of that state policy opposing big money politics. The Governor’s record is probably the best in the nation and Mike’s mirrors that. Gianforte supports the big money politics of Citizens United in opposition to what the people of Montana have adopted.

In addition, between 2016 and this year, Gianforte is approaching $10 million of personal money he’s spending in pursuit of your governorship. I expect him to pass $10 million in the final weeks. Should he win, Gianforte will have spent more to get elected than any other candidate except for the nefarious Copper King W.A. Clark, who over a century ago bribed his way to the US Senate. Can a person who puts $10 million of his own money to buy an election be expected to relate to and represent us regular Joes and Janes?

Finally, there’s the question about openness to dealing with members of the press in their role under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. I just can’t shake the memory of candidate Gianforte “body-slamming” a reporter for asking a question about healthcare, leading to a conviction of misdemeanor assault on Gianforte. Just can’t shake it.

Adding it all up, I come down for casting a comfortable vote for Mike Cooney for Governor.

Evan Barrett lives in historic Uptown Butte after retiring following 47 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is an award-winning producer of Montana history videos who continues to write columns and commentaries and occasionally teaches Montana history.