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Biography: Montana Governor Greg Gianforte

The fifth and final installment of this biographical series examines Governor Greg Gianforte and his rise to prominence in Montana politics. originally published in the print version of Montana Press in August, 2021.

A New Montana Religion

The night before Greg Gianforte’s 2017 win in the election for Montana’s then-lone congressional seat, the would-be Congressman physically assaulted reporter Ben Jacobs in Bozeman, Montana.

After the assault, Gianforte misled police about the incident, saying Jacobs was the instigator. Audio and eyewitness evidence corroborated the journalist’s account and Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in June, 2017. The terms of Gianforte’s legal settlement with Jacobs included engaging with organizations and committees working to protect journalists and the First Amendment. Gianforte apologized and paid a fine but effectively avoided opportunities to make full reparations for his offense, leaving the task instead to his staff.

With a track record of over 20 years in the spotlight in Montana, businessman-turned-politician Greg Gianforte will likely continue to use his vast personal fortune to fund his political ventures and ideology in the state for years to come.

By a wide margin, Gianforte is the richest man to occupy the Governor’s Residence in Helena since it was built in 1959, not to mention the wealthiest Governor in the state’s 132-year history. He is also the first Montana governor to boast a digital-tech background, which garnered him hundreds of millions of dollars through the sale of two companies he built, Brightwork Development and RightNow Technologies. Gianforte has used these funds to donate to charitable organizations through the Gianforte Family Foundation, support private schools across the state and run for political office.

While a member of Congress in 2018, and either the richest or the second-richest member, with an estimated net worth of at least $135 million, Gianforte paid his staff the lowest wages of any member. While the Montana governor preaches the virtues and practice of “bootstrapping,” and even co-wrote the book Bootstrapping Your Business in 2005, his businesses often exploited the reputations of more successful companies on their path to profit.

Gianforte’s touting of his “bootstrapping” philosophy as regards RightNow has been critiqued by former company employees who have said that Gianforte, who sold Brightwork for $10 million in 1994, was hardly starting from nothing in Montana when he founded RightNow Technologies shortly thereafter. (RightNow was sold to Oracle for a reported $1.8 billion in 2012).

“Greg likes to tout it as bootstrapping, but he was bootstrapping with millions of [his own] dollars,” said Doug Warner, a former RightNow software developer and product manager who worked at RightNow from 1999 to 2012.

In addition to business, politics and philanthropy, Gianforte’s history in Montana includes suing a state agency over a land easement in 2009 and illegally killing an elk in 2000, later claiming the killing was a mistake. In another hunting-trapping incident in February, 2021, Gianforte violated state hunting regulations when he trapped and killed a wolf native to Yellowstone National Park.

According to former students at the private school where Gianforte long was heavily involved in financing and leadership, Petra Academy in Bozeman, Gianforte apparently supports teaching creationism and questioning Darwinian evolution at the school. Gianforte will not speak directly on the subject of evolution but has noted that he thinks young people, “should be taught how to think, not what to think, and a diversity of views are what should be presented.”

Gianforte is a major benefactor of the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, a museum with exhibits explaining the age of dinosaurs in “Biblical terms” and patently rejecting Darwinian evolution.

Over decades of private philanthropy, Greg Gianforte has given millions of dollars to organizations lobbying for adherence to a very specific conservative vision that combines elements of free-market libertarianism with social dogmas drawn from strains of evangelical Christianity.

Montana's governor currently stands as among a relative handful of Republicans who can significantly fund Religious Right organizations while simultaneously advancing their conservative social agenda in the halls of power – first in Congress and now vis a vis the state government in Helena. While Gianforte also donates to secular organizations, his distinct priority has been for evangelical causes, including prominently funding the Montana Family Foundation (MFF), a research and education organization promoting “pro-family values in Montana.” (Link)

Like other Religious Right organizations, the Montana Family Foundation takes stances against same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and civil rights for members of LGBTQ+ communities, while pushing for "religious freedom.” As president of the MFF, former Montana State House Representative Jeff Laszloffy has supported extreme conspiracy theories, including the debunked “Birther” theory that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

According to a 2013 Helena Independent Record article, Gianforte first met Laszloffy when he arrived in Montana in the mid-1990s. Laszloffy said the businessman approached him about alternative education opportunities in Montana because Gianforte was struggling to find qualified individuals to work for RightNow. Subsequently, the two men have been connected through their mutual association with MFF.

