Montana Governor Steve Bullock '88 on Public Service, Integrity and the problem of “Dark Money”

It was a homecoming of sorts at the Athenaeum for Steve Bullock ’88, Governor of Montana and a Politics Philosophy Economics major during his days at CMC.

“Thirty years ago this past fall is when I first walked onto this campus,” he told attendees at an Ath presentation this week that he whimsically named: “How to Get a Job like Mine (and would you really want it?)”

“I do remember that day almost like it was yesterday,” he said. “I had never visited the campus before and had a little bit of apprehension. Coming from Montana, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that every swimming pool was outdoors. The apprehension faded about three days in when I went to my first In-N-Out Burger.”

Bullock was elected Montana’s 24th governor in 2012 and during his tenure, he’s worked to increase wages and bring better jobs to Montana, strengthen the education system and make state government more effective and transparent.

But challenges remain, and one of the biggest and most intransigent, according to Bullock, is the increasingly pivotal role money – astronomical amounts of money – plays in our elections.

“I believe we’ve come to a dangerous place in our 240-year experiment with democracy,” he said, “that at the very least impedes progress and in the worst case fundamentally threatens our ability to govern ourselves.”

To Bullock, that problem was at its most corrosive when U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. The Court’s finding held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political spending by a nonprofit corporation (a finding which has also been extended to for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations).

“Because in part, due to that decision, the greatest issue facing us today is whether corporations will control the people or will people control the corporations,” he said. “Citizens United and its aftermath, I believe, is one of the most profound threats facing us in our system of government.”

According to Bullock, in this election year, outside groups are poised to break the $1 billion mark in spending for federal races with 55 percent of that “dark money” advertising dollar coming from groups that don’t disclose who their donors are.

“And more than 80 percent of that total is spent on negative attack ads,” Bullock said. “A person with a megaphone (or using someone else’s megaphone) will always drown out the voice of someone who can only whisper.”

Despite the challenges of lack of transparency, Bullock remains an optimist about the future. “I think meaningful disclosure will start to change our system,” he said. “Once a little sunshine has been added to the process surrounding dark money, that money will dry up or change.”

After Bullock graduated from CMC, he took a three-year break to “bum” around the country and then attended law school at Columbia University. After jobs working for law firms in Manhattan and Philadelphia, Bullock re-connected with a dream he had held since the 4th grade growing up in Helena, MT – to become governor of the state.

Bullock became Montana’s Attorney General (on his second attempt) and that eventually led to the governor’s mansion.

“When I ran for governor as a Democrat, it wasn’t because I owed it to the people who said I should run, but because I felt I owed it to my kids,” Bullock said. “Montana was a great place for me growing up and I wanted the same state for them.”

Bullock’s campaign for governor ended up being the most expensive campaign for that office in the history of the state of Montana.

“I raised more money than had ever been raised ($1.9 million),” he said. “In doing so, I relied on many of my CMC friends. In the race for President, Obama lost the state by 14 points. I won by 7,000 votes and stepped into a situation where our legislature is two-thirds Republican.”

In governing Montana, Bullock has learned that good ideas aren’t Democratic or Republican ideas; they are about Montana. “If it’s good for our state, I’ll meet anybody halfway,” Bullock said, “and I’ll respect your position (I learned that from PP class at CMC).” He added that a campaign is a reflection of the person running and his or her values and shouldn’t change regardless of where the campaign takes place be it Claremont, CA or Cascade, MT.

“Whatever the path is that you plan, it’s not going to work out that way,” Bullock said. “You can’t be discouraged by the setbacks or the failures. Often, those failures are going to enable you in your next step. When I ran for attorney general the second time, I had learned what it took to run a campaign in a 147,000 square-mile state with a population of one million people.”

Bullock urged students in the audience who may harbor political ambitions to be willing to take the risks and fail.

“In law school you’re taught to be analytical, deliberative and calculating,” he said. “That might be what we want out of our lawyers, but it’s not a model of what it takes to get involved in elected public service. Unless you are willing to take risks, you’ll never have that opportunity.

“Finally, don’t ever lose sight of what drew you to public service. Integrity and professionalism matter. Approach all of your experiences, both personal and professional, as a training ground for public service. The only way I became governor is because of the stuff I did as attorney general. If I hadn’t excelled in that prior office, I never would have been part of the discussion for governor.”

According to some surveys, approval of members serving in Congress hovers at an historic low of 12.8 percent with public policy polling conducted last year finding that Congress is less popular than root canal surgery, head lice or colonoscopies.

Bullock said that increasingly we live in a world and get our information inside “echo chambers” that tell us what we want to hear and blur the lines of distinction between facts, opinions news and entertainment. Add in the rancorous partisanship that divides so many elected officials it’s often extremely difficult to have thoughtful discourse which leads to negotiated public policy.

“What I learned over time is that the most valuable asset you have and the one easiest to squander is going to be your integrity and reputation,” Bullock said. “Good or bad, it’s going to follow you throughout your life. Even today, people I know from my CMC days, support me not because of my policy positions or that maybe they can get something from me, but because of the person they believe I am.

“But we must remember that public service isn’t a game of power that has no consequences,” he continued. “When government works, it can make our communities safer, schools better and the nation healthier.  I don’t think the responsibility to make that happen rests solely with elected officials. It also equally rests with you. You must demand more of candidates, groups and elected officials and support those that are willing to inject some reasonableness into the democratic process.”

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Read the article on Steve Bullock ’88 in the latest issue of CMC Magazine (cmc.edu/magazine)

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