Montana Editorial Roundup
Posted June 14
Billings Gazette, June 14, on Gianforte episode coming to an end
Depending on who you talk to, Monday was either a welcome relief or an unsettling moment for Montanans as Gallatin County Justice Court handled the case of Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte's body slamming on the eve of the election.
Gianforte, flanked by his two lawyers, pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor assault charge and Justice of the Peace Rick West meted out a punishment that included fines, community service and anger management, but no jail time — although West had originally contemplated it.
Separate from the criminal court case, Gianforte last week reached an agreement to avoid being sued civilly by apologizing in writing to Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs and donating $50,000 to a nonprofit group committed to protecting journalists.
For some, Monday was the day to close the books on the incident which had brought Montana into a negative light.
For others, Monday's court appearance was unsettling because of the questions still remaining. Those questions will likely continue to be raised until there are some answers. Others believed that Gianforte got a different sentence than if the court was going to sentence a person of color.
For our part, we're left somewhere in the middle.
On one hand, Gianforte's letter of apology to Jacobs, released last week, was straightforward and unequivocal.
"You (Jacobs) did not initiate any physical contact with me, and I had no right to assault you. I am sorry for what I did and the unwanted notoriety this has created for you. I take full responsibility," Gianforte wrote.
That's about as responsible in writing as you can get.
We welcome the Gianforte apology and applaud Jacobs for accepting it. Even though $50,000 is but a tiny piece of Gianforte's overall wealth, it's a significant amount.
Like him or not, Gianforte did about as well as any politician when it comes to written apologies. He will also pay a $385 fine for misdemeanor assault, plus $4,646 in restitution to cover Jacobs' medical expenses.
We believe Gianforte did the right thing: He entered a guilty plea in the case, even though originally it appeared that he would enter a no-contest plea. We talk a lot about politicians being responsible and accountable, and this is taking ownership of a very bad incident. For that, we give him credit.
We, along with many members of the public, have lingering questions, though.
Neither Gianforte nor his staff have addressed why the campaign put out the intentionally misleading statements about the incident in which the campaign said Jacobs touched Gianforte. Gianforte's account and admission said otherwise.
Gianforte and his staff have never answered why it said that it was OK to get into the fight because Jacobs was (in their own words) a "liberal journalist" and his "aggressive behavior," which was, in fact, just asking a question about a Congressional Budget Office score on health care. Again, the statement put out by the campaign said one thing, the admission in court on Monday said another.
When asked about the statement on a television interview last week, Gianforte wouldn't comment. When asked about it Monday after the court appearance, he wouldn't comment.
If Gianforte is serious about taking responsibility for his action, he needs to answer the question: Why did his campaign staff lie about this incident? Who ordered that, and what is Gianforte doing about it?
This is not a trivial question. If Gianforte wants to build the trust with Montanans, he's going to have to start by answering the hard questions. He is also going to have to be held accountable. It's easy to talk about trust and transparency, but dodging this question continues to give us doubts about if this incident has been much more than a nuisance to him, instead of a behavior-changing experience that will change him permanently.
The other question raised after Monday's court hearing was whether the justice system had truly treated Gianforte the same way as an average citizen.
Originally, Judge West had contemplated a program in which jail time was converted into a work program, but violent offenders (such as those convicted of assault) are not allowed in the work program. So, West would have had to hand a straight jail time sentence to Gianforte, if given at all. West admitted that even in Gianforte's case, with a heretofore unblemished record, that in a similar case there may be nominal jail time. In the end, West concluded that throwing Gianforte in the slammer wouldn't serve anyone well, and opted for fines, community service and anger management.
We've seen plenty of criminal cases get resolved without time behind bars. However, we can understand and even sympathize with those who feel Gianforte got off to easily without having more severe consequences.
There's an argument to be made that West should have given a stiffer penalty to Gianforte as a way to set an example to any politician who may find it tempting to rough up a reporter. And, there's a good case to be made for making sure the penalty is well understood: A survey released earlier this week by Public Policy Polling showed that 42 percent of those who identified themselves as voting for Trump believe it's acceptable to body slam a reporter.
Clearly, it's becoming more acceptable not only to advocate violence, but to act upon it. For that reason, West may have wanted to consider a tougher sentence.
For Montanans, the conclusion of the legal process means that Gianforte can get to work representing Montana.
Love him or not, he's Montana's elected representative and we need a voice in Congress as it deals with health care, a widening Russia investigation, Trump's budget, debt, trade and veterans' issues.