The Gianforte Family Foundation donated nearly $2 million to MFF and its public charity Montana Family Institute (MFI) between 2005 and 2018. The governor’s wife, Susan Gianforte, also sat on the MFF board starting in 2005 and served as treasurer, director, and chairman from 2009 to 2015.

Before becoming Montana’s First Lady in January, 2021, Susan Gianforte spoke against an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in the Bozeman community.

“The fact that the [Montana] Family Foundation is organized as a political entity makes a lot of sense,” said Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network, “That’s why the Religious Right was created… to gain and then try to sustain and keep political power.”

McAdam added that having Susan Gianforte on the Foundation board helped solidify the MFF in a political alliance with the Gianfortes.

“It’s not necessarily that these lawmakers and Governor Gianforte are representing the true wishes of community members around Montana,” McAdam opined. “But what they are representing are those core ideologies of the Religious Right that, again, has secured and continues to maintain a lot of power and influence in the Republican Party, both here in Montana, and of course nationally as well.”

From New Jersey to Montana

Before building a number of successful technology companies and becoming a Montana politician, Greg Gianforte grew up as an all-American boy in the liberal-leaning outer suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Born in San Diego, California to Frank and Dale Douglass Gianforte on April 17, 1961, Gianforte spent most of his childhood in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, one of many strands of suburbs laced around Philadelphia. His father owned and managed properties on New Jersey’s coast after retiring from numerous engineering jobs. His mother was a public school math teacher and took care of the family’s three children.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gianforte was a congregant at Valley Forge Presbyterian Church. At the time Valley Forge was led by civil-rights advocate, Reverend Joseph Jesen, Jr. Congregants who attended church with Gianforte recall anti-nuclear rallies and stories about Jesen attending the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, protesting the Vietnam War, and registering Black voters in Selma, Alabama. In the 1960s, Jesen worked to fight discrimination in the local community by acting as a “straw-buyer” for Black community members who were given faulty information regarding whether a house they wanted to purchase was on the market.

Joe Havlick, a classmate and friend from King of Prussia, grew up with Gianforte in the Valley Forge Church. Both were active in youth groups and Sunday school from an early age.

Havlick says that when he learned of some of Gianforte’s current religious views, including his denial of Darwinian evolution and discrimination towards LGBTQ+ persons, he was puzzled. He never expected Gianforte would grow to hold such beliefs since no leanings were visible when Gianforte was a teenager.

“He’s gone very far-right, and he’s very religious,” Havlick said. “When I first heard that that was the case, that never would have occurred to me.”

In his young adulthood, Gianforte was the pride of Upper Merion Area High School, leading his peers in school government, academic achievement and on the football field. The summer after his high school graduation, Gianforte followed in his father’s footsteps and attended Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, graduating in 1983 with a B.E. in Electrical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science. Following completion of a B.A. and an M.S. in four years, Gianforte was a top candidate for AT&T’s Bell Labs, where he was hired as part of an engineering team working to create one of the world’s first Ethernet cables.

While at Bell Labs in the mid-1980s, Gianforte met Susan, who already had earned her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University, a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Cal-Berkeley and an MBA from New York University. Gianforte left Bell Labs, but stayed in New Jersey, and in1986 created Brightwork Development Inc., a software company that created network management applications, including anti-virus software.

