You can file this one under “Politicians Will Be Politicians Regardless of Party.” Montana Governor Greg Gianforte decided a post-Memorial Day trip out of the country would be a nice break given that the summer tourist season was just getting underway.
As these things happen, the state was hit with the worst flooding in 100 years and the southern part of Montana — including Yellowstone National Park — was nearly underwater.
The sleepy media in Helena roused itself. They had a genuine scandal on their hands. And because Gianforte is a Republican, and because any opportunity to make Republicans look bad can’t be missed, the story went national.
Where was the governor when the state needed him?
Actually, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras signed the statewide declaration of disaster on Tuesday so Gianforte’s absence was not as egregious as it might have been. But this was not about whether the state’s emergency departments functioned well in his absence. They did.
This was a question of optics and the appearance of a governor living the good life while his constituents suffered.
While Gianforte hasn’t confirmed it yet, it appears that several news outlets caught the governor in the Italian center of art and culture of Tuscany.
The governor’s office said he left before the flooding occurred and tried to get home as quickly as possible, though his absence throughout this week prompted withering criticism and confusion over why he couldn’t return sooner.
Some compared it to Sen. Ted Cruz’s flight to Cancun during a major winter storm in Texas last year, while others raised former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s trip to Argentina in 2009 to see a mistress even as his office claims he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
There are at least a dozen other examples, including California Governor Gavin Newsom partying at the French Laundry restaurant during a pandemic lockdown.
But for me, the all-time “politician out of town during disaster” moment occurred in Chicago in 1979 when the city’s Democratic mayor, Michael Bilandic, left for Florida on the eve of a snowstorm that eventually dumped 21 inches in two days on the city.
With his city at a literal standstill as a result of a lack of snow removal equipment, Bilandic continued to lounge in the Florida sun.
His opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary was a little-known reformer named Jane Byrne. With most sidestreets still impassable and some clever campaign commercials tying Bilandic to the disaster, Byrne scored one of the biggest political upsets in the city’s history by defeating Bilandic in the primary. She went on to be elected mayor.
It’s unknown if Gianforte really had a hard time getting out of Tuscany to come home. The disaster declaration was on Tuesday while Gianforte didn’t return until late Thursday evening. Tuscany is not the middle of nowhere and it seems improbable he couldn’t get a flight out of the area for at least two days.
Gianforte says he was handling the situation on social media.
“We have secured a presidential major disaster declaration for Montana to help communities respond, recover, and rebuild,” he tweeted Thursday. “The state will continue bringing its resources to bear to support communities impacted by flooding.”
The political fallout is fake news. No one died because Gianforte was in Tuscany. He couldn’t have stopped the flooding or the rain that caused it.
But pretending he could have done something is how the game is played these days.