Jason Ellsworth, right, and some other guy.
Montana Legislature Montana Politics

Voting against their own self-interest: Bitterrooters

Ravalli County voters in the Republican primary have lots of choices: right wing, far-right wing and so far to the right they’re falling off the edge of the Earth.

Case in point: Sen. Pat Connell, SD-43, who by my Missoula standards is quite to the right. But Bitterrooters consider him “a reasonable Republican.” That’s according to one longtime political observer in the valley. She added that Connell supports “issues like public education and not appointing the sheriff the ultimate authority and particularly not a fan of turning federal lands into gated communities.”

Connell pretty much votes the party line but at least he isn’t a sponsor of the wackiest bills his delegation advances. And he will, on rare occasion, reach across the aisle. As a reliable incumbent, he should be a shoo-in.

But Connell has two primary opponents, both far-right ideologues. Which is interesting since poll-after-poll says voters want bipartisanship. From the Gallup polling firm:

(The American people’s) interest in their elected representatives compromising rather than sticking to ideological principles is at a new high. Even Republicans are more likely to say their representatives should compromise rather than stick to principles; Democrats lean strongly in that direction.

At any level of government, if things are going to get done, there has to be some give-and-take.

So let’s look at Connell’s opponents.

First there’s Scott Roy McLean, a Hamilton attorney. He’s all about “freedom,” which is fine, I mean, who’s against freedom? Serving in the Montana Legislature, however, is mostly about the budget — ensuring revenues equal expenditures so the various state government departments are adequately funded. That means compromising. Here’s what McLean said about his opponent:

He called Connell a “so-called responsible Republican” who has formed a progressive coalition with Democratic legislators in Montana. He said Connell has a “dismal” 53 percent lifetime rating on freedom issues, according to Americans for Prosperity, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C.

This “progressive coalition” that McLean claims Connell has formed has to be the most secretive, deep state operation in Helena. Democratic legislators I contacted had a good chuckle over the supposed Republican “progressive coalition.”

And you’re aware of Americans for Prosperity, right? The billionaire Koch brothers’ dark money funded SuperPAC dedicated to striking down any regulation safe-guarding the environment or enhancing workers’ rights or improving America’s health care system. A 53 percent lifetime rating is pretty damn high.

McLean is also a supporter of the American Lands Council, along with legislative extremists Rep. Theresa Manzella (HD-85) and Sen. Jennifer Fielder (SD-7). The Council’s aim is to put federal lands in state and private hands. That means the state will have to pick up the tab for maintaining the beautiful public lands to the east and west of the Bitterroot Valley, with those lands eventually ending up in private hands as the state is forced to sell or develop them as expenses mount (there goes your access, Bitterrooters). Here’s Connell’s more sensible approach to transferring public lands:

“While I have spent a career encouraging and promoting better management of federal lands, I do not advocate the wholesale transfer of federal lands’ responsibility to the states due to the incredible liability risks to the taxpayers of Montana such action would create.”

If you think McLean might not be the best candidate to represent southern Ravalli County, check out this guy. His name is Jason W. Ellsworth and he’s the owner of the Gun Garage in Hamilton: a firearm, ammunition and truck accessories business. He has also operated a series of magazine subscription businesses, at least one of which ran afoul of the FTC:


United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division.

June 18, 2014. DONALD W. MOLLOY, District Judge.

Following the Contempt Hearing held in the above-captioned matter on June 18, 2014, the Court issues the following Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law:

1. In proceedings before this Court in 2008, the Federal Trade Commission (“the FTC” or “the Commission”) sought a preliminary injunction against Defendant Ellsworth. (Doc. 1.) The Commission alleged that Defendants, Jason Ellsworth, et al., violated the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45(a), and the Telemarketing Sales Rule, 16 C.F.R. Part 310, by failing to disclose material facts about magazine subscription payment and cancellation policies, charging consumers for subscriptions without their express informed consent, and failing to make proper disclosures about prize promotions.

A permanent injunction and judgement against Ellsworth for $600,000 was levied by the court. Another magazine subscription service he runs is called Countrywide Periodicals. Google it. There are more complaints against the company than I can sort through.

Of course, one of the main issues on Ellsworth’s website is government over-regulation. From the site:

As an employer I feel the heavy hand of government regulations burdening my businesses every day and we need to work together in minimizing these regulations so that future generations can obtain their entrepreneurial dreams.

(Let’s get rid of those pesky FTC rules that don’t allow businesses to scam customers.)

From what my source tells me, the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee is leaning toward McLean or Ellsberg over Connell, which tells you all you need to know about the direction of that outfit.

The source requested anonymity for fear of retaliation — a legitimate concern considering the vendetta-like politics practiced by Republican leadership. Here’s an example: in 2014, after a bitter primary where the more conservative candidate lost to Connell by 39 votes, there was an attempt by the committee to censure Connell over his unwillingness to sign a statement saying he supported the Republican state platform. From a Missoulian article:

Connell said Tuesday that he didn’t sign the platform because he didn’t agree with all of it.

“When you serve in the Legislature, you learn that words have meaning,” Connell said. “You better darn well understand those words. There are words in the platform that I don’t agree with.”

The effort to censure failed by a 12-10 vote but the committee decided not to offer any funds to Connell for his general election run.

Apparently, in 2018, there are still sour grapes since Republicans are recruiting sketchy candidates like McLean and Ellsworth to run against Connell.

I sat next to Pat Connell at a Grizzly football game. He didn’t know who I was — a Missoula bomb thrower, as my father likes to say — and it took me a while to figure out who he was. He seemed like a nice enough guy and we didn’t discuss politics. I did thank him for broaching the net metering quandary for alternative energy sources during the 2017 legislative session, although his bills were flawed.

One of Montana’s greatest statesmen was Lee Metcalf. He was born and raised in Stevensville and served in the U.S. House and Senate from 1953-1978. There’s a wildlife refuge next to Stevi and a magnificent wilderness area in the Madison Range, both named after him.

My, how politics have changed in the Bitterroot. But here are your options, Ravalli Republicans: Connell, a candidate who might occasionally compromise with Democrats to get some legislation passed — school funding, infrastructure repair, protecting public lands, a safety net for the most vulnerable in our state —  or two extremists who will make sure nothing gets done.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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