On April 24, Aaron Flint and Gale Price were elected the next president and vice president, respectively, of the University of Montana’s student government, the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM). But this year’s race was marred by controversy not commonly seen in student elections when the Flint/Price ticket accepted a $75 contribution linked to the political action committee (PAC) Forward Montana.
According to Montana State Senator John Brueggeman, the present vice chairman of the PAC he founded in the fall of 2001, Forward Montana is “a group of young people aimed at helping young people stay in the state of Montana” by “making sure Montana is business-friendly and family-friendly.” Brueggeman says that while his organization is philosophically conservative, it is also non-partisan.
The assessment of the PAC as non-partisan doesn’t add up for ASUM Senator Matt Jennings, who points out that, in the 2002 legislative elections, Forward Montana spent $19,255 financing 16 Republican candidates and only $178 financing two Democratic candidates.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the students are running the show,” Jennings says. “[Forward Montana] is said to be a student organization, but it’s actually run by John Brueggeman, Cory Swanson and Jason Thielman out of the secretary of state’s office, and a few other Republican bigwigs.”
Jennings considers Forward Montana’s interest in UM student elections a possible threat to university programs, such as the environmental studies program, which came under attack from several Republican legislators and lobbyists during the past session (see “Who’s afraid of EVST?” by Jed Gottlieb, March 27, 2003). Many of the same industries that griped to the Legislature about EVST—including mining, timber and contractor groups—are also contributors to Forward Montana. Jennings wonders if an attempt to influence student elections might be the logical next step for industries that were told that the Legislature can not legislate on specific university programs. After all, Jennings notes, the Board of Regents, a body that does have the ability to restrict programs such as EVST, puts “quite a bit of stock in the messages they get from the [student] president.”
Still, Brueggeman sees no problem with his PAC offering money to a student campaign.
“I think any time there’s a group that has an interest in any representative democracy in the state of Montana, it’s ethical for them to get involved, even at the college level, because I think that, you know, the Legislature can’t impact policy in the college…but when there’s a point of view to be represented…by groups that affect students like Forward Montana, I think there’s definitely a place for that,” Brueggeman says.
Thielman serves as chief deputy secretary of state and is also the chairman of Forward Montana, and he points out that his PAC didn’t technically give money to Flint.
“Forward Montana did not contribute to Aaron Flint’s race,” says Thielman. “Jason Thielman, chairman of Forward Montana, contributed. I just wrote him a check for $75, so the PAC is not contributing to an ASUM presidential race.”
If Thielman was offering Flint a personal contribution not linked to his PAC, however, this was not made clear to Flint, who attributed the $75 contribution to Forward Montana on his UM campaign finance report sheet.
Flint attempted to clear up the matter at the April 30 meeting of ASUM.
“Although I put ‘Forward Montana’ on the campaign finance report, it was actually a personal check, so technically” it wasn’t a PAC contribution, Flint said, elaborating that he had hoped to “make a statement” by citing the PAC, of which he is a member, as well as to “err on the side of full disclosure.”
Regardless of the technical terms of Thielman’s contribution to Flint and Price’s campaign, the donation marked a new era in UM student politics. Until this election, students had raised campaign money out of pocket or by gathering donations from other students and family members. Lindsay Vaughey, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, says that she has never heard of a PAC-related contribution to student politics in her five years in office.
But Flint says that critics are overlooking other irregularities of this past election that were more problematic than his acceptance of PAC money, which did not violate any university rules.
“MontPIRG campaigned for our opponents with an ad in the Kaimin on election day, which is clearly illegal, and that hasn’t really been brought up,” Flint says, referring to a University election bylaw—since struck down—prohibiting campaigning on election day. “People say Forward Montana is political but MontPIRG isn’t…I think everybody will admit that MontPIRG is political.”
Christy Schilke, the outgoing ASUM vice president who ran against Flint, says that people should be concerned about student candidates accepting money from any outside groups.
“Being an ASUM executive or student leader, you need to be non-partisan, and if you have a political PAC backing you up, that takes away from your non-partisanship,” Schilke said. “I don’t know if it’s unethical, but it doesn’t sit right with me.”
It didn’t sit right with some others either, as several ASUM senators set about drafting a change to the University’s election by laws to prohibit the type of contribution that Flint and Price accepted.
The proposed changes were discussed vigorously for over two hours at ASUM’s final meeting of the year on Wed., April 30—an occasion typically marked by awards, smiles and handshakes rather than intense debate.
ASUM Senator David Frost argued that the bylaw change was “put in here as a personal strike against what Aaron and Gale did on their campaign,” a move which Frost considered “incredibly immature.”
Outgoing ASUM President Jon Swan countered that the proposed change had been discussed for years prior to the last election.
“The issue is, should off-campus political action committees be able to buy into ASUM elections, and I say no,” said ASUM Senator Alex Rosenleaf. “I know it’s done on the federal level. I know it’s done on the state level, but, by God, I think we should be better than that. PAC money is not the sort of thing we want to let into the ASUM political process.”
After a flurry of amendments and counter-amendments, ASUM voted 16-5 in favor of changing the bylaws to prohibit outside campaign donations.
“Everybody just wanted to get out of there,” says Flint. “It wasn’t fully thought through.”
Flint, one of the five who voted against the changes, says that during his presidency in the coming year, the senate may revisit the issue.