By Tim Eberly
A local business owner's decision to back a Republican candidate by putting a sign in his window has provoked a spat with two well-known Democrats.
Nancy Peterson, a former Hill County Democratic Central Committee member, said she won't eat at Pizza Pro again until owner Russ Luke puts a Shortell for Mayor sign in his window, along with his Rice for Mayor sign. Peterson is treasurer of Democrat Mike Shortell's campaign for mayor.
Hill County Democratic Chairman Debi Friede is also boycotting Pizza Pro. She and Peterson both said they were acting independently of each other and of the Democratic Party. Both said they think it's inappropriate for a business owner to publicly support a candidate.
Rice and Shortell will face each other on the ballot in November.
"I just don't think I'm going to contribute money to a business that has political signs in the window. It just says to me that he doesn't want my dollar," Friede said. "And I have also discouraged other businesses from putting up Democratic signs. I just don't think a place of business is a place for a political arena."
Luke, the owner of two Pizza Pro restaurants in Havre, said he doesn't get it. "Just because I'm supporting a friend, they would have to boycott my business?" said Luke. "I don't think there is room in Havre for that. I didn't put a sign in my window to offend anyone, but to show support."
Luke also questioned the appropriateness of Peterson calling him about the Bob Rice sign from her job at Amtrak, a federal agency.
"It wasn't right for somebody to call from a government phone," Luke said.
Luke said he got a phone call at 11 a.m. on Aug. 17 at his First Street store from Peterson. According to Luke, Peterson said she wanted to order pizza. When Luke asked what she would like, Peterson said Luke would have to take down his Rice for Mayor sign from his store window before she would purchase any food. When Luke refused, Peterson said she would not order from Pizza Pro.
He said Friede made similar statements in person to Luke's 19-year-old son, T.J., and to the manager of the Pizza Pro in the Holiday Village Shopping Center.
Peterson endorses a different version of their conversation. She acknowledges calling Luke but says she simply asked him to put up a Mike Shortell sign along with the Bob Rice sign.
"I didn't ask him to take down the Bob Rice sign," said Peterson, a ticket clerk and relief agent for Amtrak. "I asked him if he would consider putting up a Mike Shortell sign along with the Bob Rice sign. He said no, so I said I wouldn't be ordering lunch today."
When he fielded Peterson's phone call that morning, Luke said, he checked his caller identification device and noted that the call came from Amtrak. Luke wrote the number down and called it last week, confirming that it was an Amtrak number.
Luke said he wondered if she had violated the Hatch Act of 1939, which makes it illegal for federal employees to engage in political activity while on duty, in a government office, or while wearing a government uniform.
"I was on my lunch break," said Peterson, who is allotted a 20-minute paid lunch break at Amtrak each day. "That's something I can do personally on my own time on the Amtrak phone."
Her supervisor, Amtrak general manager Gary Erford, said she could have used a more appropriate time to discuss political matters.
"We're just going to ask her not to engage in political activity while on duty or subject to duty. However, she was on her lunch hour. I don't think there's too much wrong (with that). She was just asking him. I think there is a better choice of times to do that. But there is going to be no discipline."
Friede said she told T.J. Luke, who delivers pizza for Pizza Pro, and the manager of the mall eatery that she would not eat at Pizza Pro until the Rice signs were removed.
She said the conversations were not related to her position on the Democratic Central Committee.
"It's just a personal boycott," Friede said.