Guest Post by Josh Manning
Manning is a combat veteran and serves on the leadership team of Common Defense, a group of progressive veterans who want to affect political change. You can follow him on Twitter @joshuamanning23
If the Montana Republican Party and its legislators who dominate the majority of both chambers want to remove campaign finance law from the books then here is some free advice: Next time do not put forward a representative who is so steeped in dark money that it is surprising he even shows up in a picture.
Representative Derek Skees (R-Kalispell) from House District 11 has managed to get House Bill 340, Eliminate the Office of Political Practices, through the Montana House of Representatives. The bill now heads to the Montana State Senate to consider. As a longtime believer in campaign finance laws and the ethics of getting people elected who follow those laws, I take special exception this plan and have spent some time wondering exactly who this representative really represents.
Skees wants to place campaign finances laws into the purview of the Secretary of State and Department of Justice. He claimed in committee hearings the current Commissioner of Political Practices was “hyper-partisan” and that is why he presented this law. This is an odd argument since the governor appoints the commissioner and the State Senate votes on the choice. So there is check and balance on the office that is similar to how federal appointments work, to include campaign financing inspection. Skees’ twist is that by putting the responsibilities in two absolutely partisan offices then the idea becomes even more “hyper-partisan.” Imagine campaign laws under Attorney General Matthew Monforton (easy buddy, just a scenario) and Secretary of State Derek Skees. You think they would police dark money interests trying to get a veto-proof majority into office? You think these two would do anything else but put forward frivolous lawsuits against their political opponents?
But this is less about the plan and more about the legislator bringing the bill because every time Skees stands up to talk or argue for his cause I wonder exactly who he is and where he came from. It starts from a very dark place. So I urge Montana’s state senators and our governor to consider some of the following things about the bill’s sponsor as this evil bill moves forward.
Let us begin with the most important part up front. Representative Skees was among the several Montana legislators listed in the “meth house” bust documents from Western Tradition Partnership as requesting a complete campaign package from the shadowy, corporate-sponsored group. “The works,” according to documents filed in district court look like this:
- “A campaign plan that included candidate assistance on general campaign advice, fundraising, website production, yard signs, voter ID lists, palm cards, third-party involvement and direct mail, he said. After the 2008 campaign, Direct Mail and WTP described the final weeks of their 2008 efforts as “shock and awe” via letters and glossy postcards sent out to thousands of likely voters.”
So in other words, an entire campaign team that candidates paid minuscule amounts to have at their service. Soon, it became a game of attacking primary and general election opponents then lowering turnout with falsehoods and a viciousness unseen in Montana for a long time. No one really talked about Representative Skees at the time but over the spring and summer of last year as the trial of Representative Art Wittich moved forward it emerged that Skees was among those who ordered “the works” for a general campaign he barely won by 87 votes in November 2010.
Many of those who ordered this full package of campaign chicanery have since been removed from or opted against from running for office. Two remain: Skees and Representative Alan Doane (currently and ironically chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who heard the bill and ushered it through committee).
Time has passed and Skees believes he can skate away from his involvement in the same dark money scandals that toppled Wittich and other lawmakers. But one has to find it especially rich that the legislator who survived all of that by keeping his name out of the mix is now the one bringing forward a law that would basically allow him to avoid detection for years to come. He did so in committee while impugning the dignity of other representatives and wearing an American flag tie. He later defended it on the house floor with same sense of patriotic duty and claims to represent the spirit of our founding fathers.
Representative Skees may wear a flag pin and tie and talk about his devout patriotism. I wore this nation’s flag on the right army of my U.S. Army uniform for eight years. I defended my fellow patriots under fire in Middle Eastern lands and have upheld my Constitutional oaths. I will put my dusty, faded flag patch against his cheap, probably made in China American flag tie any day of the week . Skees cannot just put on a sideshow about patriotism to sell a law that will put Montana back into the days of robber barons and use his snakeoil salesman ways to tout this empty promise of a bill.
Skees is beholden to local oligarchs in the same way that those barons were. He has taken money in his elections from Kalispell entrepreneur Ray Thompson, a man who cut a $10,000 check to WTP in 2008, and Skees took money as recently as his 2016 election. This election he won 74-26 and one wonders why he even needed campaign financing unless it was to nudge him in a certain direction. In 2010, Thompson got to double dip into Skees’ campaign by maxing out his donations between he and his wife then giving Skees more money from the Excellence in Voting PAC he founded in Kalispell. Oh right and all that WTP money too. Thompson helped put Skees over the top and its no wonder he wants payback to select chosen operatives like Skees to pass legislation favoring his interests.
Skees wants to gamble with Montana’s electoral future by putting electoral financing into partisan offices. This should not be surprising since he has also received financing from Montana gambling interests in 2016 working alongside shadowy figures like Blake Sartini in Las Vegas to get Vegas-style gambling into the state. I do not feel like our elections should involve the same gut check as pulling a lever on a keno machine and hoping we might just win. If you trust people like Skees, the “house” is working against you.