The Billings Outpost

GOP in uncivil war over Rep. Richmond’s votes

Political Potpourri

BRAD MOLNAR

Three legislative sessions ago Republican legislators with voting records mirroring those of the Democratic leadership dubbed themselves “Main Street Republicans.”

Two sessions ago the same group self-identified as “Responsible Republicans” and once again handed the margin of victory to the Democratic minority. Republican Chairman Will Deschamps took to the road imploring Republican activists to embrace the “Responsibles” and not wage an inner party war of attrition against them.

This session they called themselves “Independent Republicans.” Newspapers display their names and pictures while continuing to call them “moderate Republicans.” The same press corps has never identified a moderate Democrat in the last three sessions. When this session started, Independent Republicans served far from Yellowstone County except for Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Billings. Taylor is no longer lonely.

Having just bought the Yellowstone County News, Jonathan McNiven, R-Huntley, abdicated his seat after a landslide re-election victory. Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee Executive Committee members forwarded three names to Yellowstone County commissioners to pick McNiven’s replacement.

Amid whispers of pressure from the petroleum industry, the three commissioners unanimously selected Republican Tom Richmond to represent House District 56, which runs from Worden to the refineries of Lockwood.

Rep. Richmond did not often rise on the House floor to give speeches, so he did not garner the attention of the press. But those who nominated him noted that on recent high-profile votes (the water compact, Medicaid expansion, the colorfully named “Dark Money” bill, and all the rule change votes involved) Rep. Richmond was solidly with the House leaders of the Independent Republicans, namely Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, and 100 percent of the Democratic caucus in delivering those bellwether bills to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.

The web site of the YCRCC plainly states: “Our Mission: The Central Committee strives to elect more conservative Republicans at all levels of government.” So how do they now feel about their nominee in hindsight? 

In response to a question, with answers lightly edited throughout, Central Committee congressional committeewoman Peggy Webb stated clearly that Mr. Richmond was not her first choice though he portrayed himself as someone who would be comfortable in a conservative caucus and would represent the people of HD 56 as Jonathan McNiven had. When asked if Rep. Richmond had indeed represented the interests of HD 56 and/or the people of Montana, Peggy Webb answered, “No and no.”

Webb continued, “I sent several messages to Mr. Richmond reminding him that he represents a conservative district and replaced a conservative representative and that he is supposed to represent his constituents. All my messages were ignored.”

Central Committee Treasurer Brian Kenat gave a historical perspective: “I’m not only the treasurer for the YCRCC, but the precinct person for HD 50. Mr. Richmond ran in HD 50 (in the general election). I met with Mr. Richmond multiple times privately during his campaign, walked doors for him, and made phone calls on his behalf. I put up yard signs for him. Every time I spoke with Mr. Richmond, he presented himself as a conservative. In review of his voting record, I have never felt more betrayed by a person who told me exactly what they expected I wanted to hear in order to obtain power.

“Yes, I was one of three votes to send Mr. Richmond to the county commissioners. I have a great amount of regret over that decision now. It was a very difficult decision to make because there were a lot of great conservatives willing to serve in that position. I believed Mr. Richmond would represent the HD 56 like Rep. McNiven. I was very wrong. Mr. Richmond has consistently engaged in crony capitalism, potentially backroom deals, and voted with the Democratic caucus to increase the power of government rather than protecting the interests of his constituents.

“I have sent Mr. Richmond multiple messages. He has ignored every message.”

Amy Hanson, Central Committee state committeewoman, shared a similar view: “I did not vote for Tom Richmond. Mr. Richmond portrayed himself as part of the conservative caucus, but I was aware of his past job, and didn’t believe he would vote conservative.

“I do not believe Mr. Richmond has represented his constituents of HD56. I have contacted Mr. Richmond on several occasions, and he does not reply back to me. I have contacted him by his personal cell phone and left messages and also by email. No response by Mr. Richmond.

“I am extremely dissatisfied with the way Mr. Richmond handled his votes this session, very disappointed to say the least.”

