Complaints, backlash, with national Realtors’ involvement in Missoula campaign

By: - August 5, 2023 2:18 pm

(Photo illustration by Getty Images.)

The National Association of Realtors’ activity in a mayor’s race in Montana, including spending “unprecedented” cash, is prompting complaints and blowback about the group’s influence in local democracy.

The association’s political activity nationally has historically elicited wins for its chosen candidates, according to its own political reports.

However, in Missoula, its support of Realtor and Councilor Mike Nugent in the mayor’s race has prompted backlash.

For example, a former mayor withdrew support for Nugent. Also, the Commissioner of Political Practices accepted two complaints against a political committee backed by the association alleging six campaign finance violations altogether.

Nugent is taking on incumbent Mayor Jordan Hess and three other candidates.

While Nugent has said his campaign is separate from the committee funded by the Realtors and he and the committee treasurer have said they are not coordinating political activities, the Realtors have poured $125,000 into Nugent’s run.

“To put it in perspective, this is as much money as all five mayoral candidates have raised combined,” wrote Derek Goldman, who filed one of the pending complaints.

The campaign finance complaints allege a lack of transparency by the Realtors in their activities to influence the local race.

One points to the vague name of the committee, “Missoula Mayor,” which “fails to disclose the name of the candidate for which it is spending money in support.”

In a piece explaining the reason he filed a complaint, Goldman points to a “Nugent for Mayor” billboard. He said the billboard indicates it was paid for by “Missoula Mayor.”

“Without searching through filings in a state database, we would never know that Missoula Mayor is actually a front for the real estate lobby,” Goldman wrote in the companion piece to his complaint.

In a response to the Commissioner of Political Practices, committee treasurers Shannon Winterer and Jim Bachand said the lack of disclosure in its statement of purpose was “unintentional and not meant to mislead.”

Bachand is the CEO of the Missoula Organization of Realtors, and Winterer is also a Realtor.

“We promptly corrected this error as soon as we became aware of it and before the complaint was filed,” the response said.

The treasurers also said “expenses reported clearly demonstrated” the committee’s sole purpose was to support Nugent.

The second complaint alleges a poll conducted in Missoula in April estimated to cost at least $15,000 to $25,000 in support of Nugent was not disclosed in campaign finance reports.

In it, retired campaign management and public policy expert C.B. Pearson alleges four violations of Montana statutes, including a requirement to disclose “anything of value” and to file “true, complete” reports.

In the complaint, Pearson said he was working only on behalf of himself.

Citing as evidence two witnesses who were polled and the campaign finance reports of the National Association of Realtors, Missoula Organization of Realtors, and/or Missoula Mayor committee, he said the groups failed to disclose the poll and related activity and costs.

“It is my allegation … this omission was intended to hide both the money, its source and the timeline of activity to support the independent committee activity to support candidate Mike Nugent for Mayor,” Pearson said in his complaint.

He said it’s likely the national and local Realtors conducted the private poll to finesse messages in support of Nugent while the Missoula Organization of Realtors evaluated all candidates through a questionnaire and interview — in a public process.

Screenshots of the poll filed with the complaint asked questions about how important an issue might be to convince a voter to support Nugent.

For example: “Here is a reason why some people are voting for Mike Nugent. Nugent knows that property taxes are too high and make the cost of housing even higher … How convincing of a reason is that for you?”

Said Pearson in an interview: “You basically were making people do work, and you were lying to them that this was an objective process. That to me is totally unethical.”

Bachand declined to comment on the allegation. However, he said both the local and national Realtors groups are “in full compliance” with Montana laws.

Nugent also has told the Daily Montanan he was not involved in the poll.

Former Missoula Mayor Daniel Kemmis, who withdrew support for Nugent after he learned the National Association of Realtors was spending “this unprecedented amount of money” in the race, said it won’t be easy to keep such money out of local politics.

Kemmis is author of several books, including “Citizens Uniting to Restore our Democracy.” The book discusses in part the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which “amplified the role of big money in American politics.”

In an interview this week, Kemmis said everybody in Missoula should take notice of the Realtors’ influence in the local election.

If the Realtors win, he said he anticipates they’ll get involved in county commissioner races, and “every rapidly growing town or city in Montana will be subject to the same kind of influence.”

“It’s pretty clear to me that if this gambit works, it won’t be the last we have seen of it,” Kemmis said.

Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus said this week both complaints generated an initial acceptance letter and merit response.

Gallus said he planned to disclose in his own letter regarding the second complaint that he has represented the National Association of Realtors in the past; he said he namely advised on process, such as how to properly file disclaimers.

Gallus also said he has consulted with organizations such as the State Bar of Montana about when he should recuse himself, and at this point in the process, said his duties are more ministerial and do not require him to step aside.

It isn’t unusual for national groups to get involved at the local level, Gallus said, but he also said he anticipates more activity in the future: “I expect 2024 especially to be very active.”

Kemmis, who writes about democracy and served as mayor of Missoula from 1990 to fall 1996, said ever since the Citizens United decision, the flood of money into new races has been steady and determined.

“We’ve seen it, for example, entering judicial races with a vengeance,” Kemmis said.

He said there’s no reason to think parties with vested interests that have a lot to gain won’t push to elect friendly officeholders, and because local governments handle land use, Realtors get involved.

“They don’t do it because they love Missoula. They do it because they have something to gain,” Kemmis said.

The money from the national Realtors buoys Nugent even without his direct involvement. But it also triggers blowback.

“I do think Mike Nugent is well-meaning,” Kemmis said. “I don’t doubt that at all. What I do doubt is that he was totally incapable of stopping this from happening.

“He’s a member of the local Realtors’ organization. He must have known what was afoot. And he could have asked his colleagues here in Missoula not to go into this arena.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.