Greg Gianforte and Art Wittich in Montana politics crossover episode

"Who is this Gianforte— some kind of slacker?"

“Who is this Gianforte—some kind of slacker?”

Ask a Montanan whether he supports preserving access to public lands, and he’ll jam his eatin’ spoon in your eye until he feels it crunch. He didn’t understand the question, and you startled him. To make some kind of meaning from all those empty words, people need a concrete example. My apartment has fallen into abstraction lately, so it’ll take me as second to hunt up a good—here we go. This thing Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte did works nicely:

In 2009, Greg and Susan Gianforte sued the Montana department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, seeking to get rid of a fishing access point that residents of Bozeman had used for almost 40 years to go fishing on the East Gallatin River…The spur led not only to the river but to an entire riparian area of 75 public acres, protected by FWP for the enjoyment and general use of all citizens. But the easement also ran over the far end of the Gianfortes’s property, and so…they viewed it as a trespass.

Props to Ben al-Fowlkes for the link. The Gianfortes filed their lawsuit through a limited-liability corporation called East Gallatin LLC, headquartered at their home in Bozeman. They retained as counsel in the matter of East Gallatin LLC v. Father-Son Fishing Trip one Art Wittich, attorney-at-law in the Bozeman area and R–Belgrade in the Montana State House. The crossover is delightful. It’s like Captain America: Civil War except they’re on the same side, against Montana Cowgirl.

If you started following Montana politics in its present, blockbuster era, you may not know the origin stories here. You might remember Representative Wittich from the lawsuit filed against him by the Montana commissioner of political practices, which was recently adjudicated not in the representative’s favor. He awaits sentencing. Meanwhile, at his lab, mild-mannered Gianforte is the tech billionaire and gubernatorial hopeful who seemed pretty nice to me, but who also funded a creationist museum and said Noah raised the retirement age to 900. What will the Bible-believing nerd and the Bible-swearing defendant get up to together?

Here’s where the analogy falls apart, since what they got up to together was an unpopular lawsuit in 2009. It’s not quite news that two Bozeman-area conservatives tried to shut down public recreation together, but it is worth noting that Gianforte found an issue on which virtually all Montanans agree. I quote a graf from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, albeit one that smacks of press release:

Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates said this year’s results are consistent with those of previous years, although a few new questions probed opinions of public-land management and the perceived relationship between environment and quality of life. More than 95 percent of those polled said it was important to protect public land for future generations and to ensure access for recreational opportunities.

Ninety-five percent seems like an awfully high number, but I bet consensus on this issue is strong. Montanans make good use of public lands. They love fishing and canoeing and complaining about rich people from out of town. Buying a ranch and using lawyers to keep them off the river is right up there with tucking your jeans into your boots.

Still, I’m not sure that, as the Cowgirl has it, “this is a story that no Montana candidate, especially a first-timer who is just now being introduced to voters, can survive.” Her enthusiasm may outstrip her powers of prediction. These are two franchise characters, and they’ve survived a lot. I don’t think you can write either of them out before the second crossover.

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