Why can’t the City of Missoula keep a secret?

Photo via Engen for Missoula

Remember when Mayor John Engen sent an open letter to Missoula telling us all he would run for re-election and had won his battle with alcoholism? The election part was not a surprise. We had not known he was an alcoholic, though. Nor had we known that for the past 28 days, an interim mayor had been running the city while he was at an inpatient alcohol treatment program. When he disappeared, communications Director Ginny Merriam told the Missoulian that he was away for unspecified medical reasons. Asked when he would come back, she said “we don’t know. You never know. But in this case you do know because, I repeat, 28-day inpatient alcohol treatment program. Anyway, the point is that the mayor is back and alcohol no longer interferes with the functioning of his life, as it apparently did for an unspecified time.

I mention this hoary tale from 2016 because this year, on December 20, the City of Missoula informed city councillors that it had corrected the $3 million accounting error it discovered six weeks ago and hadn’t told us about until now. They thought they had $4.2 million in their rainy-day fund, but it turns out to be only $600,000. Coincidentally, they discovered it one day before the 2017 mayoral election. Anyway, the point is that this accounting error has been corrected, so nobody needs to worry about it now.

As my dad used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a pattern. He also used to say terrible, biological things about city governments everywhere, and I’m starting to think he was right. The City of Missoula obviously has a problem: it can’t keep a secret for more than six weeks. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I put forth the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Town, where everyone is happy because we have no idea what’s happening.

Whither Combat! blog in 2018?

Combat! blog (artist’s conception)

Loyal readers—i.e. Attempt—may have noticed that there has been very little Combat! blog for the last few weeks. I started this blog in 2008, shortly before I became a full-time freelance writer. It began as a practice; I didn’t always have enough work to fill eight hours, and when I did it was often tedious or uncreative. The blog let me start each day with a couple hours of writing that was interesting to me. Ten years later, my practice has changed. I get to do a lot more interesting work that is just as satisfying to me as writing this blog, and the tedious stuff is so remunerative that I would be irresponsible to turn it down so I could blog for free. The original purpose of Combat! was to make me exercise my craft every day. Now my career does that for me.

For example, I’m in the Outline today, writing about the moment when 2017 convinced me that we’re really doing this. Until Sean Spicer took the stage at the Emmys, he was known primarily as the White House press secretary who told outlandish lies, poorly, until he got fired. He took a job amplifying a mendacious president but couldn’t pull it off, stammering and losing his temper during press conferences until they finally replaced him with Mike Huckabee’s daughter. Spicer was bad both ethically and professionally, an incompetent who tried to sell his soul but couldn’t get the market price. When Colbert brought him onstage, though, Hollywood received him as a fun reference. He was a get; the joke was that they convinced him to come on. In this moment, the chief satirist of our age became a quisling. The former truth-teller acted like lying was just this fun thing we do at our jobs, and the audience went along with him.

That’s a corrupt politics exploiting a decadent society, right there. Three months later, Republicans in Congress passed a package of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and Spicer’s old boss signed it. The reasoning behind this decision is baffling. How could you look at a record Dow, inequality between investors and working people at levels not seen since the Gilded Age, and wages that have stagnated for four decades and decide that we need to make things easier for corporations and the rich? They are the only entities winning an increasingly broken economy. It’s tempting to say that’s why the GOP made cutting their taxes its number-one priority; the Republican Party serves the rich not in spite of their success but because of it. They’re bought off. But I think the answer is more nuanced. Of Montana’s three representatives in Congress, two are multimillionaires. Greg Gianforte, the richest man in the US House, hasn’t worked for a company he didn’t own since 1986. Steve Daines quit his job in 2012, two years before he reported a net worth between $9 million and $32 million. In their daily lives, how often do these men meet Americans who get paid by the hour, or even by the year? They are members of the investor class who live among members of the investor class. When they think about what Americans are like, how they suffer and what they need, they do not think of Americans with jobs. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

I’ve been working, is what I’m saying here. The last three weeks of silence on Combat! blog haven’t been because I lost the will to write; on the contrary, I’ve brought in an extra year of writing income since Labor Day. All my time has been bought up, which is a great problem to have. It is still a problem for this blog, though, and for the novel whose first draft I finished last year and have not revised. If I had spent two hours each weekday redrafting, that thing would be accumulating polite rejection letters right now. As much as I have loved Combat! blog, and as much good as it has done for my craft and my career, it has become the least productive way I can spend two hours most days.

So I am going to change the nature of this blog in 2018. I’m not going to shut it down or anything, but I am going to allocate my two selfish/unprofitable hours each day to novel revisions. Here, I’ll keep posting links to work I’ve published elsewhere, and I’ll keep posting the weird stuff I can’t trick anyone into buying. I also plan to do some recurring features, such as my (potentially insane) plan to finish 50 books in 2018. I’m currently reading Death Wish by Brian Garfield, the novel that inspired the infamous Charles Bronson film, if you want to get in on that. What I’m not going to do, though, are daily updates. I have loved doing them for the last decade, but it’s not the best way for me to spend my time anymore.

Thank you for reading this post. Thank you for reading a handful or posts or hundreds of them. The best part of this blog is the small but select number of people who read it. I’m sorry that we can’t be roommates anymore, but I hope we can still be friends.

Art Wittich: Person?

Former MT legislator Art Wittich peruses the latest issue of Glower magazine.

