Democratic Montana Secretary of State candidate Jesse Mullen met with a small group of voters in Chinook Tuesday to discuss his candidacy and hear their concerns as voters.
Mullen, owner of Mullen Newspaper Company, said this was the first stop on his latest campaign tour, which also included Fort Belknap, Malta, Glasgow, Saco, Dodson, Winnett and Lewistown.
During the meeting Mullen talked a little bit about his background in the newspaper business and how covering local politics informed his perspectives on the state of election administration in Montana in modern politics.
He said when he was covering politics back home in Deer Lodge, he remembers seeing a throng of conspiracy theorists shouting at their county's very competent Republican clerk and recorder about mail-in ballots, and that was one of the things that made him want to run for secretary of state.
He said one of the big reasons people are so susceptible to misinformation about election security and feel comfortable acting that way is because incumbent Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen has made no effort to dispel any of that misinformation, despite the fact that he believes she knows it's completely false.
"She fundraises off that," he said.
Mullen said Jacobsen has voiced support for a number of unnecessary restrictions on voting, as the Montana Legislature proposes solutions to the non-existent problem of election security.
He said the position of Montana secretary of state is incredibly important, but it isn't and shouldn't be a very partisan one, and he feels Jacobsen has increasingly made it one.
"Austin Knudsen can lose every court case in the world, because it's good for his politics," he said. " ... You can't really do that with the secretary of state's office."
Mullen also talked about a lawsuit that was recently settled between Jacobsen and a slew of Montana businesses that alleged that her office wrongfully retained more than $100,000 in duplicate filing fees charged to businesses in 2020.
The April settlement requires that the secretary of state's office implement procedures to detect and refund overcharges without businesses having to request them.
Mullen said this, along with the lawsuit the state recently lost, regarding the veto of Senate Bill 442, indicates Jacobsen has the wrong attitude about who is in charge.
The popular bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, allocated recreational marijuana tax revenues to fund conservation projects and county roads, among other areas, and enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Gianforte issued a veto of the bill May 2 after a successful motion to adjourn the Senate had been made.
Gianforte's office said the governor vetoed the bill before the Senate adjourned, but none of the members who voted for adjournment - including Lang - seemed to know the governor had vetoed the bill.
With the Senate out of session, the Legislature lacked the votes to override the veto on the floor.
Gianforte and Jacobsen have since been ordered by the courts to allow the Legislature a chance to override the veto.
Mullen said people are largely putting the blame on Gianforte for this incident, but in reality it is Jacobsen's job to transmit vetos, so ultimate responsibility falls on her.
"Gianforte vetoed the bill; that is his prerogative," he said, "The Legislature passed it in a bipartisan manner; they did their job, her job was to send it back to the Legislature."
He said instances like this make it clear to him that Jacobsen thinks of Gianforte as her boss, not the people of Montana, and this attitude is detrimental to the office, as well as the Montana Land Board, which the secretary of state sits on, which should be stewarded with a mind toward public service, not political gamesmanship.
He said if the secretary of state's office was running properly people wouldn't be hearing about it nearly as much, as its activities are largely invisible.
"The only way I would be remembered (as secretary of state) in a hundred years is if I screw up, badly."
Mullen also heard from the group of voters about their own concerns, and many of them were about the political climate in modern politics, which is increasingly bleeding into everyday life, with some of them feeling uncomfortable sharing political views of any kind and increasingly having to leave social media and even church groups because they feel demonized.
Mullen said he's seen plenty of that himself and he feels very strongly that this culture of polarization has become incredibly damaging.
He said the issue of abortion isn't really relevant to the position he's running for, but he feels it's indicative of how bad this demonization has become.
He said he's a Catholic and has five kids, and based on that people can probably intuit his and his family's personal stance on abortion, but the image many on the right have, of people who get abortions being evil, is just not true.
Most of the time, he said, its mothers who are afraid they won't be able to feed their child, or give them a good life, and there are many legitimate reasons for people to have that conversation, not to mention the fact that it is often a medical necessity.
If people want to reduce abortion, making it illegal isn't the answer, creating a society that supports new mothers and their children is, Mullen said.
He said people should, if they can, confront people when they demonize them and let them know that they are talking about many of their friends and community members.
"Make them uncomfortable saying that kind of thing," he said.
Mullen expressed frustration with the state's Democratic party for not doing more to support Democrats in rural or heavily Republican districts, which he thinks is shortsighted.
He said even in a heavily Republican place like Deer Lodge there are still plenty of Democrats, and without support from their party they will feel abandoned, and be less willing to vote, and express their own beliefs.
He said both parties are too focused on places like Missoula and Bozeman, and this has been a problem for some time.
On the other hand, he said, there are a lot of positive cultural signifiers of patriotism and rural life that conservatives seem to have laid exclusive claim to, which he thinks liberals should make an active effort to reclaim.
Some at the meeting said they've thought about putting an American flag on their truck, but were afraid of the assumptions people would make about their political affiliation, and Mullen said he thinks that shouldn't be the case, as that flag is for all Americans.
After the meeting Mullen said he was glad to meet with a smaller group of voters this time so he could hear from them, not just have them listen to him, and he looks forward to the rest of his tour.