In the early days of Brightwork, Gianforte faced at least one formal complaint of employment discrimination. A Raw Story article outlines a lawsuit filed against Brightwork by John Cardinale, who claimed he was fired due to his multiple sclerosis in 1991. Cardinale, per the article an “effective and diligent” salesperson, was told his position was being eliminated, but another employee was hired in his place. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.

In 1994, McAfee, a security-software company, purchased Brightwork for $10 million. Gianforte stayed on as North American VP for the company until 1995, when he decided to move on and take his family to Montana, a place he had fallen in love with during trips to the state as a young man.

After settling in the Bozeman area, Greg and Susan Gianforte started RightNow Technologies, a customer-relationship management (CRM) software company. While tech companies were uncommon in 1997 in rural America, RightNow quickly attracted significant customers, from local businesses to government agencies.

RightNow offered companies the ability to streamline their branding and provide customer service by building algorithms based on customer profiles and behavior. The Bozeman company pitched its products to show how businesses, government agencies, universities, and even political campaigns could benefit from its customer support products, garnering a diverse array of high-profile clients including Ben & Jerry’s, The Social Security Administration, Nikon, John Deere and British Airways.

A concern surrounding information technology companies’ access to personal data, however, is the resultant lack of consumer privacy. Some scholars insist that the emergent “surveillance capitalism” is deeply detrimental to functioning democracy.

Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, writes that,

“surveillance capitalism” is the “unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets,” or to “business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later” exploit their knowledge of consumer sentiments.

One of the many innovations developed for RightNow was an “emotion detection” product.

“This technique would automatically classify a customer message on a scale from unhappy to happy based on the language they used,” said former RightNow software developer Doug Warner. “The very unhappy people could automatically be routed to a manager, the happy people could receive an automated ‘thank you’ and everyone else could go through normal channels.”

Warner recalls that, after its patent application for the product was initially rejected, Gianforte came up with the idea not to focus exclusively on customer emotion capture but instead on how to make use of that emotion.

Gianforte Rises

According to a 2014 Great Falls Tribune article, Gianforte had no immediate plans to run for office when he launched, an online data-gathering site to promote the scholarships he would be offering to manufacturing and industrial students across the state.

“Really, I’ve settled on spending the next 10 or 20 years working on trying to improve the economy of the state of Montana,” Gianforte assured the reporter when asked about his aspirations for political office in the future. Within the year, however, Gianforte was campaigning for Governor, boasting promises of high-paying jobs for Montanans.

In multiple statewide campaigns since, creating high-paying jobs, cutting taxes, avoiding “federal government overreach” and supporting fossil fuel industries have been consistent Gianforte themes.

Democrat Mike Cooney, former Montana Secretary of State, Lieutenant Governor and then-Governor Steve Bullock’s 2016 running mate, noted that it is often easier to win as an incumbent. But the 2016 campaign was still expected to be challenging, in part due to Gianforte’s wealth.

Gianforte loaned $6 million to his campaign in 2016 and not surprisingly that gave him “a real distinct advantage, which it gives anybody who can self-fund in a campaign,” said Cooney. Gianforte, however, still lost to Bullock by nearly four percentage points.

According to tax returns released in 2016 during his failed bid for Governor, Gianforte’s personal income had totaled more than $243 million since 2005.

After Gianforte’s 2016 defeat, Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives became vacant when Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) was named Secretary of the Interior by President Trump.

With only a couple of months to campaign before the May 2017 special election, Gianforte and Democratic candidate Rob Quist fought to represent Montana in Washington, D.C.

Quist recalled the first time he met Gianforte at an American Indian PowWow in Bozeman during the campaign. After agreeing to be part of the honor parade, Quist learned Gianforte was his dance partner and they toured around the gymnasium together before being introduced.

“I leaned over to Greg and I said, ‘Well, at least we got our first dance together out of the way,’” Quist said with a chuckle. “To his credit, he smiled.”

Raised by a Republican family in Glacier County, Quist, well-known to many Montanans as a longtime touring musician, said he was inspired to run for Congress as a Democrat after seeing how “disheartened” people were after the 2016 election.

