Buying your vote
The 2012 election was all about money. Even in Montana, voters found themselves inundated with messages paid for by third-party groups backed by deep-pocketed donors. Nowhere was this outside influence more prevalent than in the contentious Senate race between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Denny Rehberg. That race alone saw more than $30 million in spending, much of it by so-called "dark money" groups that masked their donors by hiding behind 501(c)(4) status. Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS directed millions at attack ads painting Tester as "Obama Lite," while groups like the League of Conservation Voters targeted Rehberg as an out-of-touch Washington hack. Tester won in the end, but nationwide, more than two-thirds of the 629 outside groups who spent heavy in 2012 backed losing candidates. One of the highest among them was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Colorado-based nonprofit American Tradition Partnership wasn't particularly active on the campaign front this year. But the group made headway on a far larger agenda: chipping away at Montana's campaign finance laws. ATP succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Montana's 100-year-old Corrupt Practices Act this summer, and later convinced a judge to eliminate the state's campaign contributions limits for statewide and local races. The latter decision only stood for six days, but in that time the state GOP managed to donate $500,000 to gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill's campaign. A ProPublica report published this fall also linked ATP to potential illegal campaign coordination activities in the 2008 and 2010 Montana elections. The suspicions stemmed from a box of ATP documents found in a meth house in Colorado. The extent of ATP's campaign activity is still coming to light.
Montana's election brought about a host of new faces in high offices. Now-former Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat, edged out Hill in the state's gubernatorial race. Bozeman conservative Steve Daines defeated state Rep. Kim Gillan, a Billings Democrat, for the U.S. House seat Rehberg vacated in his bid to oust Tester. Republicans also claimed the Office of Attorney General when Tim Fox trounced Helena attorney Pam Bucy. The closest race, however, was for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Democratic incumbent Denise Juneau beat Republican challenger Sandy Welch by a mere 2,231 votes.
Republicans retained control of both chambers of the Montana Legislature, but their power will be kept in check during the upcoming session with Bullock (figuratively, if not literally) inheriting Gov. Brian Schweitzer's veto branding iron.
Griz gone wild
The Montana Grizzlies ended the 2012 season by missing the playoffs for the second time in the last three years, falling to Montana State and finishing a lackluster 5-6. It marked the program's first losing season since 1985, but the more notable losses continued to happen off the field.
After reports of sexual assault involving members of the football teamincluding starting quarterback Jordan Johnsonand concerns over how those reports were handled by the administration, the University of Montana spent much of the year desperately trying to shake its sudden shift in reputation from "Griz Nation" to "Rape Nation." In January, President Royce Engstrom released an investigation report by former state Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz that stated, "UM has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus and needs to take steps to address it ..." Barz's findings led to the implementation of a new Student-Athlete Conduct Code and a series of community forums hosted by Engstrom, but it did little to stop the blitz of bad news.
The U.S. Department of Justice, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Department of Education all opened investigations, and the national media turned to Missoula for stories of how a bucolic college town had lost control. The New York Times and Gawker media's Jezebel blog filed two of the more notable accounts, with the latter titled, "My Weekend in America's So-Called Rape Capital."
Engstrom decided in March not to renew the contracts of athletic director Jim O'Day and head football coach Robin Pflugrad. Former assistant coach Mick Delaney came out of a short-lived retirement to assume head coaching duties and, after a national search, Kent Haslam, UM's associate athletic director during the ongoing controversy, was promoted to athletic director.
Perhaps the most notable change was an entire season without a new sexual assault charge. In fact, the now annual in-season player arrest looked quaint by comparison: Missoula Drug Task Force officers charged offensive tackle Trevor Poole with purchasing Ecstasy while attending a Halloween rave called the Disco Bloodbath.
Cannabis in the courts
For Montana's medical marijuana industry, the year was one of confusion, court appearances and ceaseless legal wrangling. After federal authorities raided dozens of caregivers who believed they were lawfully operating under the state's medical marijuana law in 2011, the caregivers spent much of 2012 battling the charges.
Most former caregivers pleaded guilty and hoped for leniency, but Montana Cannabis partner Chris Williams refused to admit wrongdoing. In September, he pleaded not guilty in federal court to eight felony drug and weapons charges. In the days leading up to his scheduled Jan. 4 sentencing, Williams faced more than 80 years in prison. Then, on Dec. 18, something extraordinary happened. Williams and the U.S. Department of Justice signed off on a post-conviction plea agreement. The highly unusual, if not unprecedented, move involved federal prosecutors opting to drop six of eight counts against Williams in exchange for Williams' agreement that he would not appeal the conviction. Rather than serving life in prison, Williams could serve as few as five years.
Williams' other partners also appeared in court this year. In September, one of the chief architects of the state's Medical Marijuana Act, Tom Daubert, received five years probation for his involvement with Montana Cannabis. "I am ruined in many respects," Daubert told Judge Dana Christensen during his sentencing.
Richard Flor, the first registered caregiver in the state, received five years in federal custody for his work with Montana Cannabis. He died on Aug. 29 while being transported from Montana to a federal institution. He was 68.
A fourth Montana Cannabis partner, Missoula attorney Chris Lindsey, also faces charges and is awaiting his sentencing on Jan. 4.
In the meantime, Lindsey, who serves as president of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, worked to toss out changes to the state's medical marijuana law made by the 2011 Montana Legislature through a ballot referendum.
While that effort failed and former caregivers continue to appear in federal court, Montana's marijuana advocates haven't given up. Emboldened by votes to legalize cannabis for recreational use in Washington and Colorado, they've initiated a new campaign to legalize marijuana outright, filing the first round of paperwork required to put the issue to voters in 2014.
"We don't have to fight defensively anymore," cannabis advocate Bob Brigham told the Independent in November. "There's nothing more they can do to us."