Ochenski: Republicans are right 

In-fighting in the in-crowd

After 15 long years of grinding Montana into the dust under one-party rule, there’s been woefully little about which to say the Republicans are right. But now, in what is surely the dirtiest Republican primary campaign in recent memory, watching the candidates go after each other is providing almost limitless opportunities to agree with them.

Starting with the governor’s race, let’s look at the brutish battle between Secretary of State Bob Brown and his primary challenger Pat Davison. Back in February, Brown went after Davison for taking money from the top executives at PPL during a trip to their Allentown, Penn., offices.

For those new to the state, PPL stands for Pennsylvania Power and Light, the energy conglomerate that bought the hydroelectric dams built and paid for by Montana consumers and formerly owned by the now defunct Montana Power Company. Only through the disaster of deregulation (which even the Republicans now say they regret) did our state lose these dams that had provided clean, cheap, reliable electricity for nearly a century.

“I think it was a mistake,” said Brown. “I certainly wouldn’t feel right about taking campaign cash from corporate officials who are making record profits from Montanans who are turning down their thermostats because they can’t afford to heat their homes.”

The electricity price increases that have hit Montana’s residents and businesses hard since PPL took over the dams no doubt contributed greatly to PPL’s record $734 million in earnings last year. Those earnings are especially ignominious when you consider this same company protested its taxes on the dams, saying they were over-valued after previously defeating a citizen initiative effort to “Buy Back the Dams” by claiming they were worth so much the state couldn’t afford them.

Do we want a potential future governor in the pocket of PPL? No way, Jose. So, on this count, Republican Bob Brown is right.

On the other side of that coin, Davison has challenged Brown’s use of the secretary of state’s office to promote his gubernatorial campaign. Specifically, Davison points to the seemingly endless series of so-called “public service announcements” featuring Brown prominently while supposedly informing Montana’s citizens of the wonderful features of the new federal Hassle Americans Who Vote Act—no, wait, that’s the Help America Vote Act.

Davison has filed an ethics complaint with the state’s commissioner of political practices alleging that Brown has spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in what he called “an egregious violation of the public’s trust” to run advertising that largely promotes Brown and his candidacy.

Moreover, Davison says Brown’s campaign manager, Jason Thielman, abused his position as chief deputy secretary of state by working on Brown’s campaign and attending a GOP campaign school last year. Thielman, who is nothing if not a political operative, of course denies any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Once again, a Republican is right, only this time it’s Pat Davison. Of course Brown is using his office to help his campaign. It would be great to say “it ain’t so,” but the reality is that virtually every sitting officeholder with ambitions for election to higher office, or even just re-election to the same office, uses every tool at their disposal to their advantage. And putting future campaign managers on staff to get the job done is not something Bob Brown invented…it has been endemic to both Democrat and Republican statewide elected officials throughout recent memory.

This snarly little battle got even hotter when Brown supporter and Republican activist Louise Galt filed a campaign complaint alleging that Davison’s running mate, Dave Mihalic, filed illegally for office, since he has not been a Montana citizen for the required two years prior to the election. Based on some of Thielman’s research, Galt revealed that Mihalic voted in California’s last general election, which means he will be two days short of meeting the Montana residency requirements by the time our election is held in November. Since you can’t be a resident of two states at once, it would appear that Republican Galt is right.

But hey, why should just the top ticket have all the fun? A little lower down the line, Brad Johnson and Todd O’Hair, the Repub candidates for secretary of state, are going at each other, too. Johnson recently wrote a letter to O’Hair saying he, too, is abusing his position as Gov. Martz’ natural resource adviser to benefit his campaign.

According to Johnson, O’Hair is using the governor’s office as “stealth campaign headquarters,” pointing out that O’Hair has spent nearly a fifth of his time away from his job since he began his campaign six months ago. “I think that being away from the job 20 percent of the time is an abuse, from the standpoint of using that time to campaign for elected office,” Johnson says. Johnson also says it was “an error in judgment” for O’Hair to take campaign money from people involved in natural resource issues which may come before the state’s Board of Land Commissioners, since O’Hair advises Martz on those very issues.

Johnson points out that O’Hair claims to have been working while making trips to Sidney, Kalispell and Butte where, conveniently, he attended and addressed GOP events. O’Hair says he was on state business and took his own time to attend the events.

O’Hair calls Johnson’s allegations “a desperate attempt to salvage a failing campaign.” Gov. Martz, ever the paradigm of propriety in public office, finds no fault with O’Hair and claims “he has always understood the trust required of a public servant and his integrity is without question.” You might want to consider, however, that O’Hair’s campaign chair is Betti Hill, who resigned from Martz’ staff after phone records showed she made Martz campaign calls on state phones.

Clearly (as mumbling Marc Racicot would say while laying out his muddy logic), if all these Republican candidates are right about their opponents, the only thing wrong—if integrity matters—would be to vote for any of them.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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