As part of the press in Montana, we are committed to continuing to covering Gianforte, allowing him the chance to articulate a vision, to communicate with residents and to face the bright light of scrutiny by members of the media.
He must start with more transparency, though. He has an aversion to tough questions, and because of lingering questions, there will be scrutiny for every answer Gianforte gives.
He's earned the scrutiny and must work to earn back the trust.
For those Gianforte supporters who seemed too quick to defend his actions, saying that Jacobs got exactly what was coming to him for simply doing his constitutionally-protected job, take a look at part of Gianforte's letter to Jacobs:
"I understand the critical role that journalists and the media play in our society. Protections afforded to the press through the Constitution are fundamental to who we are as a nation and the way government is accountable to the people. I acknowledge that the media have an obligation to seek information. I also know that civility in our public discourse is central to productive dialogue on issues. I had no right to respond the way I did to your legitimate question about healthcare policy. You were doing your job."
Hopefully, this statement will counteract any nascent thoughts of taking similar actions by those who believe that Gianforte's actions were a heroic and overdue response to a media, which is often made out be a collection of enemies and liars.
The courts are done, the apology accepted, but Gianforte as a transparent representative?
The jury's still out on that.
Missoulian, June 14, on Montana expanding quality preschool programs
Working parents of young children pay dearly for child care in Montana. A recent analysis from the Montana Budget and Policy Center pegged the annual average cost of full-time care for a 4-year-old at nearly $8,000 a year.
Low-income families all too often find high-quality preschools out of reach; regardless of income, those who live in Montana's most rural communities have similarly limited options.
So we should all applaud Montana's recent progress on expanding quality preschool programs. Hopefully, these first shaky steps will lead to more stable footing that will soon allow Montana's preschools to be off and running.
Gov. Steve Bullock has been advocating for a universal preschool program in Montana for several years now. His advocacy is based on solid evidence that good programs better position children for a lifetime of success, and drastically improve outcomes for at-risk children in particular. States that have made the investment in universal preschool have seen higher school attendance and graduation rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, lower violent crime rates and a host of other factors linked to quality preschool. Overall, every dollar spent on high-quality preschool saves $7 down the line.
Despite strong, widespread support from education experts, child and family agencies, the business community and others, Bullock's proposal to launch a preschool program in Montana died in committee during the 2017 session. That plan, which was scaled back from earlier proposals, would have dedicated $12 million for grants to preschools that met education standards and served parents earning less than double the federal poverty level (about $49,000 a year for a family of four).
It turns out, fortunately, that legislators were willing to negotiate and eventually pass a bill to expand access to preschool for 4- and 5-year-olds. However, the expansion is only funded as a two-year pilot project that will be up for review in 2019 - leaving scant time to demonstrate its effectiveness.
And it's being funded through a "temporary hospital community benefit assessment" - a fancy term for a temporary tax - on Montana's 14 largest hospitals. There's really no good reason why the hospitals should be on the hook for preschool expansion in Montana, except that their administrators recognized just how important and beneficial such programs are, and stepped up to make it happen when it looked like Montana's legislators weren't going to.
In exchange, hospitals received legislative support for a higher reimbursement rate for federal Medicaid, a move that could free up to $212 million in federal money for the hospitals through 2019. In the meantime, they will kick in $6 million, or $3 million each year for two years, to expand an existing program that awards grants to private providers. It's called Best Beginnings Stars to Quality, and it's run by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The department rates participating providers and gives awards to those who improve their performance. It's entirely voluntary.
The expanded funding means the state is now in a position to offer competitive grants of up to $150,000, according to the Governor's Office. Childcare providers serving 4-year-olds, including private preschools, public schools, Head Start and community-based providers, are being invited to apply at www.starspreschool.mt.gov through July 10. The hope is to have the pilot programs in place by the time the school year resumes this fall.
The larger goal, of course, is to demonstrate that such program are effective and worth the investment of public dollars - so that the 2019 Legislature will do what previous legislatures should have done already, and dedicate public funding for a stable, long-term preschool program to ensure Montana's youngest at-risk children get the best possible start in life.
Daily Inter Lake, June 10, on former Sen. Lee Metcalf
Greg Gianforte has been excoriated by the national media, state media, Democrats and even some Republicans for "body-slamming" a reporter the day before being elected Montana's sole congressman on May 25.
Some of those critics have gone so far as to recommend that Gianforte not be seated in the House of Representatives because of his actions, even though he has apologized to his constituents and to the reporter, and admitted the fault was entirely his own.
