HELENA — Religion plays a central role in the life of Greg Gianforte, who is exploring a run for the Republican nomination for Montana governor in 2016, but it’s a topic that the Bozeman entrepreneur and philanthropist declines to speak about at this stage.
Politicians from county commissioner to presidents have been moved to service by their religious beliefs, and many voters view faith as a strong indicator of character. Gianforte has not broached religion as a campaign issue, but an Associated Press review found that he used his entrepreneurial success to fund projects that share his beliefs.
Gianforte is considering his first run for office after building RightNow Technologies from a tech support startup into a $1.5 billion company he sold in 2011. With no political record, Gianforte’s contributions are an indicator of what he stands for outside the tech world.
He has donated millions of dollars to religious organizations in the U.S. and in Africa. Closer to home, he funded expansions of his nondenominational church and the Christian school his children attended, Petra Academy. He has helped fund organizations that lobby lawmakers on issues in line with his religious views — but has also donated millions for scholarships for K-12 students in Montana.
The 54-year-old father of four in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday declined to speak about how his faith might guide his decisions or policy choices as governor. His focus is on bringing high-paying jobs to the state, he said.
“If I choose to run, and I’m elected, I need to be the governor of every single Montanan,” Gianforte said. “As I travel the state, I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of meetings. The focus is on jobs, that’s what people want to talk about.”
Before he hired Steve Daines as a RightNow executive or supported Daines’ successful campaigns for U.S. House and Senate, Gianforte partnered with the Daines family in 1999 to build a business park in southern Bozeman where he would spend the next decade of his life. They bought land across the street from where Gianforte was simultaneously helping build Grace Bible Church.
Gianforte moved his company and Petra Academy to the park once it was completed. When Petra outgrew the office building, Gianforte invested millions more dollars to relocate the school in 2011 to a state-of-the-art facility on a larger plot of land he owns in western Bozeman.
“I think, because the Gianfortes are very generous people, in their entrepreneurial success they’ve had the opportunity and ability to invest in things they really believe in,” said Craig Dunham, whom Gianforte hired this year to be the school’s headmaster.
One former employee said Gianforte never kept his religion a secret, but he did keep it out of the office.
“He’s the consummate professional. He made a point not to push that on people,” said Laef Olson, former RightNow chief information officer and a Petra board member for five years. “But everyone knew where he stood on those things.”
Most of the approximately $36 million the Gianforte family has donated through a private trust in the last decade has benefited Christian-based organizations, the AP found in a review of Gianforte Family Foundation tax disclosures. They include organizations in the U.S. and Africa that conduct research, teach, foster children and promote missionary work.
The philanthropy includes about $2.3 million in scholarships to help K-12 students afford tuition at private schools in Montana. It also includes hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-abortion groups and more than $150,000 to organizations that promote creationism.
Christians who view the stories of the Old Testament as historical fact have come to be known as creationists, and many argue that the world was created by God a few thousand years ago.
In recent years, Gianforte has become more involved in local and state politics. The Montana Family Foundation, a Gianforte-funded grassroots organization whose president spearheaded Montana’s 2004 adoption of a heterosexual-only definition of marriage, helped write a proposal this year that would have allowed Montanans to challenge state laws that they believe burden their religious freedoms.
At the time, bill sponsor Rep. Carl Glimm of Kila said the proposal would allow clerks not to issue licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds. The bill failed in the Montana House on a 50-50 vote.
Gianforte and his wife, Susan, also vocally opposed a Bozeman non-discrimination ordinance aimed at protecting gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. Council members passed the ordinance last year with an exemption for religious organizations.
Bozeman Republican Mayor Jeff Krauss, who was on the opposite side of Gianforte in that debate, said he doesn’t believe Gianforte’s religious beliefs will be the determining factor in his electability.
“His candidacy will rise and fall on his popularity with Montana voters, particularly with the Republican voters I think, not particularly what he does on Sunday or Saturday or whatever day he does it,” Krauss said.
So far, Gianforte’s main primary opponent is Brad Johnson, a former secretary of state and current chairman of Montana Public Service Commission. The Republican nominee will challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, whose popularity has risen with continued economic recovery.