Montana Governor: Gilded Age robber barons ‘were pikers compared to what we’re doing now’


Campaign spending limits helped Montana create a “pure democracy” that the Supreme Court has now overturned, said the state’s governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer. On Sunday’s Up with Chris Hayes, he explained the history of Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which the Supreme Court struck down on Monday in a 5-4 ruling.

Schweitzer said that the Corrupt Practices Act, which was passed in 1912 by referendum, was designed to check the power of the Montana “copper kings” who ruled the state.

“They owned everything,” Schweitzer said. “They owned the mines, they owned the newspapers, they bought the legislature outright.”

One of the most famous copper kings was William A. Clark, who Mark Twain once described as “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag.” Clark, Schweitzer said, “advertised in his newspapers that he would pay $10,000 cash money to any Montana legislator who would vote to send Washington DC as a US Senator.” (This was back when senators were appointed by state legislatures, not democratically elected.) It was such an egregious act of bribery that senators from other states—who, according to Schweitzer, ”all bribed their way into the US Senate,” albeit by more subtle means—felt obliged to refuse him a seat in Congress.

Clark’s malfeasance was an extreme example of what the Corrupt Practices Act was designed to check. The law, which sharply limited outside expenditures on political campaigns, was seen to conflict with the Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Schweitzer touted the act as a success and excoriated the Supreme Court for striking it down:

The people of Montana in 1912, we passed the anti-corruption act. We said, look, we’re not going to allow these corporations to continue to loot and rape our land, and kill the miners that are working in them. We’re going to have a legislature that works for the people. And so, for 100 years, we did. We had a pure democracy. We had legislators who were farmers and lawyers, they’re doctors and nurses. They would serve just 90 days every other year, and they would raise three to six thousand dollars. Maximum contributions is $160. We had a system that actually worked.

And the Supreme Court in Washington DC—a place where nothing works—they told us, ‘No, we don’t like your system. You oughta go to the corrupt system we’re using in Washington DC. What could go wrong?’

When host Chris Hayes asked a question about differences between the current state of money in politics and that of the Gilded Age, Schweitzer scoffed.

“Gilded Age?” he said. “You’re calling that the Gilded Age and this is not? They were pikers compared to what we’re doing now.”

Brian Schweitzer

Montana Governor: Gilded Age robber barons 'were pikers compared to what we're doing now'