By Blair Miller DAILY MONTANAN
The field is wide open for Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to select the next Commissioner of Political Practices after a Nomination Committee failed to find consensus Wednesday on applicants who interviewed for the job.
The committee of two Republicans and two Democrats put forth two motions at the end of the meeting – one from a member of each party – to decide whether to forward at least two and at most five of the candidates to the Republican governor for consideration.
The five candidates were Chris Gallus, Brad Johnson, Layne Kertamus, Megan Martin and Debbie White-Goetze.
House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, would have sent all five of the people the committee interviewed to Gianforte for consideration.
Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, moved to send only Martin and Kertamus forward.
Both failed on party line votes.
Along with being a nonpartisan position, the Commissioner of Political Practices oversees and enforces Montana campaign finance laws, ethical standards for legislators, public officers and state employees, and investigates campaign finance and lobbying complaints.
Since the committee didn’t forward any names, Gianforte may select candidates who weren’t on the list for confirmation by the Senate.
He may choose anyone who has not, over the past two years, fundraised for a candidate for public office, been an officer in a political party or on a political committee, or managed a candidate’s campaign for public office.
Each of the five candidates were allotted around 30 minutes to answer nine questions and give brief remarks to the committee. After the interviews, the four committee members discussed the candidates and how they should proceed in giving Gianforte options.
Cohenour said she felt Martin and Kertamus “would do a great job in the office” because she felt they understood the essence of Montana statute, as well as the nonpartisan role of the office and a position that comes with high standards of ethics and integrity.
In her interview, Martin discussed her years as an auditor and analyst with the Montana Board of Crime Control and Montana Department of Transportation and how she had to make impartial and difficult decisions regarding personnel, even including friends. She said she felt her nonpartisan personality both professionally and personally would be helpful when it comes to election integrity and other matters the commissioner oversees.
Kertamus, currently a Utahn who described himself as a risk management consultant and said he feels drawn back to government and Montana, told the panel that he would follow the law the legislature makes “meticulously” and not provide even a semblance of impropriety that could cast a shadow over the office.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena agreed with Cohenour’s view of the office, saying its public perception is perhaps its most important quality. She said she liked how Martin and Kertamus articulated how their expertise and skillsets would apply to the position even though their prior work was not necessarily in the exact scope of it.
Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, praised all five of the candidates for their openness and transparency in the interviews in providing previous affiliations. He said it indicated a high caliber of candidates.
“They didn’t hide anything, didn’t hesitate to bring up anything,” he said.
Blasdel noted that his own caucus, as well as the Democrats, have different viewpoints of what the office should or shouldn’t be — “a fine line” to consider at the start of the process, he said. And he added that he felt the more people Gianforte has to consider, the better, and the Senate will scrutinize the appointee.
“My view is the more, the merrier. The more candidates we can give to the Governor’s Office to look through and screen and interview, the better,” Blasdel said.
Galt, the outgoing House Speaker who appeared remotely for the hearing because he was traveling, said he generally agreed with Blasdel’s sentiments.
“I don’t feel comfortable dropping any of them back with what I saw out of the five candidates today, and I do believe all of them are capable of taking the next step with the governor,” he said.
Aside from Martin and Kertamus, the three others Blasdel and Galt hoped to send to Gianforte were Gallus, a Helena lawyer with extensive experience lobbying and advising on elections and campaign finance law; Johnson, a longtime Public Service Commissioner and former Secretary of State; and White-Goetze, a former Great Falls airport commissioner who has long worked adjacent to governments in dealing with contracts, marketing and management.
Cohenour said she was concerned about moving some of those three forward, saying they had admitted to being “pretty hyper-politicized in the past” — several of them worked for or supported political candidates or action committees during their careers, and Johnson is an elected official. She said she didn’t know if that would make others working at or interacting with the nonpartisan office comfortable.
But “it’s a double-edged sword because they have some experience with the actual office, which is a good thing,” Cohenour said.
Blasdel, however, pointed out that the outgoing commissioner, Jeff Mangan, is a former Democratic representative and senator who he believed had not shown partisanship as the Commissioner of Political Practices for the past six years and had earned the trust of the prior governor and Senate. Mangan is not eligible for reappointment; the position is limited to one term.
Blasdel said he agreed that sometimes the committee had limited its pool because of political perceptions in the past of people who may have been qualified and said that was among the reasons he wanted the pool of five to move forward.
“Obviously I’d love to have the governor have more opportunities to vet more candidates than just two,” he said.
Since both motions failed, Gianforte will be able to go through the five candidates’ resumes and interviews to decide whether he wants to appoint one of them for confirmation or pick someone else. He will have 30 days to choose his appointee once the office is vacated, Blasdel said.