Flathead Politics Get Messy

By Beacon Staff

On May 18, Montana Family Foundation president Jeff Laszloffy, a former Republican legislator from Laurel, posted a radio update on his organization’s website that began: “Politics is messy. It always has been and it always will be, and because of a district court decision this week it’s bound to get a little messier. But in the end that’s actually a good thing.”

Laszloffy was referring to a May 16 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell of Helena. Lovell threw out Montana’s ban on corporate donations that finance independent expenditures in campaigns, but most notably pertaining to Laszloffy’s statement, the judge struck down two of the state’s “clean campaign” laws. Laszloffy, like the plaintiffs, saw Lovell’s decision as a victory for free speech.

Laszloffy’s Montana Family Foundation out of Laurel and American Tradition Partnership out of Washington D.C., one of the plaintiffs in the Lovell case, have recently unleashed a series of mailers and advertisements targeting Republican primary races in the Flathead Valley. Laszloffy said in an interview that he already planned to do the mailers and ads before Lovell’s decision.

The lion’s share of the advertisements have been aimed at Sen. Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell, the Senate President Pro Tempore who is facing a primary challenge for his Senate District 3 seat from political newcomer Republican Rollan Roberts II. Tutvedt says the attacks contain “absolute lies” and are dirty politics by far-right groups trying to promote their “extremist” agenda and change up the Senate leadership.

“Negative ads work and we’ll see if a candidate who runs with a strong jobs record can withstand this kind of negative campaigning,” Tutvedt said last week.

In his radio address, Laszloffy says the political system isn’t perfect and chalks the attack mailers and advertisements up to a necessary component of the process, explaining that “there are two types of attack ads” – ones that honestly go after a candidate’s record and ones that are lies. The lies are unacceptable, he says, but the attacks on a candidate’s record are fair game.

“The worst part of it are the constant radio ads and postcards that fill up our mailboxes,” Laszloffy said. “But embedded in all of that is the key that actually makes our system work when so many others have failed.”

“As I said, politics is a messy game,” he added. “But in the end, free speech has to trump any attempt to make it less messy because free speech and liberty go hand in hand.”

In addition to the ads against Tutvedt, the Montana Family Foundation has been campaigning against Sen. Carmine Mowbray of Polson. Mowbray is defending her Senate District 6 seat against two Republican challengers: Rep. Janna Taylor of Dayton and Michael Larson of Polson.

Tutvedt and Mowbray were the only two Republicans to vote against HB 456, which sought to establish new requirements for sexual education in Montana schools. Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the bill.

The mailer distributed by the Montana Family Foundation suggests Tutvedt voted to allow fifth graders to be taught different sexual positions and variations and to allow “kindergarten students to be taught sexual detail without parental consent,” among other assertions. The radio ads make similar claims.

“That’s all just a lie,” Tutvedt said.

Both Tutvedt and Mowbray say they actually voted to keep sexual education decision-making in the hands of local school boards and parents, rather than state mandates.

Tutvedt said he hasn’t ever heard any complaints from school administrators or parents about sex education subject matter. Kindergarteners, he said, learn about inappropriate touching, but not sexual subject matter. Mowbray, who said she does not condone Planned Parenthood material in the schools, attended classes and found the material appropriate. And she said the option to opt out was available.

“Statement bills like (HB 456) use up a lot of expensive time, and were part of why the public thought last session was contentious and unproductive,” Mowbray said.

Laszloffy points to a section of the Helena Public Schools health enhancement curriculum as evidence of sexual subject matter taught to young kids, though Tutvedt said that is also inaccurate. While Laszloffy describes what he sees as the necessary messiness of attack ads in his radio address, in an interview he said he draws the line at truth.

“I just don’t think there’s room in the process for lies, period,” he said. “We don’t even get into innuendo. Every statement we made in there is true. We can back it up and document it.”

Taylor, Mowbray’s opponent, said the Montana Family Foundation has distributed a mailer supporting her, in addition to the negative ad against Mowbray. While Taylor touts her 100 percent rating with the Montana Family Foundation and acknowledges the ads are meant to boost her campaign, she said she would prefer to keep the third-party meddling out of the election.

“I had nothing to do with (the mailers),” Taylor said. “If they would have asked me, I would have said stay out.”

Taylor has also been the subject of negative mailers. She said a group called Montana Hunters and Anglers sent out a mailer calling her a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and criticizing her for receiving federal payments for her ranch. Taylor said third parties seem particularly busy for a legislative primary.

“How much money goes into these third-party mailers?” she said. “How do you stop them?”

On the day of Lovell’s ruling, American Tradition Partnership posted an announcement on its website declaring, “ATP wins yet another case against Montana politicians.” The organization has become known for its opposition to Montana’s campaign finance laws and is currently engaged in a high-profile battle with Attorney General Steve Bullock over the state’s century-old ban on corporate spending in political races.

“This is a victory for the free speech rights of all Americans, and a loss for Montana politicians trying to squelch the voices of grassroots citizens challenging their power,” Donald Ferguson, ATP’s executive director, said of Lovell’s decision in a statement.

Tutvedt was discouraged by ATP’s boast that Lovell’s ruling means the state can no longer “prohibit political speech about candidate voting records the state judged ‘false.’” The senator interprets that as a free pass to misrepresent candidates’ records.

Ferguson didn’t return a voice message before the Beacon went to print.

American Tradition Partnership has paid for mailers and radio ads expressing opposition to Tutvedt and Rep. Bill Beck of Whitefish. Beck is squaring off against political veteran Dee Brown of Coram and Suzanne Brooks of Whitefish for the open Senate District 2 seat.

A group called Taxpayers for Liberty with a Washington D.C. address has distributed mailers claiming Tutvedt “supports government-run” health care.

“My record is very clear that I voted against Obamacare,” Tutvedt said.

American Tradition Partnership goes after Tutvedt, who is a farmer, for accepting federal subsidies, an “anti-job voting record” and voting for HB 198, which dealt with eminent domain for energy utilities. The group also sent out a postcard against Beck for voting for HB 198. American Tradition Partnership has a Bozeman address on the mailers.

“People should not put a lot of stock into the negative ads,” Beck said. “Do your research and don’t take it at face value.”

Tutvedt, who has a 100 percent rating from the Montana Chamber of Commerce and was named legislator of the year by the Montana Building Industry Association, said his jobs record speaks for itself. And he said HB 198 merely “formalized what was already understood to be the law” concerning utilities’ power of eminent domain and will generate millions of dollars for the state.

“Without eminent domain, we won’t have pipelines and electrical transmission lines,” Tutvedt said. “If you want energy production and pipelines, this is one of the costs.”

From now until the June 5 primary, the candidates expect the third-party activity to continue, if not increase. And they’re not enthused. In Montana’s citizen Legislature, they don’t believe there’s a place for all of the outside money.

“I don’t think the voters appreciate it,” Mowbray said. “I think they recognize it as deception.”

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