Steve Bullock Vows To Disentangle 'Dark Money' From Politics

Jul 17, 2019
Originally published on July 17, 2019 9:57 am

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock entered the Democratic primary in May, months after many of his competitors. He has an excuse.

"I had a job to do," Bullock told NPR, explaining that the Montana Legislature, which only meets for up to 90 days every other year, was in session until the end of April. "If I had to choose between saving health care for 400,000 folks or chasing 100,000 donors? Easiest decision I'd ever make."

But now he's in. The two-term governor and chair of the National Governors Association touts his credentials as the only candidate to win in 2016 in a state that President Trump also won. He has raised about $2 million and may qualify for the upcoming July debates after missing June's.

Central to Bullock's campaign is the promise to do away with "dark money" — political money that can't be traced to its source. Before he was elected governor, Bullock served as Montana's attorney general and challenged the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

Bullock told NPR's Noel King that on Day 1 he would sign an executive order mandating campaign spending disclosures from federal contractors.

"Adding that sunshine and transparency will make a difference," he said.

Interview Highlights

On why he chose to center his campaign on dark money

You could walk down the street, and people don't care necessarily about the money in the system, but they do care that Washington, D.C., doesn't work for them. I mean, we pay more for prescription drugs than any country in the world. We have nothing to show for it ...

Whoever cleans this studio tonight will pay more [in taxes] than 60 of the Fortune 500 companies. So if the system is rigged because of the influence of money, that's when folks turn around and say, "This economy is not working for me, the political system is not working for me" — so let's just blow up the system. I've never in 10 years of public office had somebody come up to me and say, "Oh! There's not enough spending in our elections."

On his plan to limit dark money contributions

Day 1, I'd sign an executive order that says if you want to contract with the federal government — I can't tell you that you can't spend or donate, but you have to disclose every single dollar that you are either spending or donating to influence our elections. Think about it. The federal government contracts with dang near every company in the country. Adding that sunshine and transparency will make a difference.

On breaking gridlock and reaching rural voters

Look, I'm not naive about the challenge, but certainly I tried to build relationships with Republican legislators in my statehouse. But I don't rely on those relationships alone. I go out all across our state. When we got Medicaid expansion through, I probably did 20 community meetings in rural Republican areas that were at risk of losing their hospital.

So I think that the next president has to make their case, not just in Washington D.C., but to America. So I'd spend as much time in Kentucky as I am here because if you actually get voters saying, "We expect more of our elected officials," that's how I think things get moved.

On reversing his position on assault weapons

We had a March for our Lives in Helena, in Montana. ... I went with my children. And I listened. And as these kids are saying enough, too, that's where I finally said enough with the assault weapons, because I know as a gun owner — and 40% of households in America have firearms in them — I know it's not for hunting. I know it's not for self-defense. Even industry is stopping this. When I was growing up the National Rifle Association was gun safety and hunting organization. Now it's nothing more than to try to divide people.

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Montana Governor Steve Bullock started his presidential campaign late, and so he missed the first Democratic primary debate. His campaign says he's qualified for the next round later this month. Now, at the center of his campaign is dark money. In the latest installment of MORNING EDITION's Opening Arguments series, our policy conversations with 2020 candidates, Bullock says he thinks anonymous money from corporations and lobbying groups has corrupted our democratic process. And he started with an example.

STEVE BULLOCK: Think about the first George Bush. George H.W. Bush said we will lead on climate change, and we'll lead from the top. That was 30 years ago. And now Republicans can't even acknowledge that climate change is human caused or real because of the outside spending in our elections. If we can't take care of the corrupting influence of money in our elections, everything else that the Democrats are talking about, we're going to run into the same problem.

KING: Can I just ask what reforms you would make specifically on dark money? Like, what are your plans?

BULLOCK: So Day 1, I'd sign an executive order that says if you want a contract with the federal government I can't tell you, you can't spend or donate, but you have to disclose every single dollar that you are either spending are donating to influence our elections. Adding that sunshine and transparency will make a difference. My legislature was about two-thirds Republican when we passed a bill that said 90 days out from election, you have to disclose every nickel that you spend. Never forget, when I was running for reelection, Day 90, all of that dark money spending stopped. And if we could kick the Koch brothers or other groups out of Montana, we ought to be able do it everywhere in the country.

