The big news this week is that Rick Hill, the GOP nominee for governor in Montana, was revealed to have accepted a gargantuan campaign donation of $500,000, directly from the Montana GOP who, in turn, received it from some unknown source. Generally in Montana, this is illegal.
He received this money during a bizarre, 6-day window a few weeks ago, in which Montana’s campaign donation limits were suspended, having been struck down by a right-wing federal judge. It was a shocking ruling, and, predictably, the laws were then reinstated by a federal appeals court. But in the six day interim, Hill decided to paint the town red and collect every corporate dollar he could.
In contrast, Steve Bullock, the Democratic nominee and current Montana attorney general, did not do so. Bullock, in fact, has been a national leader in the charge against the influence of corporate money in politics. He even argued a landmark case in the Supreme Court this summer, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, in which he tried to defend a GOP challenge to Montana’s laws banning corporate money from politics. A national feature story out today on ATP’s work to dismantle Montana’s laws can be read here.
So when Rick Hill, the corporate slob that he is, was busy gulping down $500,000 of cash during the 6-day free-for-all a few weeks ago, Bullock was being a gentleman. He was acting in deference to the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and in the belief that the federal judge who struck the law down would probably be reversed or stayed by a higher court. As such, he refrained from taking any contributions in excess of what Montana’s statutes (the ones that were temporarily invalidated) allow. He is to be commended for having done so, especially since his restraint has put his campaign at a financial disadvantage.
Bullock did the right thing, even if it cost him. Hill took advantage of a legal loophole, even though he knew, deep down, how wrong it was. Rick Hill acted like a piece of trash who finds a few thousand dollars on the sidewalk. A good American takes it to the police. Rick Hill puts it in his pocket.
But now we have a new controversy, articulated very clearly by Bullock at a debate in Kalispell a few days ago and in a new lawsuit he’s filed against Hill: When the donation limits were reinstated by the federal appeals court, did it immediately make Hill guilty of a crime? Mustn’t he now give the money back?
Bullock is making this case in court. Hill has tried to get the case transferred from state court to federal court, hoping to get a little Citizens United mojo from the federal judicial system.
A casual observer might think that the Hill campaign surely can’t be prosecuted for breaking a law that didn’t exist during a six-day window, when he committed the act of receiving the $500,000.
But the law, once reinstated, applies not to the prior act so much as to the current state of affairs. If a person is in receipt of funds, and a law is passed saying that to be in receipt of such funds is illegal, then the person must turn the funds over. Thus does Rick Hill need to reimburse the $500,000 donation to the GOP, who in turn should send it back to the shady characters who sent the cash in the first place.
More to the point, there’s a great irony in the notion that of all the elections in America, it was the Montana gubernatorial race in which a GOP nominee decided to put his hand in the cookie jar the way Hill has done. This is Steve Bullock’s issue, the issue that has made him famous in national political circles. In this sense, I believe Hill has made a mistake, and it will cost him way more than $500,000. Bullock can, and should, run with this controversy across the finish line. It is as important as any other topic in our society today, and should be debated in equal measure with other issues such as jobs and the economy. What Hill has done is outrageous, and shameful. And it exemplifies everything that is wrong with American elections.