Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Roger Roots will be on the stage Saturday in the race’s first general-election debate — and the campaign of Republican Steve Daines is none too happy about it.
“You can’t do an Internet search on Roger Roots without coming across a racist or offensive comment that he has made,” said Brock Lowrance, Daines’ campaign manager. “There is no room for racism in civil dialogue, and it does not reflect who we are as Montanans.”
Yet Democratic U.S. Sen. John Walsh, the third candidate in the race, is not objecting — and, in fact, has made it a point to invite Roots to take part in future debates among the three U.S. Senate candidates.
“We believe that Montanans deserve to hear from all of the candidates on the ballot this fall,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Walsh campaign.
Roots, a 46-year-old college professor from Livingston who admits to having written racist tracts and being involved in “Skinhead politics” in his 20s, said this week he has every right to be involved in the debates and that objections by Daines are part of an effort by Montana Republicans to crush the Libertarian Party in the state.
Roots teaches sociology and criminal justice at Jarvis Christian College, a historically black college in Hawkins, Texas.
“If they had their way, they would banish us from being on the ballot,” he said. “They have a fear that some of their Ron Paul Republicans might tend to vote Libertarian. …
“But if you want the Libertarian vote, it’s pretty simple what you do: You become more Libertarian. Instead, they’ve become more authoritarian.”
Roots, who now disavows his racist past and said “I haven’t uttered a racist remark in 15 years,” will join Daines and Walsh at a televised debate Saturday in Butte, sponsored by the Montana Newspaper Association.
Mike Fellows of Missoula, the Libertarian running for the U.S. House, also will appear Saturday at the same event, joining fellow House candidates Democrat John Lewis and Republican Ryan Zinke at their own, separate debate.
The argument over whether Libertarians should be included in debates in high-profile, statewide races has simmered for years in Montana, with some debate sponsors excluding them and others including them.
Montana Democrats often have pushed to include the Libertarian candidates in debates.
Roots said he knows some Republicans think Libertarians are to blame for the GOP losing close races for the U.S. Senate and governor in 2012, when Libertarians polled well and the Democrat won with less than 50 percent of the vote. But he believes Libertarians draw votes away from both Democrats and Republicans.
“(Republicans) have no one to blame but themselves if they think their libertarian voters are going to vote Libertarian,” he said, noting that Montana Republicans have supported big-government, anti-libertarian stands on many issues, like opposing medical marijuana and supporting restrictions on abortion.
Yet Lowrance, the Daines campaign manager, said their objection to Roots is because of his documented racist past.
An Internet search turns up an article titled “100 Facts About Black People,” bylined by Roots, that includes disparaging remarks about African-Americans. He’s also been identified in the past by the Montana Human Rights Network and the Southern Poverty Law Center as a writer of anti-Semitic articles.
Roots said he may have written the first article 20 years ago, but that he no longer holds such beliefs and has notified Google to take it down.
Roots said he’s long been active in Libertarian politics and plans to point out in the campaign that Democrats and Republicans differ little in their support of big-government, militaristic and oppressive policies.
Likely sponsors of upcoming U.S. Senate debates have varying views on whether Libertarian candidates should be included this year.
Darrell Ehrlick, editor of the Billings Gazette, said the paper usually doesn’t invite the Libertarian candidate, while Sherry Devlin, editor of the Missoulian newspaper, said she thinks they should be included.
“They win elections, they help other people win elections in some cases, and generally provide a perspective that I think we should provide for readers (and) viewers at debates,” she said.
William Marcus, director of the Broadcast Media Center at the University of Montana, which produces debates on public TV, said it has included and excluded Libertarian candidates in past debates, and hasn’t decided what position it will take this year.