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Williams rally

Congressional candidate Kathleen Williams holds a voting rally on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn for about 40 supporters on Tuesday.

Awash with money from secret donors, America’s political campaigns are in need of reform, which Democratic U.S. House candidate Kathleen Williams told a Billings audience she will support if elected.

Speaking at the open forum on campaign money and ethics, Williams, a former Bozeman state legislator, said she will back efforts to limit the money in politics and require donors to identify themselves. She was joined in the discussion, which was billed as a non-campaign event, by the state’s lead campaign corruption attorney, a representative for the finance reform group End Citizens United and a former Billings Gazette reporter.

“There is a fascinating collection of potential incoming members of the U.S. House that I think have been shaken by the rancor and the hyper-partisanship and brokenness of Congress. And I would like to think of myself as one of those, but we need to have good candidates and support good candidates that are going to turn this around,” Williams said. “I’m interested in doing whatever we can to do that.”

Williams, 57, is challenging Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, also of Bozeman, in the 2018 midterms.

At the root of campaign finance problems in American politics is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, speakers said. In that case, the court ruled money was synonymous with free speech, meaning that political spending by third parties was protected by the First Amendment and couldn’t be limited. That court decision, coupled with federal tax law allowing nonprofit issue groups to keep the names of donors secret, resulted in a surge of election spending by both liberal and conservative groups.

Both in 2012 and 2018, third-party groups have spent millions in Montana’s U.S. Senate race, often without disclosing whose money was being spent to influence voters.

The secretive spending hasn’t stopped at the federal level. In 2010, at least nine Republican candidates for Montana Legislature accepted money and campaign services from the National Right to Work Committee. The money either went unreported or under-reported as candidates backed by Right to Work clobbered fellow Republicans in the spring primary elections. The candidates targeted by the attacks didn’t know who was behind the attack mailers in their races or the promotional letters being circulated for their opponents. Attorney Gene Jarussi prosecuted those cases for Montana’s commissioner of political practices. He told the forum audience of 30 people at the Billings Public Library that there needs to be disclosure in politics so voters and candidates know who is trying to influence voters’ opinions. He used a hypothetical candidacy by former Gazette reporter Jim Gransberry to make his point.

“Everybody has a right. I mean, Jim Gransberry runs for the Montana House, I have a right, entities have a right to put out a piece of paper that says Jim Gransberry is a jerk. That’s entitled. They’re entitled to do it. But who is it who is putting out the paper that says Jim Gransberry is a jerk? I as a voter would like to know who is this,” Jarussi said. “I may agree with the message, but as a voter, as a citizen, I’d like to know who exactly is sending that particular message out.”

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There is a bill in Congress now, the “Government by the People Act,” that would start to level the playing field for candidates up against big money, said Jordan Wood, of End Citizens United. Wood said big campaign investments from political committees backed by corporations is a particular problem. He faulted those donations for leading to the bills passed by Congress favoring companies and wealthy individuals more than the general public. End Citizens United supports the bill and is encouraging U.S. House candidates to make it the first bill taken up in 2019.

“It would create a matching program, so if you as a voter wanted to support a candidate for Congress, you could give them up to $200 and that would be matched six times over through public funds,” Wood said. “So, what it does is drive candidates not to seek out special interest lobbyists or the super wealthy to fund their campaign. Instead, they’re trying to pull together as many people as possible from their home state who over the course of two years can give them $200.”

Williams said Congress could learn much from Montana’s campaign finance reforms, such as the Disclose Act and others, calling for limited donations and detailed disclosure by candidates and groups involved in non-federal statewide campaigns.

“Montana is a great example of keeping our limits low,” Williams said. “When I was in the Legislature we had quite a few discussions about keeping limits low and I was an advocate of keeping limits low, even though we knew that courts might find them too low, but there’s some lessons to be learned from Montana.”

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.