2020 Presidential Profiles

Published — May 14, 2019

9 things to know about Steve Bullock

((U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Eric Peterson/Released))

Montana governor’s fight against political money a cornerstone of his presidential campaign

This article is published in partnership with the Montana Free Press

Introduction

In a presidential field of self-described progressive candidates, a centrist Democrat is emerging — one with a keen focus on how money affects politics.

“We need to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 and defeat the corrupt system that lets campaign money drown out the people’s voice, so we can finally make good on the promise of a fair shot for everyone,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said today in a video announcing his run for president. “This is the fight of our time. It’s been the fight of my career.”

Bullock, 53, touts that up to 30 percent of Montanans who voted for Trump last election also voted for Bullock. He’s also proud of pushing Medicaid expansion through a Republican legislature.

But while a majority of Montana voters approve of the governor, a Morning Consult poll showed 56 percent of respondents nationwide had never heard of Bullock.

Bullock has long stressed his experience fighting “dark money,” or undisclosed funds in elections. He’s even featured as a protagonist in the 2018 feature-length documentary entitled “Dark Money.” 

In June 2018, Bullock signed an executive order that required many companies submitting bids for government projects to disclose their campaign contributions — even to nonprofits that aren’t otherwise required to disclose their donors.

As Montana’s attorney general, Bullock defended a century-old Montana state law that banned corporate spending in elections. That challenged Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations, unions and certain nonprofits to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. While the Montana Supreme Court upheld the corporate political spending ban, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Montana’s law, saying it conflicted with the Citizens United ruling and First Amendment rights of corporations.

In 2015, Bullock also helped push Montana’s Disclose Act, which demanded more transparency in state elections. The law since has been challenged and is still intact, but in February, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

Here’s what you need to know about Bullock’s personal and political finances:

  • Bullock sued the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department in July. Why? To protect a rule requiring political nonprofits to disclose their donors to the government, after the Treasury Department said it would no longer enforce that rule. The case is pending.
  • In July 2017, Bullock formed a federal political action committee called Big Sky Values PAC, which donates to Democratic candidates and state parties. From 2017 through 2018, the PAC raised $1.4 million and distributed close to $70,000 to federal and state candidates and parties. Candidates receiving funds included Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa; and Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. The group spent hundreds of thousands on fundraising and administrative expenses.
  • Big Sky Values PAC’s biggest donors include David Gray, chief legal officer at Ziff Brothers Investments ($65,000); Samuel Byrne, cofounder of investment firm CrossHarbor Capital Partners ($31,000) and Anthony D. Minella, president of private equity firm Eldridge Industries LLC ($30,000).
  • Despite Bullock’s opposition to corporate donations, his PAC received $20,000 from law firm Kessler Topaz Meltzer Check LLP. Campaign finance law treats donations from limited liability companies and limited liability partnerships differently than corporate donations as long as the LLCs and LLPs name the individual partners from the companies that made the donations. In this case, the law firm donation was not attributed to an individual.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at the Des Moines Register Soapbox during a visit to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 16, 2018. (AP / Charlie Neibergall)
  • Bullock raised $3.3 million during his 2016 race for governor and $1.9 million during his 2012 race, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. In both 2016 and 2012, his top donors came from government agencies, the education sector, lawyers and lobbyists and people in the finance, insurance and real estate industries.
  • From 2005 to 2014, Bullock and his wife, Lisa, reported earning a total $1.6 million and donated $66,000 to charity. During that period, they reported paying $229,000 in federal income tax, according to 10 years worth of federal tax returns he released to the media.  
  • In July, Bullock became chairman of the nonpartisan National Governors Association. In 2015, he led the Democratic Governors Association, which aims to elect Democratic state executives. During Bullock’s term at the Democratic Governors Association, the group raised more than $25 million.
  • When Bullock was chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in 2015, a female employee accused one of his senior staff members, Kevin O’Brien, of sexual harassment — and O’Brien was fired.  O’Brien later became a senior adviser for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and while in City Hall, two women alleged O’Brien sexually harassed them. Bullock came under fire for not informing de Blasio’s office of the previous allegations. Bullock wrote in a Medium post: “Four years ago I fell short in my role preventing sexual harassment. I’m sorry, and I’m committed to doing better.”
  • Bullock won his attorney general race in 2008, raising $442,000 — about 10 times what he raised in his failed 2000 bid for the seat, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. His top donors were lawyers and lobbyists, public officials and other candidates. Bullock himself contributed $26,000 to his campaign.

Sources: Center for Public Integrity reporting, the Federal Election Commission, OpenSecrets.org, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Colorado Politics, Montana Public Radio, Associated Press, Great Falls Tribune, Medium, National Institute on Money in Politics, Missoulian, BuzzFeed, Morning Consult

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