Gianforte campaigned against Quist on his already-well-worn platform of creating high paying jobs in Montana, reminding voters that through RightNow he had brought 500 engineering, sales and marketing jobs to Montana (though the larger portion of RightNow’s 1,100 employees had been scattered around the globe).

As with Gianforte’s previous campaign, money was not a problem for the Republican in the special election. According to the Federal Election Commission, Gianforte spent $9.8 million to Quist’s $6.7 million during the brief campaign. Open Secrets found that the vast majority of Quist’s individual donations gave under $200, while Gianforte’s campaign mostly saw donations of over $2,000, with Gianforte himself donating $2.5 million to his campaign.

Open Secrets also documented that outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican National Committee, spent $5.6 million backing Gianforte, while outside groups spent less than $1 million backing Quist.

Gianforte’s also stood proudly with President Donald Trump in the 2017 campaign, whereas during his 2016 run for governor, Gianforte had hesitated to support Trump’s bid for the presidency.

According to Mike Cooney, during the 2016 campaign Gianforte “wouldn’t say his name,” but after his loss and Trump’s win, Gianforte began supporting the administration.

“I think the minute Trump won the election, he saw the handwriting on the wall,” Cooney added.

In 2016, Trump ended up winning 55.6% of Montana votes while Gianforte received 46.4% of the vote for governor. In 2017, Gianforte won 50.2% of the vote to Quist’s 44.1%.

National Exposure

The night before Gianforte’s May, 2017 election to Congress, he physically assaulted reporter Ben Jacobs after the journalist asked a healthcare-related question at Gianforte’s Bozeman campaign headquarters.

For Rob Quist, it was a shock to hear his opponent had assaulted a reporter, but he didn’t want to make a comment at the time. He said he wanted Montanans as well as law enforcement to decide best how to proceed on election night.

“There’s this whole narrative amongst our current Republican Party about how the media is the enemy,” Quist said. “And so I think that they were trying to kind of play that card.”

Following the assault, President Trump praised Gianforte and described him as “a great guy, tough cookie” and “my kind of guy.”

As noted, Gianforte initially misled police about the incident, saying Jacobs was the instigator until audio evidence and multiple eyewitness accounts proved the nature of the assault. Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in June of 2017.

Governor Gianforte later appointed Brian Gootkin, Gallatin County Sheriff at the time of the assault, Director of the Department of Corrections in his administration.

As part of his legal settlement with Jacobs, Gianforte was required to give $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to Michael DeDora, CPJ Washington Advocacy Manager, the $50,000 was used to create the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which tracks how many journalists are assaulted, arrested and subpoenaed every year.

Gianforte also agreed to a 30-minute meeting with CPJ to talk about the incident, but, per DeDora, the October, 2017 meeting was cut to seven minutes when Rep. Gianforte was called away to vote. The remainder of the meeting, which DeDora said was difficult to schedule, was between Gianforte staff and CPJ. Representatives for CPJ felt they did not receive ample time to speak with Gianforte about how he could help protect the First Amendment and journalists.

“In the United States, people need to respect the role of the press,” DeDora said. “And we thought this was particularly important given that he was involved in a physical attack against a journalist, but also that he came into office at a time when the Trump administration had just come into office as well. And President Trump was using his Twitter account on a nearly daily basis to attack the press and [elevate] those attacks on the press.”

In a letter to Gianforte, CPJ asked him to join the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press, originally co-chaired by then-Congressman Mike Pence, and join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. CPJ also requested that Gianforte speak about the importance of the press and advocate for imprisoned journalists. According to DeDora, none of these requests were addressed by Gianforte, nor was CPJ able to schedule a follow-up meeting.

“We were asking him to raise cases of imprisoned journalists around the world, journalists who are very much like Ben Jacobs, who are working to try to bring information and truth to their communities,” DeDora said.

