Debra Bonogofsky, a moderate Republican small businesswoman from Billings, Mont., thought she was a “normal person” until she ran for the Montana State Legislature in June. Then she found out through 11th-hour attack ads, fliers and mailings that she was an anti-gun, pro-abortion, union-backing Barack Obama supporter.
That “smear campaign,” orchestrated by shadowy, right-wing political groups with Colorado ties, doomed her in conservative Montana and led to her 249-vote defeat in the June 8 primary to Republican Dan Kennedy.
Bonogofsky is now running a long-shot campaign as a write-in and has filed several complaints with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, but she doesn’t expect any real penalties against groups that have long histories of dubious last-minute electioneering practices.
“The truth doesn’t mean anything to these people – they say what they want, they distort things, they twist things,” said Bonogofsky, who is pro-choice and a proponent of responsible energy development but says her biggest sin was refusing to fill out right-wing questionnaires. “They’re perverting and subverting our election process.”
One of those questionnaires came from the nonprofit Western Tradition Partnership, formed by Montana political activists but registered to GOP operative Scott Shires in Aurora, Colo. That group denies advocating for any particular candidate in any particular race, insisting its campaign surveys legally gauge for the voters where candidates stand on the issues.
Shires has been fined and censured by Colorado officials in past elections, including the 2008 Garfield County commissioners’ races, which saw Democrats targeted by the oil and gas industry. Shires’ Colorado League of Taxpayers was fined $7,150 for spending $2,400 on mailers in that race without filing proper electioneering reports with the Colorado Secretary of State.
Nearly two years later, Shires still hasn’t paid his fine. “At this point, collections hasn’t been able to get that money yet,” Secretary of State spokesman Rich Coolidge said. Democrats waylaid in that Garfield County race lamented the lack of enforcement and investigation by state officials. Bonogofsky fears the same thing will happen to her in Montana.
“It usually takes them on average a couple of years to get to a complaint because they don’t have the staff and they don’t have the funding to do it any quicker,” Bonogofsky said of Montana election officials. “The legislature needs to actually give more funding to the commissioner of political practices, and I know both parties are complicit in this and so they haven’t done it, and this stuff needs to be stopped. It’s just not right.”
Bonogofsky not only traced Western Tradition Partnership– which has been active in a number of recent races in both Montana and Colorado— back to Shires, but she also found that a number of Montana print and radio ads were purchased by a business called Direct Mail and Communications.
A firm in good standing in the Montana Secretary of State’s business database, Direct Mail lists as its business address 12237 E. Amherst Circle in Aurora, Colo. That’s also the registered address for Western Tradition Partnership and the address for several other nonprofit political groups and companies run by Shires, including Mountain Banc Mortgage and the Shires Financial Group.
Shires did not respond to an email sent to the contact link for Shires Financial Group, and two phone numbers associated with the businesses and political groups have been temporarily disconnected.
As happened to the Democratic candidates in the 2008 Garfield County races, Bonogofsky was hammered on energy development issues in her recent primary. Western Tradition claimed her opponent “knows Al Gore and his economy-killing carbon taxers can’t ram their agenda though without filling government posts with heavy-handed bureaucrats and mandate-happy politicians.”
Bonogofsky, who owns a tire company in Billings, said she isn’t opposed to coal mining and oil and gas drilling but wants it done responsibly so that property owners are protected from environmental impacts.
“[Far right groups are] into private property rights but yet they will discard those for the energy coalition,” Bonogofsky said. “They don’t care about the farmers and ranchers out here in eastern Montana who don’t want their livelihoods taken by the coal companies, but yet they’re big private property people and they don’t want to see that they’re hypocrites about all this stuff.”