BILLINGS – Bozeman high-tech magnate Greg Gianforte announced his candidacy for governor Wednesday in Billings, pledging to improve the Montana economy and donate his salary to scholarships, if elected.
The announcement, delivered over the cacophony of mechanics at a Peterbilt repair shop in Lockwood, was pointedly aimed at Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock and the economic challenges of eastern Montana: crumbling infrastructure, federal regulations on coal power and the out-migration of Montana’s young adults.
“We need new leadership in Montana,” Gianforte said. “On top of lost jobs, we’ve got a governor who’s failed to deliver on essential infrastructure. In Culbertson, the water bill for a single home is already $1,200 a year. Because of the governor’s failed leadership, it’s going up 18 percent this year.
“But while the governor has failed to deliver on infrastructure, he’s sure grown government spending. He’s increased it by 20 percent in just three years. Imagine what he would do with another four?”
It’s been 16 years since Montana Republicans have won a gubernatorial election. Those packed into the upper storage mezzanine of the repair shop liked what they were hearing from Gianforte, who zeroed in job creation, his strongest political playing card.
Gianforte founded the software company RightNow Technologies in Bozeman roughly 20 years ago. RightNow software enables governments and companies to answer frequently asked questions online. The company’s workforce ballooned to 1,200 before it was sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion in 2012.
Oracle kept those jobs in Bozeman after the purchase. Numerous Bozeman tech startups have stemmed from the sale, as former RightNow employees with shares in the company cashed out and started businesses.
“I think he’s just the man that Montana needs,” said Roy Brown, a former Montana legislator who ran against incumbent Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2008. “We’re 49th in jobs and wages. We can really make a difference with him at the helm. It’s always difficult to challenge an incumbent, but the incumbent hasn’t done much but make things worse.”
When Brown challenged Schweitzer, the incumbent captured nearly 67 percent of the vote. Schweitzer’s approval rating leading up to the election was daunting.
But Bullock’s numbers aren’t nearly as strong as his predecessor’s, which has Republicans liking Gianforte’s chances. In 2012, Bullock was elected with 47 percent of the vote, in a three-way race in which a conservative third-party candidate captured votes that Republican Rick Hill needed to be successful.
Bullock’s public approval rating was roughly 50 percent in a poll released by Montana State University Billings last month. The poll’s 4.8 percent margin of error would place the governor’s support close to where it was with voters in 2012, Bullock’s first gubernatorial election.
“I thought the message about leadership, a vision of where we want to go, rather than just managing, having a direction to what we want to accomplish, was a hot button for me,” said Donald Sterhan, who manages an equity group. “I think we’ve got some issues that we need to deal with. We need to face reality on some things and when we can’t deliver, we have to be accountable for that.”
Topping the list of challenges listed by Gianforte was Montana’s pending response to the federal Clean Power Plan, which demands deep reductions on carbon dioxide emissions. Montana is expected by September to develop an initial response to regulations, which could in the future shutter portions of Colstrip Power Plant.
Bullock appointed a committee earlier this month to make recommendations for complying with the Clean Power Plan.
Gianforte never mentioned his Republican primary opponent, Brad Johnson, a Public Service Commission chairman and former Montana secretary of state. Likewise, Democrats have aimed squarely at Gianforte.
On Tuesday, Buzzfeed, an online publication targeting a national audience, focused on Gianforte’s $1.1 million in donations to religious groups opposing nondiscrimination rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Gianforte’s previously published opposition to a nondiscrimination ordinance in Bozeman was included in the article.
On Monday, Gov. Bullock chose a Bozeman coffee shop as the stage for a new executive order expanding state nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity, pregnancy and military service. He told the media he was honoring the principles of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Gianforte’s literal interpretation of the Bible, as well as his donations to Christian causes, have been a focal point of Democrats. The candidate did not address those criticisms in his announcement.
He had not responded to questions about those criticisms by press time.