Showdown for PSC

By Kellyn Brown

Last week’s primaries set the stage for plenty of interesting matchups, but one that may have gone unnoticed is the race for the Public Service Commission District 3 seat, where incumbent Democrat John Vincent will face Republican Roger Koopman in a general election showdown of epic proportions.

Having worked in Bozeman, and witnessed the animosity between these two men firsthand, watching the primary returns gave me a sense of déjà vu. In 2006, the House District 70 race between them was about as ugly as it gets.

In the run-up to that election, after Vincent had demanded an apology for an opinion piece his opponent wrote in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Koopman scoffed, “He (Vincent) may have been a respectable figure once, but now he is a public disgrace.”

Vincent countered with a series of attack ads against Koopman, questioning the lawmaker’s record on fighting meth abuse; saying he doesn’t support public education; and pointing to his cantankerous time in the previous legislative session in which he referred to his chamber as “lice on the body politic.”

One of Vincent’s ads proclaimed in all caps in the local newspaper: “ROGER KOOPMAN RISING BELOW HIS PRINCIPLES!”

Koopman ended up filing two complaints against Vincent with the Montana commissioner of political practices. Koopman, the incumbent, also ended up winning the election, 2,630 to 2,342.

Two years later, Vincent, a former legislator, mayor and county commissioner, decided to run for the PSC seat. Those elections, especially during a presidential year, garner little attention, although the five-person commission wields exceptional power by regulating everything from Montana’s utilities to its taxi services. Vincent edged out Republican Alan Olson 51,669 to 46,728.

Meanwhile, Koopman (to just about everybody’s surprise) decided against running for reelection in 2008. Instead he launched the so-called “Liberty Project,” which aimed to recruit “pro-freedom constitutional conservatives” candidates to challenge GOP incumbent state lawmakers he considered too moderate. The results were mixed.

Koopman, then with the Montana Conservative Alliance, repeated his efforts in 2010, and even sent out a survey for Republican primary candidates to complete that would supposedly judge their conservatism. Many ignored the test, including former Whitefish representative and current state auditor candidate Derek Skees, of whom Koopman said needed “to be carefully checked out, and possibly other candidates recruited.”

For Koopman to suggest Skees wasn’t conservative enough tells you a little bit about the merits of his survey.

During the years Koopman was irking his former colleagues, Vincent was sitting on a Public Service Commission that was perhaps as controversial as ever. Following 2010’s election, Republicans held a 3-2 advantage on the PSC, but the majority leadership quickly fractured.

Newly elected Travis Kavulla refused to support his GOP colleague Brad Molnar as chairman until he signed a code of conduct. Molnar, who has been fined for ethics law violations and was accused of a hit and run, reportedly called Kavulla “the biggest lowlife mother f—– who ever climbed out from under a rock.”

Fellow Republican Bill Gallagher was eventually appointed chairman, but that was short-lived after Kavulla and two Democrats accused him of taking a secret trip with Molnar to Washington, D.C. Now Kavulla, who aligned with Democrats, is chairman.

I bet if Kavulla took Koopman’s GOP purity test he would fail miserably. Not only would Kavulla be a RINO (Republican in Name Only), according to Koopman’s test, but he actually turned on his own party.

The government body tasked with guiding the state’s energy policy has been the embodiment of dysfunction the last two years. And now three positions are up for grabs. But none will be as closely watched as that between Vincent and Koopman.

Whoever wins, perhaps every member should sign a code of conduct and vow not to repeat the last tumultuous two years. That would be far more effective than a litmus test of any political stripes.