It’s been a while since Art Wittich has made stories in Montana politics, meaning that it’s been a while by his standards. Aside from his tractionless campaign to fire the dean of the UM journalism school, Wittich has been quiet since August, when the state supreme court upheld a jury’s finding that he had, in fact, violated campaign finance laws during the 2010 primaries. That accusation has been one of the longest-running stories in Montana politics. It intersected with several other Wittich narratives—his tenure as head of the Health and Human Services Committee, during which he invited state employees to present personal anecdotes of welfare fraud; leaked emails detailing his plans to “purge” the state GOP of perceived moderates; the time he filed for election in the wrong district in a way that allowed him to re-file, after the deadline, in a district where he could run unopposed—and, after Commissioner of Political Practices Jonthan Motl filed charges in 2014, tied them all together. The Wittich investigation was a symbol. His malfeasance happened at a time when Montana’s campaign finance laws were under siege from Citizens United and a legion of dark money groups, including National Right to Work, the anti-union organization from whom he was eventually found to have accepted illegal contributions.

The state fined him a little more than $68,000 for that one. As appeals wore on and he refused to admit wrongdoing—he has insisted, from the beginning, that the charges were political—Motl pushed for him to be removed from office, but the 2016 election obviated that. Wittich lost his bid in the primary, and like that, his political career was over. He went from senate majority leader to private-practice lawyer in less than five years. Now, the Montana Office of Disciplinary Counsel wants to have him disbarred. Chief Disciplinary Counsel Michael Cotter has filed a complaint arguing that Wittich’s violations in 2010 constitute professional misconduct, and he shouldn’t be allowed to practice law.

The legal argument for that is beyond my ken. It centers on the statute of limitations and questions of what remedies Montana’s campaign finance laws allow. But I think there is an ethical question at work here, too. Wittich no longer threatens Montana politics. His faction of the internecine war within the GOP was thoroughly routed, and he shows no sign of returning to the legislature anytime soon. For whose benefit would we punish him? Disbarring him might protect the unsuspecting legal clients of Bozeman, but it seems more like a plan to humiliate a public figure who has already been thoroughly vanquished. That’s not our best selves. If we want to feel smug, we might consider how he feels about his precipitous fall from grace. You can read all about it in this week’s column in the Missoula Independent.

Montana Democrats trampled trying to recover reins of power, figuratively, again

Montana Governor Steve Bullock thinks that’s the last we’ll hear from Billy Madison.

Let’s say you’re getting bullied at school. I can’t imagine it, myself, but for the sake of argument, assume you are a nerd. This big kid is always beating you up. Every day he humiliates you. You’re not strong enough to fight back, but you have to do something. So you invite him to meet by the dumpsters in the dead-end alley behind the school, where you appeal to your shared interests and offer a truce.

What do you think happens next, nerd? That’s right: you live in a dumpster because you’re a pussy. Montana’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, ran this experiment last week, when he convened a special session of the state legislature. Do Republicans still hold strong majorities in both houses? Yes they do. Did the $227 million budget shortfall that occasioned this session bring them to Helena with a giant bargaining chip? Indeed. Yet Democrats seemed surprised when their Republican colleagues threw them into the dumpster.

Take, for example, Sen. Albert Olszewki’s (R-Kalispell) budget-neutral bill to make it harder to change the gender on your birth certificate. SB-10 sought to block a proposed rule change at Health and Human Services that would allow the department to accept sworn affidavits of gender transition, as opposed to court orders only. Normally such changes would be the sole purview of the executive branch, headed by aforementioned Democratic governor Steve Bullock, but he reconvened the legislature. The birth certificate bill didn’t have anything to do with the budget shortfall, but the Republican-dominated state senate passed it anyway. Fortunately, the house ended the session without taking it up. But transgender Montanans almost watched the state snatch away an achievement they had pursued for a long time.

What did Bullock think was going to happen? At a certain point, you have to stop criticizing Republicans for their opportunism and start criticizing Democrats for giving them so many opportunities. We think of the question of who is doing politics better as horse-race stuff, but this story reminds us that it has a moral dimension, too. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.


Senate candidate blames “deep state” for hunting permit violations

Troy Downing and a fish

Troy Downing is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Democrat Jon Tester for one of Montana’s seats in the US Senate. He is also responding to accusations that he illegally applied for resident hunting and fishing permits every year between 2011 and 2016—spiritedly. Last week, his campaign issued a statement saying that “It’s unfortunate the liberal Montana FWP deep state is on a witch hunt,” referring to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as an instrument of secret anti-conservative government. That was a stretch. Normally, a candidate would just cop to this kind of violation and kill the story. Downing can’t do that, though, because the essence of FWP’s allegations is that he doesn’t really live here.

I would describe the evidence against him as comically substantial. According to FWP, Downing and his son Dylan used the same Montana driver’s license number to purchase resident hunting licenses within three minutes of each other. He filed Montana income taxes as a nonresident in 2013 and 2014. His property at the Yellowstone Club lists a San Diego post office box as its owner’s address. A 2013 profile in the Lone Peak Lookout describes him as a “part-time Yellowstone resident” who enjoys throwing grape-stomping parties at his vineyard in California. On his blog, he has written about returning from his vacation property in Montana to his home in California. And he is the CEO of a real-estate investment company based in San Diego.

Nevertheless, Downing insists the charges against him are political. So far, though, his campaign has avoided saying he was a resident of Montana all those years. They’ve pulled out all the stops otherwise, repeatedly citing his veteran status and calling the judge in his case a Democrat who released records to sabotage his campaign. Actually, the Gallatin County attorney ordered those records released. You may remember him as the Republican who refused to release Greg Gianforte’s mug shot until a court ordered him to do so.

The point is Troy Downing was framed. He’s a true resident of this state no matter where he quote-unquote “lives.” When you think about it, what’s more Montanan than using the money you made in California to buy a bunch of property here and run for public office? You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I look past the surface conspiracy of the Big Wildlife deep state to uncover something even deeper, darker, and dumber. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, perhaps!