The campaign that would not die

Brad Molnar
An opinion
Courtesy photo.  U.S. Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte with the author, Brad Molnar, on St. Patrick’s Day in a Billings pub.

It is impossible for my fellow political junkies to not be aware the winner of Montana’s not so special election, Greg Gianforte, put the hurt on a reporter on election eve. This after he asked for Gianforte’s take on budget numbers for the recently passed U.S. House’s “Repeal and Replace.” Even the “Voice of America” broadcast the news of the alleged assault, the apology for the alleged assault, and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s views on allegedly thumping those possessing alleged press credentials, deep into China. No word yet on if this cost Gianforte support amongst wannabe undocumented Chinese immigrants. 


The law

The Montana Code Annotated has this to say on assault: MCA 45-5-201. 

(1) A person commits the offense of assault if the person: 

(a) purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another; 

(b) negligently causes bodily injury to another with a weapon; 

(c) purposely or knowingly makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with any individual; or 

(d) purposely or knowingly causes reasonable apprehension of bodily injury in another. 

(2) A person convicted of assault shall be fined not to exceed $500 or be imprisoned in the county jail for any term not to exceed 6 months, or both.  

Add the word “serious” before bodily injury and you have MCA 45-5-202; Aggravated Assault. The penalty escalates to “state prison for a term not to exceed 20 years and may be fined not more than $50,000.” But you can also commit aggravated assault by “knowingly, with the use of physical force or contact, cause reasonable apprehension of serious bodily injury …” According to witnesses Gianforte grabbed the head of the reporter, threw him to the ground, climbed on him, pummeled his head, and kicked his arm. Though not a pansy I’d be apprehensive.

“Serious” bodily injury, and apprehension, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. In this case Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said he will use his prosecutorial discretion to determine if the sore elbow suffered by the reporter was a “serious injury.” (Review is important because the sheriff that issued the citation is a Gianforte donor). With Gianforte’s apology (aka confession) and audio recordings, Lambert’s decision is critical. Even with a plea agreement to only pay a fine a conviction under MCA 45-5-202 carries registry on the violent offender’s list which is a real life changer, as is the term “felon,” as we would be punished with another $17 million special election.


Silence is golden

Refusal to answer questions was a problem throughout this and many previous campaigns. Trying to brush off the reporter’s question Gianforte told the reporter to see communications guy Shawn Scanlon. The reporter insisted on an answer from the candidate himself. The daily press has been more than willing to quote surrogates rather than insisting on speaking to the candidates to find out how they feel, or what they really know, about a subject. The surrogates consistently spun answers to match meaningless campaign ad slogans. A candidate that can’t or won’t openly discuss the issues of the day should be exposed as such. A lazy publication’s willingness to quote a surrogate may explain a drop in readership.

The press release on the incident blamed the reporter. Scanlon was not a witness. All witnesses refuted this account. Had he given this account to the police he may have been charged with obstruction of justice. But his willingness to feed this to the public is now considered professionalism.


Cause and effect

Even when a candidate directly replies to a question the response is often more embarrassing than viable. After the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Billings, Gianforte’s loyalists gathered at a restaurant. It was a month into the campaign and neither the Republican nor Democratic parties had yet supported their candidates. On the record I asked Greg Gianforte if he thought the national Republican Party would jump in with support for his campaign. His response, “I am too busy trying to figure out how to bring quality leadership to Washington to think about that. I have to go and mingle now.” For his part Quist canceled a PBS debate at the last minute. “Why” was never asked. As campaigns increasingly rely on unbridled character assassination, right or wrong, expect more outbursts from more candidates. 


The numbers

Compared to the same race for Congress, just seven months ago, Gianforte received 96,000 fewer votes than Ryan Zinke and Quist received 39,000 less than Denise Juneau. It has been surmised this is due to the fact the election was held before Memorial Day weekend and was, after all, a special election. But Wicks received 5,000 more votes than the Libertarian running for congress last fall.  Perhaps 5,000 more people voted in protest rather than did not vote in protest to modern campaign tactics. 

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