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Gov candidate Cooney proposes pledge to discourage big money in campaign

Opponents would swear off outside help, self-financing
Posted: 4:04 PM, Oct 16, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-16 20:05:30-04
Gov candidate Cooney proposes pledge to discourage big money in campaign

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney proposed an unusual pledge Wednesday designed to discourage outside money and self-financed candidates in the 2020 contest – and challenged his primary opponents to sign it.

The proposal, which he dubbed the “Big Sky People’s Pledge,” says for every dollar a candidate spends from his or her own pocket, or that is spent by an outside group supporting that candidate, the candidate must pay 50 cents to a charity designated by opponents.

The pledge would be a self-enforcing mechanism to keep big money out of the governor’s race, and raise the profile and importance of smaller donors, Cooney said.

“I think it will go a long way to making sure Montanans’ voices aren’t drowned out by big, out-of-state dollars and secret groups that don’t want people to know who they are,” he said. “I think it’s time for people running for office to step forward and say, `Lookit, enough is enough – we are not going to continue to do business this way, just because this is the way the rules allow us to do that.”

Cooney, the current lieutenant governor, said he’s asking his three Democratic primary opponents to sign the pledge. But he also said if he wins the June 2020 primary, he’d ask the Republican nominee to sign as well.

He said the pledge is not directed specifically at Republican Greg Gianforte, a multimillionaire who has spent large sums of his own money in past campaigns.

Gianforte is one of three Republicans in the 2020 governor’s content. The others are Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell.

As for Cooney’s Democratic primary opponents, only one agreed Wednesday to sign the pledge: Reilly Neill of Livingston, who’s raised only $1,000 for her campaign.

“I applaud any effort to contribute to worthwhile nonprofit organizations and equalize all candidates’ chances in the primary,” she said.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner of Great Falls wouldn’t say whether he planned to sign the pledge, but said he has a “long record” of working against the “detrimental influence of money in politics.”

Yet Whitney Williams’ campaign said she won’t be signing the pledge, and dismissed it as a “media stunt.”

It said she’ll be running a campaign fueled by donors from across the state, and that she supports Montana’s strong campaign-disclosure laws.

“With this media stunt, the Cooney campaign has committed to unilaterally disarming in a general election against multimillionaire Greg Gianforte,” said her campaign manager, Brian Lenzmeier.

Cooney told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that he’d stick to the pledge only if all candidates agreed to it.

He said the pledge is a chance for candidates to reject self-financing of campaigns and “dark money” spent by outside groups, Super PACs, and other special-interest group spending.

Cooney noted that he raised about $250,000 from individual donors during the past three months, with an average contribution of just below $100.

“That’s the way I think these campaigns should be run,” he said. “(The pledge) gives Democratic candidates a real opportunity to step out front and say, `We’re willing to take this issue seriously and we want to do something about it.”