One hundred years ago, Amalgamated Copper, a national corporate giant, held sway over Montana and all its citizens. Amalgamated employed about two-thirds of the workers in the state as miners, smeltermen, loggers and even newspapermen. The governor and members of the Legislature took their marching orders and their payoffs from the company lobbyists. The company-controlled daily newspapers followed orders from corporate headquarters.
Other corporations also drained the state's wealth. Jim Hill's three railroads set freight rates that overcharged farmers and ranchers. Banking corporations colluded to manage the fate of small business owners. The terrible oppression was collectively called the "Copper Collar." Almost no Montanan could slip the stranglehold of corporate greed.
In 1910, the corporate mania to control everything finally went too far. Montanans were outraged when political operatives of Amalgamated seized control of county nominating conventions. No political office proved too small to slip the notice of the operatives. After the election, even school boards made room for pro-corporate members.
The small-town weekly newspapers had for the most part avoided the scrutiny of the giant corporations. They reported the harmless local news. But the election takeover was local news. Editors around the state railed against the corporations as they never had before. From the Terry Tribune came:
"Campaigns were conducted by simply the opening of a barrel, and sowing the state from one end to the other with corporation money -- the largest barrel winning in the end. This extravagant campaigning prevented the election of any but the wealthy or those supported by special interests."
On June 11, 1911, 40 determined men organized the People's Power League and began to search, like David, for five smooth stones to topple the corporate giants and remove them from Montana elections. The Sanders County Democrat encouraged them by writing "the Treasure State will again be a free people represented by men untrammeled by ... greed and graft."
The sling to launch the stones was new but untried. The initiative and referendum process had been added to the constitution in 1906 to circumvent the company-run Legislature. Three initiatives were drafted to set up a system of primary elections. A referendum would repeal a hated militia law. The fifth ballot measure was the stone that would smash into the corporate giant's temple. It was called the Corrupt Practices Act and banned corporate expenditures in elections for political office.
Voters passed all five ballot issues -- most with over 75 percent of the vote. In establishing fair and honest primary elections, Montanans evened the playing field and became a political force that the corporate bosses could no longer dominate.
The 1912 initiatives governed Montana elections for 100 years with few changes made. That is until Western Tradition Partnership Inc. challenged the constitutionality of the Corrupt Practices Act. WTP argued that the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision allowed independent expenditures in campaigns as a First Amendment right of corporations.
In October 2010, Judge Jeffrey Sherlock, First Montana Judicial District, agreed with WTP's argument. If the decision sticks, Montana's Corrupt Practices Act will no longer keep big-money interests from defining the issues, attacking the integrity of candidates and flooding the media and voter's mailboxes with slick advertising. If WTP prevails before Montana's Supreme Court, office holders, including judges, may again be hand-picked by the corporations just as they were in 1910.
The Montana Supreme Court will hear the appeal of the WTP case in Helena on Sept. 21.