Opinion: As Gianforte shows, money can’t buy everything

There was a recent French movie called “Marguerite,” about a wealthy aristocrat who decided to become an opera singer, based on a true story. Marguerite Dumont hired the best music teacher money could buy and set to work to achieve her goal, but unfortunately, she had no natural singing ability whatsoever. She was tone deaf, and nobody around her could convince her otherwise.

So far, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte is doing a wonderful impression of Marguerite Dumont. Despite being very wealthy and having the resources to hire the best political consultants money can buy, Gianforte seems to have a tin ear when it comes to hitting the right note with Montana voters.

Russell

Russell Rowland

In his first big television ad, Gianforte bragged about how hard he and his wife worked to build their business, a technology company called Right Now Technology, which Gianforte eventually sold to Oracle for $1.5 billion.

Of course it’s wonderful that someone would start a company in Montana and provide dozens of jobs for our locals, but if Gianforte had really taken the time to get to know his adopted state, he would know the people well enough to realize that there are two things Montanans don’t appreciate. One is having someone imply that he has worked harder than we have, and another is to brag about how much he’s accomplished.

Montanans know that there are few states in the union where people have worked so hard, with so little return. So even the hint of suggestion that the reason we aren’t doing better is because we’re not working hard enough is an insult, not to mention a really bad way to make friends. And to have someone rub their success in our faces? That’s going to earn you about zero votes.

I happened to be in Gianforte’s presence twice over the course of the past few months, and I was immediately struck by something that most politicians would learn from day one. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Billings one day when Gianforte entered, dragging a suitcase behind him and accompanied by a beautiful assistant. He went directly to a table surrounded by a group of older white guys, completely ignoring everyone else in the coffee shop.

There is no reason Gianforte should feel compelled to say hello to everyone he sees, everywhere he goes, but if there’s one thing that Montana politicians know, no matter what their policies are, it’s that you need to make an effort to connect with the people.

Gianforte passed his card out to these businessmen, sat down for about 10 minutes and then left, still making no effort to make eye contact with anyone else in the joint. He didn’t even buy any coffee.

The second time I saw him, he was eating breakfast with two other people, and I happened to be seated a couple of tables over, where I could hear just enough to discern that they were discussing some kind of business deal. I didn’t realize it was Gianforte when I first sat down, but when I overheard some staggering numbers, I turned to see that the group included him.

Again, he made no effort whatsoever to acknowledge anyone else in the restaurant, and at one point, the waitress approached Gianforte’s table and asked him and his associates if they needed anything. They completely ignored her for an uncomfortable moment before one of them finally said “No.” Not “No thank you,” but just “No.”

Coincidentally, I happened to be at a gathering the very next day where U.S. Sen. Steve Daines spoke. My new book had just come out and I was introduced just before Daines, and I was impressed with the fact that, although he could probably tell from one look at me that I’m not among his supporters, he referred to me in his speech and went out of his way to come over and shake my hand as he left the gathering.

Despite the fact that I disagreed with almost everything he said in his speech, I was surprised to find myself focusing on the things that I did agree with. And it occurred to me that this is what successful politicians are good at.

On top of Gianforte’s apparent lack of interest in the other people who live here, he has also made some pretty bizarre public comments, including the claim that Facebook refused to establish Montana as the home base of one of its data centers after he had talked to them about it. Facebook not only denied ever talking to Gianforte, but said that the reason he cited, Montana’s business equipment tax, had nothing to do with its decision.

A lower level former employee, Dean Roberts, later verified that he had talked to Gianforte about this issue, but his version of the conversation was nowhere near the one Gianforte presented, and he confirmed that even if he’d had the authority to discuss that particular issue, which he did not, he wasn’t talking on behalf of Facebook when they had the conversation.

So Gianforte obviously has no problem making up stories to support political issues that would benefit him personally, another real problem with Montana voters.

Gianforte has also suggested that people should just continue working no matter how old they are, citing Noah as an example. In fact, Gianforte’s religious leanings seem to be a driving force behind many of his proposals, including a recent suggestion that students in the Montana school system be given the option of substituting computer science for actual science classes.

Gianforte has made no secret of his creationist beliefs, and this effort to impose his beliefs on others, especially kids, again shows little knowledge of Montana’s history and its general belief system, in which religious freedom has always been honored as long as people don’t try to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

Montana has a long history of outsiders moving into the state and trying to convince us that they have a plan to help us, to bring jobs and money into the state. But it has almost always turned out that they were much more interested in helping themselves. Some of them were just much better at hiding it than others. But Gianforte is doing a lousy job of hiding the fact that his motivation has very little to do with helping out the average Montanan.

Gianforte’s story provides yet another valuable lesson, one that we seem to need to be reminded of from time to time. Money can buy you many things, and even if you have no talent at all, it can sometimes help you improve at something for which you don’t have a natural gift. But among the most important things that money can’t buy is a genuine interest in other people.

Russell Rowland is a Billings native who earned an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. He is the author of four novels, “In Open Spaces,” “The Watershed Years,” “High and Inside” and, most recently, “Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey.” You can learn more at his website.

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