Jonathan Motl sat stone-faced and attentive before the Montana Senate Administration Committee April 20 as a string of supporters made case after case for his confirmation as Commissioner of Political Practices. Much of the testimony revolved around words like "fair," "just," "professional" and "even-handed"laudatory descriptions, yes, but notably lacking in the theatrical flair that's become so commonplace in Montana politics. The most impassioned defense came from Mary Baker, a 21-year veteran of the commissioner's office and its current program supervisor, who described Motl's interest in the integrity of state elections as "beyond reproach."
"Jon has a genuine concern and passion for the public importance of this little office," Baker said. "The staff, the candidates, committees and the public are lucky to have him. And we hope we get to keep him."
Even during Baker's testimony, however, Motl's face remained largely expressionless. When it came time to present his own testimony endorsing his confirmation, Motl took the time to recognize his staff, his wife and his former colleagues from his old Helena law practice who had shown up to support him. The closest Motl got to actually asking for the committee's approval was when he said he'd been "pleased and honored" by Gov. Steve Bullock's decision to appoint him back in June 2013.
Motl's pensive, subdued demeanor makes him something of an oddity in the state's political scene. Montana is a place where candidates speak in colloquialisms and rhetoric-soaked soundbites, where officials embrace pomp and quirk as tools of the trade. Our governors wave "VETO" branding irons on the Capitol steps. Our senators salute with hands marred in farm accidents. Debate stages are a place to brag not only of voting records but of multi-generational ties to the Big Sky. Politics is drama, suspense, intrigue and warfare all dolled up in cowboy boots and bolo ties.
But Motl? He's none of these things. In the knock-down, drag-out battles for public office in the most interesting, individualistic state in the Union, he's Montana's security council, an enforcer who walks soft but won't hesitate to bring down the law on those undermining the fairness of the electoral process.
"I'm an elected official and I believe the office I hold is a public trust," says Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, who testified on behalf of Motl's confirmation. "That is sacred to Montanans. It is one of the foundations of our democracy, our right to vote and our right to elect people who we know as much about as possible. Since Jonathan Motl has been in this office, he's demonstrated that he feels that same way too, that this is a public service, this is a public trust."
The commissioner's office has itself become the center of controversy and mystique in recent years, from resignations to break-ins to the rise of dark money in state politics. And it's by the virtue of that office alone that Motl has been cast by his detractors as a "partisan hack" and a "political zealot."
Positive or negative, nearly every player in Montana government has strong beliefs about who Motl is and what his office has done. But given his somber and pragmatic bearing, it can be difficult to get a clear picture of Motl uncolored by outside partisan opinion. He takes his licks publicly with barely a hint of frustration or desire for retribution. He compares his charge as commissioner to that of an attorney, peppering lengthy descriptions with words like "justice" and "merit." Answers to questions regarding his upbringing or background are frequently straightforward and concise in a way that suggests not evasion but a proclivity for remaining focused on the task at hand. Motl appears incapable of pandering, bragging or speaking in the snippy one-liner manner voters have come to expect from the very people Motl monitors on a daily basis. Is he too good to be true, or could Motl finally be the right guy for the state's toughest political job?
Shortly after taking up the mantle of commissioner on June 10, 2013, Motl began digging into a months-old campaign practice complaint filed by John Vincent, a Bozeman Democrat and former speaker of the state House. Vincent had lost a reelection bid for the Montana Public Service Commission the previous November, and his race against Republican opponent Roger Koopman was heated, with the two candidates spending big and trading regular barbs in the lead-up to Election Day. But the nature of Vincent's case struck Motl as both unusual and honest. Vincent filed the complaint against himself for failing to submit his post-election campaign report by the deadline. The failure, Vincent explained to the commissioner's office, was due to "family emergencies."
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Since his appointment as Commissioner of Political Practices in June 2013, Jonathan Motl has succeeded in hacking through a dense backlog of campaign practice complaints and can now tackle new cases in real time.
Motl knew Vincent personally, knew of his legislative history carrying a number of modern campaign finance bills, and to this day considers him a "champion of good government." His subsequent decision acknowledged Vincent's family issues as well as his "candor and acceptance of responsibility," but nonetheless found Vincent in violation of campaign practice law. Motl's office fined him $100.
"I was pretty sure John Vincent, knowing him, would want me to treat him like everybody else," Motl says. "And I did."
That strict adherence to the rules in the name of fairness is exactly what prompted Jim Murry to nudge Motl into applying for the commissioner's seat in the first place. The two were longtime friends, their paths crossing as early as the 1980s through Motl's work with the nonprofit lobbying organization Common Cause and Murry's efforts as executive secretary of the AFL-CIO. Murry watched firsthand as the Montana Legislature created the Commissioner of Public Practices office in 1975 and had even spearheaded his union's support for the measure. In fact, as Motl was debating whether to submit his name for Gov. Steve Bullock's consideration in 2013, Murry was just finishing his own year-long stay as commissioner—a position he says he never intended to hold for more than a few months, let alone seek confirmation for. Murry couldn't imagine a more fitting successor than Motl.