Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks at University of Montana about bipartisanship
‘There are so many ways this could go wrong’
The M on Mt. Sentinel stands above Main Hall on the University of Montana campus. (Provided by the University of Montana)
Gov. Greg Gianforte said he goes into every conversation expecting to learn something, a lesson he took away from influential and controversial author Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life.”
In the 2021 Montana Legislature, the Republican governor met with majority and minority leadership every week, with no agenda, he said. If you hear the critic, he said, the outcome is more robust, even if you don’t do what the critic is asking.
Gianforte, also a multimillionaire businessman, spoke Monday for the Mansfield Dialogues at the University of Montana in a conversation moderated by David Bell of ALPS Corporation. The event, “Reflections on the Challenges and Opportunities for Bipartisanship,” drew 120 people in person and 415 via Zoom, according to UM.
In his talk, Gianforte said he reads four or five nonfiction books each month, including recently one about territorial politics in Montana. International bestseller “12 Rules for Life” is by a Canadian psychologist and former Harvard professor who believes feminism has gone too far and has said the masculine spirit is under siege.
In his opening, Bell acknowledged the group that had gathered in the University Center ballroom represented “one of the most ideologically diverse rooms” he’d seen in liberal Missoula. Bell, also the Mansfield Center advisory board chair, shared an observation from his teenage son about the event too: “There are so many ways this could go wrong.”
As such, Bell thanked the governor for accepting the invitation; he said politicians like safe and predictable environments, and the discussion topic and place were neither. A former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gianforte was the first Republican elected as governor in Montana in 16 years in 2020.
In the hour-long talk to audience members including legislators, top state officials, and influential community members, Gianforte shared his observations from tours across Montana, examples of how he has reached across the aisle, a couple of items on his to-do list, and his belief that breaking bread together is key to building bridges.
“I’m Italian,” said Gianforte, who noted he and his wife, Susan Gianforte, frequently entertain. “You make food. And you eat together and you understand each other better.”
Participants submitted questions in advance, and Bell read several versions of inquiries about how Gianforte is reaching across the aisle. Audience members also could submit questions during the event, although the governor took screened questions from the moderator but not live questions.
In response to a series of questions about bipartisanship, Gianforte offered a recent example of his own action after being elected governor, and also a tale as congressman of sharing dinner in a Montana winter with liberal Democrats and the result for the Treasure State later.
Gianforte said after he was elected, he called every single legislator, regardless of their politics: “I think there were a few people that were shocked to hear from me.” (In his opening, Bell asked people to do their best to resist confirmation bias and possibly allow their perspectives to broaden.)
As for his time in Washington, D.C., Gianforte said he sat on one of the most “hyper-partisan” committees, the House Committee for Natural Resources, and in basketball terms, he said it was “shirts and skins all the time.” In political terms, he said, it was Democrats talking constantly about climate change, and Republicans talking “frack, baby frack.”
The Mansfield Dialogues are recorded. Click here to watch the event with Gov. Greg Gianforte. Coming up April 18 is “Fostering Freedom at Home and Abroad: A Conversation with Condoleezza Rice and Michael McFaul.”
He tried to stay out of it, he said, and when one of the Democrats told him he and two of the other most liberal members of the committee were heading to Yellowstone National Park to see wolves, Gianforte invited them to have dinner at his Bozeman home.
In a two-wheel drive sedan, he said the visitors slid off tracks into deep snow, and they trudged in the snow to his house after Gianforte hiked in the snow to get them (he could think of only one way to greet them: “I said, ‘Welcome to Montana’”). After dinner, Gianforte said he towed them back to the road with his John Deere tractor.
After the Democrats won the majority in the U.S. House, one of those guests, Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, got a leadership role, the governor said. When Gianforte wanted to find a way to help get funding to repair the St. Mary Canal, which supplies water to the Hi-Line, Huffman had no reason to help, but he did, Gianforte said; the governor joked that he reminded Huffman he’d still be in the snowbank if not for help from the Montanan.
“He gave me the hearing, and we got the bill passed,” Gianforte said.
In Montana, the governor also said the legislative process looks different from the outside than the inside. From the outside, it looks like people are fighting all the time, he said, but the reality is different.
He signed more than 500 bills, he said, and 69 percent of the bills that passed and got his signature had 80 percent to 100 percent approval from the legislative branch. “I signed almost everything that got to me,” Gianforte said.
As examples of bipartisan work, he named the M-TEC trades in education bill that helps small employers, the elimination of telehealth restrictions, increases in starting teacher pay, distribution of American Rescue Plan Act funds, and work to help missing and murdered Indigenous persons. Gianforte said he anticipates bipartisan support for initiatives in 2023 as well.
As for one of the contributors to the divisive nature of politics, Gianforte pointed to social media as a serious culprit. On social media, people tell just one side of a story, often with a pejorative, he said, and he said he tries to make sure in discussions he’s saying something that is true, needs to be said, and is kind rather than insulting or confrontational.
“I think our behavior as individuals has deteriorated,” Gianforte said.
In 2017, Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault after he bodyslammed a Guardian reporter in Bozeman. A Bozeman Chronicle story said reports from law enforcement and witness interviews indicated Gianforte misled authorities about the incident. The Chronicle noted Gianforte apologized to the reporter the following day, and later as part of a settlement, he apologized in writing and said his conduct did not meet the high standards to which he should be held.
At the Monday event, the governor said he sees much more bipartisanship in Montana than in Washington, D.C. He lauded the citizen legislature and the fact that lawmakers all have day jobs and have to leave the Capitol as one factor that contributes to the ability of lawmakers to work together.
“They’re going home to reality, and they bring reality back to Helena,” Gianforte said.
Every year, he tours Montana to hear from people directly, and he said he’s seeing a desperate need for rain with ranchers getting ready to sell off herds, communities without enough jobs, and places where addiction is running rampant and families are falling apart. He said he is motivated by believing Montana is not reaching its full potential and by wanting to see more of his grandchildren and helping to create more opportunities in the state.
“That is a unifying thing, not a divisive thing,” Gianforte said.
One audience member wanted to know what the governor cherished about the Montana Constitution, a “foundational bipartisan document” commemorating its 50th anniversary this year.
“We are so blessed,” Gianforte said. He said he loves history and just finished the book about territorial politics in Montana. “I think the fundamental rights that are encompassed there, the three part governmental system, the bicameral legislature … it’s complicated, and it’s really hard to get stuff done, and I’m so thankful for that because we’d have more government otherwise.”
As for an effort to decrease government, he highlighted a “red-tape relief” project that’s underway. The governor said a computer analysis of Montana’s tens of thousands of regulations said people would need a doctorate and post-doctorate fellowship in order to understand them.
Some regulations make sense, he said, but he would like the regulations to be accessible to small business owners on Main Street: “I think there’s room for improvement.”
A gift inspired by Mike Mansfield
At the end of the conversation with Gov. Greg Gianforte, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar presented the governor with a gift on behalf of the campus and the Mansfield Center.
In honor of the late Sen. Mike Mansfield and longest serving majority leader in the U.S. Senate, Bodnar gave Gianforte a wood carving with a “very Mansfield-esque” quote that represented the brevity of the Montanan’s responses when often answering long and detailed questions from reporters, Bodnar said. Made by Mansfield Center advisory board member and author Jon Bennion, the carving illustrated the face of Mansfield, also U.S. ambassador to Japan, and the quote, “Yep.”
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