It’s been an up-and-down week for Western Tradition Partnership. One day, the right-wing political group won a major judgment that found Montana’s century-old campaign finance laws unconstitutional. Another day, the group, famous for lobbing 11th-hour attacks against political foes, was found in violation of state campaign laws.
Its behavior “raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process,” announced Dennis Unsworth, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, and will likely result in a fine.
Just two years old, the pro-industry group has won most battles and lost a few, but it keeps on fighting, mostly from the shadows, in a war against liberal and moderate political candidates using anonymous donors and superheated campaign rhetoric as its weapons.
“Groups like that that play in the shadows, they just have no place in American politics, plain and simple,” said Laura Obert.
Obert successfully fought off an attack by the group two years ago to become a commissioner in Broadwater County, Mont. A Democrat, she was running in a nonpartisan race against Tim Ravndal, a former director of grassroots coalitions for Western Tradition Partnership who stepped down last spring and became president of the Big Sky Tea Party Association. The association ousted him last month after Facebook comments came to light in which he expressed support for a commenter’s posting advocating violence against gays, an apparent reference to the Matthew Shepard murder in Wyoming.
Obert said she was surprised by the last-minute attack from the group, which left her no time to respond. “It’s a part-time position in a small county and nonpartisan,” she said. “It just didn’t fit with what you would think would be the kind of tactics in that kind of race.”
The group has waged similar battles across Montana and Colorado. In a PowerPoint presentation Commissioner Unsworth obtained, Western Tradition Partnership boasted to potential donors of winning 14 of 19 targeted races in 2008.
“You can just sit back on election night and see what a difference you’ve made,” the group told potential donors.
Founded in Bozeman, Mont., by two conservative Montana Republicans, former U.S. Rep. Ron Marlenee and former state Rep. John Sinrud, the group is also registered in Denver, Colo., to Scott Shires, a Republican political operative with a history of election law violations. That includes a $7,150 fine he has failed to pay for violations related to attack ads in a pair of Garfield County commissioner races in 2008 – races in which Western Tradition Partnership was also involved.
It’s executive director, Donny Ferguson, is based in suburban Washington, DC, where he runs a right-wing public relations firm and serves as spokesman for the national Libertarian Party.
The group specializes in over-the-top rhetoric. Its website urges supporters to “help fight gang green.” Earlier this month, thousands of Coloradans went to their mailboxes to find a political attack mailer with the face of state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village, imposed on the body (and hair) of Donald Trump, telling them, by name, “YOU’RE FIRED.” The group’s message to voters: Schwartz’s support of renewable energy is sending traditional energy workers to the unemployment lines.
Schwartz called the attack “deplorable, hate-filled mail that distorts the public record.”
The group’s anonymous attacks have put it at odds with its targets, and with officials. In addition to its Montana battles, the group is suing Longmont, Colo., challenging that city’s campaign finance disclosure laws after contributing a reported $10,000 to help unseat the mayor and a city councilwoman.
The group has won enemies on both sides of the political spectrum. Montana state Sen. John Esp, R, told the Associated Press the group was “a bunch of unprincipled cowards.”
The political practices investigation stemmed from a complaint by Great Falls lawyer Benjamin Graybill, who alleged the group and its affiliate, the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, had sent out campaign flyers attacking a Democrat running for state Senate but failed to comply with state laws requiring it to disclose who paid for the ads and to register with the state.
The group, which describes itself as a “grassroots lobbying organization dedicated to fighting environmental extremism and promoting responsible development and management of land, water and natural resources,” insists the mailers were educational, not campaign material.
Unsworth said recent tax documents filed by the group showed a budget of $660,000 in 2008, and that the group projected to spend $537,000 to influence Montana elections in 2010, and $8.2 million in targeting 16 Senate and 30 House races.
In its pitch to potential donors, the group boasted, “there’s no limit to how much you can give” and “no politician, no bureaucrat and no radical environmentalist will ever know you” about the contribution.
State investigators allege Western Tradition Partnership has sought donations from officers of several foreign corporations or their affiliates, including corporations based in Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Ferguson has called that “a complete lie.”
He said the group plans to take legal action against Unsworth, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and called for “serious reform of the Montana Commission of Political Practices.”
In court, Western Tradition Partnership has had more luck. On Monday, Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock sided with the group in throwing out the state’s 1912 Corrupt Practices Act.
The law, which harkens from a public backlash against the “Copper Kings” and their grip on state politics, the law banned corporations from making independent political expenditures.
In light of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision, which struck down similar prohibitions nationwide, Sherlock found the law unconstitutional.
“The First Amendment was intended to protect citizens from the government, not to shield politicians from criticism,” Ferguson said. “The court has restored fairness and balance to elections by allowing employers to speak freely about the radical environmentalist candidates and issues that threaten your right to earn a living.”
Attorney General Steve Bullock, who argued Montana’s law was unique and should stand, has vowed to take the case to the state Supreme Court.
“This isn’t just about our history: Two former secretaries of state and other experts in the field testified that an influx of corporate spending will corrupt the political process and drown out the voices of everyday Montanans,” Bullock said in a release. “The facts in this case are markedly different from those considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United.”
The partnership filed the lawsuit alongside Bozeman’s Champion Painting Inc., and the Montana Shooting Sports Association. “There’s a difference between groups like us and the Exxons of the world,” Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Assoication, told the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t want to recreate the Copper Kings era, when they owned Montana and we were their servants.”
Critics of the court decision, though, see the role of Western Tradition Partnership as reminiscent of the corporate manipulation that gave rise to Montana’s law.
“Re-creating the Copper Kings era is not an unintended consequence of this case,” wrote blogger Meteor Blades on the liberal Daily Kos website. “It’s the whole point.”