Since 2017, there have been 618 physical attacks on journalists, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the system set up by the legal settlement. In 2017 there were 50 attacks recorded; in 2020, the number jumped to 441.

Gianforte in Congress

Gianforte remained Montana’s lone Congressman after winning the 2018 election against former Bozeman State House Representative Kathleen Williams. In Congress, Gianforte’s top three policy areas were health, environmental protection, and public lands and natural resources. The Congressman worked on 114 bills in these areas and only ten bills involving the economy, public finance, labor and employment.

While a member of Congress, and either the richest or the second-richest member with an estimated net worth of at least $135 million, Gianforte paid his staff the lowest wages of any member of Congress. USA Today reported that the median salary for a Gianforte staffer was $35,925. By comparison, the highest median staff pay, for Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA), was $81,491.

As a Congressman, Gianforte voted for Trump’s tax cut plan and supported congressional term limits, the Great American Outdoors Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Two of Gianforte’s lone-sponsored bills were signed into law -- HR 1972, which designated a Missoula post office as the “Jeannette Rankin Post Office Building” and HR 4645, the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He introduced 34 bills; 12 bills co-sponsored by Gianforte became law, including HR 4779, “To Extend the Undertaking Spam, Spyware, and Fraud Enforcement with Enforcers beyond Borders Act of 2006” and the CARES Act for Coronavirus Aid.

Gianforte opposed legislation for background checks for firearms, impeaching President Trump in 2019, and lowering the price of prescription drugs.

A strong “Trumper,” Gianforte voted in line with President Trump’s positions 93.3% of the time.

2020 Campaign

With two statewide victories under his belt, Gianforte decided to try for the governorship again in 2020. In June of 2019, he announced the “Montana Comeback Plan,” focusing on the economy, bringing business to Montana, healthcare, and protecting the “Montana way of life.”

As with previous campaigs, Gianforte was willing to significantly self-fund his second campaign for governor. For the 2020 election, Gianforte donated more than $7.5 million to his own campaign, his largest amount to date.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Cooney said he knew he’d be up against Gianforte before the primary votes were counted. With a history in Montana politics that dates to the 1970s, Cooney, a Butte native, said he ran for governor because he believes the government’s job is to help its citizens during the good and bad times.

Cooney said he and Gianforte’s opposing views included Gianforte’s statements about government being an “impediment.”

“I really believe that people want to work; they want to do good things; they want to support their family,” Cooney said. “Government can’t do everything and government doesn’t have all the answers, but the government can play a role that can be very productive.”

Cooney noted that the 2020 campaign was unlike any other modern campaign as the country was in the thick of the Covid pandemic and he, like many candidates, had to adjust their ideas of campaigning and find creative ways to reach voters while protecting the health of his staff and other Montanans.

Public health and safety actions, such as wearing masks, also became politicized.

“People were getting tired of it,” Cooney said. “And our administration [under Governor Bullock] had to be the ones in charge and make some tough decisions, which some people very much supported, other people didn’t.”

While Cooney and fellow Democrats hosted more virtual and “drive-in” events to ensure social distancing, many Republican candidates continued to hold traditional face-to-face events and campaigning that did not follow CDC safety guidelines at the time. Cooney says that this gave Republicans and some voters a more familiar campaign setting, but not without a risk.

Donald Trump, Jr., Susan Gianforte, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and Kimberly Guilfoyle in July, 2020.

For example, in July, 2020, Kimberly Guilfoyle, girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr., tested positive for Covid after attending an event in Montana. Multiple Republican candidates then had to quarantine due to exposure.

Cooney also had to prepare to go up against Gianforte’s vast personal wealth. While the Lt. Governor said that he and other Democrats were expecting Gianforte’s large contributions, they were surprised that Montanans were not more phased by millions of dollars of campaign expenditures by his rival.

“We just figured that it would be something we could account for later in the campaign,” Cooney said. “And I don’t know that we were ever able to do that.”