Admittedly, it's not a stellar way to start your political career. Scratch that. It's a horrible way to start your political career, but it's not unprecedented for a member of Congress from Montana to be involved in a violent incident and yet remain in office.
Indeed Sen. Lee Metcalf didn't merely survive a couple of violent incidents in his professional life; rather, he prevailed and remains one of the most beloved politicians ever to come out of our state. He was ranked 15th on a list of the 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century in The Missoulian newspaper.
If you don't recall Metcalf, you at least may know part of his legacy. The Democratic politician helped pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge north of Stevensville and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Big Sky were named in his honor. Metcalf served in the U.S. House from 1953 to 1961 and then in the Senate from 1961 until the time of his death in 1978. He also served with distinction in the U.S. Army during World War II, participating in the Invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and more.
Nonetheless, Metcalf's record was not without blemish. Maybe it was a carryover of his Montana farm boyhood or a hallmark of his military service, but Lee Metcalf did not suffer fools gladly, meaning if you got in his way — watch out!
In 1964, during his first term, Sen. Metcalf got in some kind of a shoving match with a 24-year-old law student serving as an elevator operator in the Senate office building.
The Inter Lake carried a colorful UPI report on the incident in its Feb. 18, 1964, edition:
"Sen. Lee Metcalf, D-Mont., thought the elevator operator in the Old Senate Office Building was awfully slow Monday and told him so. The operator, Bernard O'Neill, 24, a Georgetown University law student from South Bend, Ind., claims Metcalf, a big, brawny man of 53, took a swing at him. Metcalf vigorously denies it.
"If I had taken a punch, he wouldn't have been there," said Metcalf. "I can punch hard enough for most of these elevator operators."
Substitute "reporters" for "elevator operators" and imagine the howls if Greg Gianforte had taken the same bragging approach to his attack on Ben Jacobs in Bozeman. Gianforte would rightly be lambasted, but Metcalf stood firm.
In a story the next day in the Billings Gazette, Metcalf admitted he "sort of pushed" O'Neill, but still denied O'Neill's claim that he had been punched. Whatever did take place in that elevator, Metcalf clearly acted like a self-important boor who thought he deserved special treatment.
"Yesterday," Metcalf told the Associated Press, "I was treated like anybody else — not like a senator — and I did not like it."
Metcalf admitted he got mad because the elevator operator was reading a book and not attentive enough to the senator's needs.
"I bawled him out," Metcalf said. "We had an argument, and he told me, in effect, to get out and walk if I didn't like the way he was running the elevator."
O'Neill's sponsor, Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., said he told the elevator operator to apologize to Metcalf or lose his job. Metcalf, to his credit, said he was "not interested in getting the boy fired," but there is evidence he did not learn anything about his own behavior as a result of the incident.
Seven years later, while attending a Vietnam War protest, Metcalf again had his sense of privilege on display. According to a UPI story, "Sen. Lee Metcalf, a robust 60 years old, punched a policeman in the chest Wednesday when he stopped him from crossing a police line during antiwar demonstrations at the Capitol.
"Metcalf shouted that he was a United States senator and couldn't be prevented from going anywhere on the capitol grounds when (Officer M.J.) Van Fossen, wearing a riot helmet and holding a nightstick with both hands, told Metcalf he could not cross the line of policemen.
"Metcalf then jabbed out his right fist and hit Van Fossen in the left upper chest. The officer took the punch easily and did not swing back. But two other officers grabbed Metcalf's arms and started leading him toward buses where demonstrators were being arrested.
"'You assaulted an officer,' they said to him. 'I'm not going to stand.' Metcalf said, his voice quivering. 'I'm a United States senator.' "
The Capitol police chief came on the scene and ordered Metcalf to be released. At that point, "Metcalf, still enraged and face flushed, grabbed a UPI reporter by the arm to get his ear. 'My name is Lee Metcalf. I've been stopped.' "
Ultimately, the "unfortunate incident," as described by a Capitol police inspector, vanished without charges being filed and without further discussion. Maybe they were worried that Metcalf would go after them if they didn't let it go.
If you talk to people who knew Metcalf back in the day, you'll discover that he had a reputation for being a hothead — screaming and yelling at staffers, as well as apparently elevator operators and policemen. He was even demoted in World War II when he threw a staff sergeant down a staircase.
Compare that to the total of one (1) incident in which Greg Gianforte is known to have lost his temper. You would think that after he was charged with assault, we would have heard a bunch of complaints about him if he had ever punched or yelled at anyone before. Maybe he has, but so far as anyone can tell, he is no Lee Metcalf.