Central Committee state committeeman Elwood English, a Harvard-trained attorney who often differs on social issues with many Republicans, took a different view: “Unlike Democrats who seem to vote the straight party line, Republicans vote for principled leaders who will courageously vote their own convictions. I assume most of the bills passed by this Legislature were approved by a majority of both parties or by the Republican majority with the concurrence of Rep. Richmond and the others. On a few votes where the Republican majority offered a worse choice than that offered by a compromise bill, the Republicans you question chose the better option.” 

Josiah Loven added, “As chairman of the Yellowstone County Republican Party, I did not get a vote on the board, but presided over the meeting to hear from all who were interested in filling the seat vacated by Jonathan McNiven. 

“Tom Richmond answered twice at the public meeting in Lockwood that he would definitively not vote for Medicaid expansion in Montana. After conclusively telling us that this was his final decision on the matter, he voted for Medicaid expansion on each reading. 

“Tom Richmond’s voting record this session has been an unmitigated disaster. He does not stand on the side of liberty. Tom Richmond has not represented HD 56 the way Jonathan McNiven did. McNiven well represented the area in which he lived, which is why he was re-elected by a large margin. Richmond has gone out of his way to protect corporate interests, and the governor, rather than stand up for the people of HD 56. Tom Richmond was willing to trade his conscience for recognition from Bullock, and pats on the back from corporate cronies.”  

Vice Chairman Jennifer Owen, Finance Chairman Will Seph and congressional committeeman Josh Sizemore were contacted by e-mail multiple times but did not respond.

But what about the county commissioners, who unanimously voted for Tom Richmond?

Commissioner Jim Reno, a Republican, said, “I voted for Tom Richmond as Rep. Jonathan McNiven’s replacement based on his 20-plus years in the oil and gas industry and his familiarity with the state budget. Lockwood is a hub for energy businesses. Brad, as you know, once someone is appointed, or elected, they vote their conscience. The voters will have an opportunity to elect (or not) Mr. Richmond in 2016, should he run for office.”

Commissioner John Ostlund, also a Republican, said, “Conservative caucus questions were not part of the discussion. Lockwood has many industrial interests, including a refinery, and Tom’s answers to questions about the oil and gas industries were of sound judgment. Hindsight is always 20-20; however, I believe the Republican Central Committee would have conducted all of the background questioning before forwarding three names to the commissioners for appointment. I would hope any candidates forwarded for appointment would be qualified to serve.”

Commissioner Bill Kennedy, a Democrat, did not respond.

So what does Tom Richmond say to questions about his service?

He was asked these questions:

Several Committee members have stated that during the nomination process you portrayed yourself as a “solid conservative.” Do you agree with that remembrance?

“Yes I do.”

Do you think you have voted as a conservative member of your caucus?

“Yes. I have voted 100 percent on pro-life issues, 100 percent on Second Amendment issues, resisted every Democrat amendment adding money during the floor debate on the state budget, supported the Religious Freedom Bill and the speaker’s charter schools bills. I also voted to oppose Common Core and to oppose collecting of student data without parental permission.”

You were appointed to replace Jonathan McNiven and represent his district. Do you feel that you represented HD 56 as Jonathan would have?

“I believe that I have represented HD 56 to the best of my ability, but every session is different and has different issues and dynamics. I don’t think I can really answer this.”

Did individuals in the petroleum industry promote you before the county commissioners?

“I am aware of and grateful for the support of a number of people, including those in the petroleum industry.”

Richmond listed several bills that he sponsored that got passed. One was House Bill 411, which exempts small “stripper” oil wells from higher taxation. Many claim that Rep. Richmond supported the governor’s “dark money” bill in exchange for the governor’s promise not to veto HB 411. When asked if that was true, Rep. Richmond did not answer.

When asked if he thought Rep. Richmond had done a good job of representing his old district, newspaper Publisher Jonathan McNiven said, “Not exactly.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 07 May 2015 11:52

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