With the pandemic and a completely mail-in election, voting apparently was easier for Montanans. In 2020, voter turnout in Montana was 81%, compared to 74% in 2016 and 72% in 2012.

Cooney suggested that for a guy who likes animal trophies scattered throughout his office, the governor’s chair is likely a trophy for Gianforte.

“I think but he’s got to be pretty happy that this is one that he can put on the wall,” said Cooney. “I never viewed winning the governor’s office as something that I had to do in order to complete my resume. I always viewed it as something I wanted to do in order to continue to work with the people of Montana, make Montana a better state, make it a better state for future generations.”

Even though Cooney lost, and by a wide margin (about 13 percentage points), he made it clear that Montanans made their choice for governor and he would respect that choice.

“I’m not going to be one of those people who say, ‘I’m just going to ignore the will of the people and that it was just fake news,’” Cooney said. “The election was a fair election.”

One Montana under God

Despite the lack of evidence of significant voter fraud in the 2020 elections, and his own victory, Congressman Gianforte was one of 126 House Republicans to challenge the presidential election results in a State of Texas legal action in December of 2020. This was one of Gianforte’s final official acts in national office before Matt Rosendale was sworn in as the new Congressman for Montana. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Texas suit, essentially ending President Trump’s effort to overturn the election through the courts.

At Grace Bible Church in Bozeman, Montana, a blog titled, “What to do when an election doesn’t go your way?” was published just after the 2020 election. The blog posed the question, “But what if I believe that an election was indeed fraudulent even if the legal system says differently?”

Grace Bible Church continues over decades to be the Gianforte family’s congregation. According to tax records, the Gianforte Family Foundation (GFF) began donating to the Bozeman church in 2006. Church Pastor Bryan Hughes spoke at the governor’s inauguration on January 4, 2021, and to-date, GFF has donated over $4 million to the church.

Grace Bible Church was founded in 1945 and, according to its website, identifies itself as non-denominational and also as a “bible,” “historical,” “instructional” and an “evangelistic” church.

“Non-denominational does not mean not fundamentalist or not evangelical because technically, fundamentalism and evangelicalism are not denominations,” said Dr. Kristin Du Mez, professor of History at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

After examining Grace Bible Church’s constitution, Dr. Du Mez said she would describe the church as Evangelical with “fundamentalist flavors.”

Each byline of the Grace Bible Church constitution is backed with a Bible verse to support the text. The church constitution also explains marriage, sexuality and gender. Same-sex marriage is a sin and any attempt to change one’s gender is also labeled as a sin.

According to the church’s constitution, only men are allowed to hold elder and deacon positions. Women’s Ministries at the church include cooking meals for those in need, helping with certain services and receptions, and cleaning and helping with seminars and retreats.

Grace Bible Church’s constitution also states that members can be removed from the Church for not attending services or not living in “accord to faith and order of the church.”

Du Mez told me that the church’s constitution provides a means to ensure members cannot diverge from the Church’s theological doctrines. “So anybody [is] out if they cross any of those lines, and there’s a lot of lines that you could cross,” notes the scholar.

“He’s in pretty deep,” Du Mez concludes of Governor Gianforte. “He is using his vast resources to promote… his religious values as he understands them."

When asked if it’s possible for evangelicals to separate church and state, Dr. Du Mez concluded that, while such separation is technically possible, it “goes against their belief system.”

According to recent research from Dartmouth, Princeton, and the University of Utah, unfounded claims of election fraud from Trump and his allies has significantly undermined faith in the American elections system, especially among voters who support Trump

“Within this ‘us versus them’ worldview," said DuMez, "It is assumed that God is on your side, and you are on God’s side. And so anything you do is really justified because you are on the side of what is right and, and on the other side are people who are out to get you, who are out to get God’s truth, who are out to destroy America.”