KING: Let's turn to foreign policy, which is something that, as a governor, you haven't had a tremendous amount of experience with. Would you end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen?

BULLOCK: I would. What's happened in Yemen has been failed from the beginning. So I think that we actually need to actually be withdrawing the U.S. dollars but try to bring the U.N. in together for more of a peacekeeping role.

KING: Would you withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan?

BULLOCK: I would want to make sure that we are completely out by the end of my first term.

KING: 2024?

BULLOCK: 2024.

KING: You are one of just four Democratic candidates in a very large field not to pledge that you will not take money from the fossil fuel industry. Why not?

BULLOCK: Well, I've - and look, the overall efforts in trying to make sure that all money's disclosed has been the fight of my career. And what I've said from the beginning is I'll disclose every single dollar that's donated to my campaign with full transparency. No PAC money. No corporate money. But haven't said this industry or that industry. We just won't accept dollars.

KING: But why not?

BULLOCK: To be candid, I don't even know if I've gotten one nickel from anybody in the fossil fuel industry. We could certainly check and get back to you. But it's just - if it's an individual giving a donation, I'm not going to put these lines around, here's who's worthy to give and who's worthy not to give. And I also think that there's something about this, too. Like, you know, Montana's a coal state.

KING: Yeah.

BULLOCK: We have to take immediate and durable action on climate change. But I think at times, Democrats will turn around and say - you know, folks, this example that it powered this country for their whole lives and worked hard - at times, there's a perception that Democrats think something's wrong with those individuals. So I think that we have to be careful, especially the workers, that we're not demonizing what they've chosen to do to actually feed their family. But we're trying to make this transition fast.

KING: You said we should rejoin the Paris climate deal. We should note that even if the signatories to that deal meet their goals, which they're not on track to do, global temperatures will still rise over what scientists refer to as the threshold of catastrophe. What else will you do to make sure that doesn't happen?

BULLOCK: You bet. And the scientists say we have to be net-zero emissions, carbon neutral, as a world by 2050. I think we could do it by 2040, or even earlier.

KING: If you were the president, how? What's your plan?

BULLOCK: We need to make federal investments in everything from those opportunities upgrading the grid to investing in agriculture. There's sustainable agriculture, and the Dairy Council's examples, already saying here's how they can be net-zero emissions. We can't do this alone. As you know, China emits twice as much as we do. We know that we have to take about a billion tons of CO2 out a year if we're going to actually meet these targets. And I think bringing together everybody from conservationists, to labor to utilities and say let's actually make this track an opportunity.

KING: You are an interesting candidate in a very specific way. You're a politician whose mind has changed on a very real topic, which is gun control. You used to not support a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks. But you changed your mind, and now you do. What year did you change your mind?

BULLOCK: '17 or '18 is when I said universal background checks. It was just last year on assault weapons.

KING: That puts you behind a lot of the country, though. And I wonder why that is?


KING: Why'd it take you so long?

BULLOCK: So we had a "March For Our Lives" in Helena, in Montana. I was asked to speak and supposed to speak. I went with my children, and I listened. And as these kids are saying, enough. That's where I finally said, enough with the assault weapons. Because I know as a gun owner. I know that it's not for hunting. I know it's not for self-defense. There's no reason to continue to sell these.

KING: When you talk about dark money, you talk about how Americans are supposed to count equally and that dark money sort of perverts that. There is a norm that you are very clearly seeking to return to in the United States. But I wonder, what do you think American democracy looks like in the wake of the Trump presidency? Are there norms to return to, or has this country changed forever?

BULLOCK: There has to be. I mean, I think that we are at a tenuous time in this 243-year experiment called representative democracy. And that's one of the reasons why I got into this because I think that things fundamentally change if this guy is reelected. The norms and expectations, and the behavior that's been normalized, and the lies and the misstatements that divide us by race, by gender, by geography, I think that there are norms to be returned to. And I think that we've got to make sure that people know that they're as important as any corporation on Election Day, and every one of us have the same amount of influence over elections. That's how we make sure that the norms are restored, that people feel like that they have a role and a voice in this representative democracy.

KING: Montana Governor Steve Bullock, thanks so much.

BULLOCK: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.