Note to politicians: Keep the money

Greg Gianforte’s mugshot

It isn’t the function of government to take money from bad people and give it to good people, but if that’s how things happen to turn out, why complain? Yet some Americans do.

A news release from the Montana Democratic Party on Tuesday dripped with so much sanctimony that I feared it would short out my computer. Roy Loewenstein, a spokesman for Montana Democrats, demanded that Republican politicians Corey Stapleton and Matt Rosendale return campaign donations they have received from Bozeman Republican Karen Marshall.

Marshall, vice president of programs for the Gallatin County Republican Women, earned her 15 minutes of fame last week when she called in to the “Voices of Montana” radio show and said she would have shot the reporter that Greg Gianforte beat up just before the last election.


David Crisp

You no doubt recall that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs aroused Gianforte’s ire by attempting to interrupt a TV interview to ask a question. Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.

Billings attorney John Heenan, who is running against Gianforte in next year’s election, appeared last week on “Voices of Montana.” According to Holly Michels’ story for Lee Enterprises, Marshall called in to say, “That kid came on private property, came into a private building and went into a very private room that I would not even have gone into. It was a setup. A complete setup.”

Marshall hung up on a reporter who called for comment the next day. Loewenstein saw an opening and took it.

“If Rosendale and Stapleton want to ask Montana voters for their trust, each must make clear that there is no place for these violent comments in our civil discourse,” Loewenstein said.

There is, of course, plenty of room for these sorts of comments in our civil discourse. Under President Trump, they are practically government policy. So what is Loewenstein whining about?

I’m not trying to excuse the stupid comments of Marshall, who will no doubt quickly fade again into the obscurity she richly deserves. And Gianforte continues to cover himself with whatever the opposite of glory is.

As part of his settlement with Jacobs, Gianforte promised in a letter to the assaulted reporter to donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists “in the hope that perhaps some good can come of these events.” But when CPJ attempted to meet with Gianforte earlier this month to test his willingness to pursue that hope, he cut the meeting off after just seven minutes.

In that seven minutes and in a follow-up letter, CPJ suggested Gianforte join the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press or the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. CPJ noted that it used part of Gianforte’s donation to create the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which has documented 31 arrests of U.S. journalists this year and 30 physical attacks.

The response to the letter from Gianforte’s staff: “Greg didn’t come here to join clubs.” Gianforte also has failed to fulfill his promise to grant Jacobs an interview, the Guardian reports.

But none of that explains Loewenstein’s petty insistence that Stapleton, secretary of state, and Rosendale, the state auditor now campaigning for the U.S. Senate, should return Marshall’s political donations. According to the Democrats’ news release, someone using Marshall’s name and address donated $300 to Rosendale and $150 to Stapleton last year. Marshall also donated $2,700 to Gianforte’s U.S. House campaign.

So now we must endure another in a seemingly endless round of demands that politicians return campaign contributions from donors who somehow have offended the other party’s notion of probity. This week the targets are Stapleton and Rosendale; last week it was Hollywood serial sex abuser Harvey Weinstein. In the last election cycle, total campaign donations returned amounted to more than $100 million.

Some campaign contributions ought to be returned. Contributions that are made illegally must be returned. Contributions of money earned fraudulently should go to the defrauded. Politicians were right to turn over Bernie Madoff’s campaign gifts to a victims’ compensation fund.

But it has never made sense that politicians ought to be too morally pure to take money from people who say and do stupid things. Jesse Unruh, former speaker of the California State Assembly, had it right when he famously said, “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, eat their food, drink their booze, sleep with their women, and then vote against them, you don’t belong here.”

Is democracy somehow better served if movie moguls like Weinstein get their money back after sending an irrevocable message about which candidates they favor? Does Weinstein have a better use for that money than someone who, we can only hope, would use it to build better and more honorable government?

Capitalism is in good odor only because the alternatives are so foul. Too much money winds up in the hands of the cruel, the dishonest, the unworthy. If by good fortune some of that money eventually finds its way back where it can be used for the public good, then honest politicians ought to grab it.

The less money in the pockets of the Harvey Weinsteins and Karen Marshalls of the world, the brighter our nation’s prospects are.

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