“The reality is that this [conservative evangelical attitude] is not even representative of most Christians,” said Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network. “I think there are a lot of folks out there at the community level that are really upset that their values and what they care about doesn’t seem to be accepted and valued at the legislature, during committee hearings, in those policy arenas, because the [Montana] Family Foundation and those types of groups have sort of staked out that territory as being theirs.”

The Comeback Plan

In February, 2021, soon after taking office, Gianforte was a guest at a ranch owned by Robert E. Smith, one of his major donors and a director of the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group, when the new governor trapped and killed a wolf native to Yellowstone National Park.

Though it was legal to kill the animal, Gianforte had failed to complete required training to teach hunters how to ethically harvest wolves before setting traps. Violating the state regulation comes with a fine of fifty to five hundred dollars, the suspension of active hunting licenses and/or a ban from hunting. Gianforte, however, was issued only a written warning from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, an agency he oversees as Governor, even though this was at least his second offense for violating Montana hunting regulations.

With his financial resources and the support of well-heeled backers and the state GOP, Gianforte is capable of significantly exerting his religious and ideological beliefs on the social and political culture of Montana. He also can indulge his bent to ignore and avoid “unfriendly” media and dismiss unwanted questions from journalists while marketing and branding himself as Montana’s champion in a masquerade of "objective" content he himself curates, further muddying public perception of actual actions or events.

The “Montana Comeback Plan” that Gianforte promoted during his 2020 campaign included various promises to bring high-paying jobs to Montana, including plans to support scholarships for mechanical jobs and an investment in marketing to bring new business to the state.

During the 2021 Legislative session, Gianforte signed bills restricting abortion access as part of his plan to “protect and promote the family,” and also bills lengthening the wolf trapping season, allowing snares to be used to trap and kill wolves, and enabling private payment for expenses to hunters and trappers who successfully kill a wolf.

The governor also signed a bill banning transgender students from playing sports outside their birth-assigned gender and since has signed other anti-transgender bills. Anti-transgender actions were not discussed in Gianforte’s Comeback Plan. The Gianforte Family Foundation, however, continues to donate to political organizations that lobby the state legislature and the public with anti-transgender messaging.

Michael DeDora, Washington Advocacy Manager for CPJ, said in the era of Trump branding the media as “fake” and attacking reporters through social media, similar types of behavior are trickling into state and local government. Gianforte’s victory in a statewide election following his physical assault on a journalist perhaps shows that people are willing to overlook violence, and, in a real sense, deem violence toward journalists acceptable. This potentially puts all journalists at risk.

“It’s important to also realize that the attack against Ben Jacobs was happening in the context of an administration and a president who, on a daily basis, were attacking the media and delegitimizing their role in American democratic society, such that they were reducing the amount of trust that people had in news sources and in journalists,” DeDora said. “And this leads to a situation where people start to dismiss serious, accurate news reporting because of the fact that the politician that they like, or the political party that they belong to, has said something critical or nasty about that news source.”

Looking back years after Gianforte’s assault of Ben Jacobs, DeDora wonders how different the relationship between the press and politicians would be if Gianforte had given more than seven minutes of his time to his meeting with CPJ and could “use his platform to take accountability and articulate why we need the press in order to defend democracy and human rights.”

“It’s really difficult to look back now and think ‘how different would the landscape be? But there were very few Republicans during the Trump administration who were willing to speak out in defense of the press,” DeDora says.

Rob Quist says it’s crucial for Montanans to study issues prior to the next election and find reliable news sources.

“My mother was a very wise woman; she made a statement to me very early in my life that I kept thinking about during the campaign,” Quist says. “And that phrase was very simple, ‘Consider the source.’”

—MacKenzie Dexter

Over the course of nearly six months in 2021, MacKenzie Dexter reached out to over 250 individuals who were or have been connected to Gianforte, including grade school friends, former coaches, teachers, co-workers, employees and employers - even young people who attended the school he helped create and bankroll, Petra Academy. Greg Gianforte never returned requests for comments. To view the full series in five parts including this summary, visit


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