Thousands of dollars in donations from outside the state flowed into last week’s municipal elections in the Flathead Valley, according to campaign reports filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices in Helena.
The two candidates who received the most donations also emerged victorious. William Hileman Jr. was elected to fill the shoes of retiring Whitefish Municipal Judge Bradley Johnson and Kyle Waterman won a tight three-way race for the Kalispell City Council seat representing Ward 3. Waterman unseated longtime incumbent Jim Atkinson.
Both winning candidates raised many times more money than their challengers and received a significant portion of those proceeds from outside the Flathead Valley.
Hileman, currently an attorney at Hedman, Hileman & Lacosta in Whitefish, reported the largest money haul. Campaign reports show Hileman spent $25,004 between May 5 and Oct. 23.
He pulled in $4,310 in donations from outside Montana, including locations as far flung as Ocean Ridge, Florida, Houston and Beverly Hills, California. He received an additional $220 from donors in Billings, according to candidate campaign finance reports covering the periods from May 5 to Oct. 23 this year.
He also loaned $4,500 of his own money over the course of his campaign, according to the reports.
Hileman did not return a request for comment on this story.
Hileman’s opponent, Kristi Curtis, reported spending $4,337, less than 20 percent what her opponent did in the same time period. Donors funded only $350 of that amount, the rest was contributed by Curtis herself.
“I just didn’t feel comfortable asking for money,” Curtis said. “It was just a personal preference.”
Curtis said she thought in the past judges had run successfully without raising significant sums of money. She was surprised when she found out how much her opponent was investing in the race.
“The first time that we were filing and I looked it up I was shocked,” Curtis said. “I was hoping just my experience and commitment would carry the day, but maybe that was a little naïve.”
She said she didn’t want to be beholden to donors if she won, so she refrained from significant fundraising. She also stopped short of saying Hileman’s outside donors would influence him in any way. She said she did not anticipate running for the office again in the future, because unseating an incumbent would likely require even more funds.
Big spending in Whitefish municipal elections isn’t unheard of. In 2009, more than $38,000 was spent in the City Council elections, including money from candidates, political action committees and individuals.
Kalispell’s Waterman, who works with nonprofits on projects that include fundraising efforts, received a more modest $850 from out-of-state donors and $2,065 from Montanans that reside outside Kalispell.
Those contributions comprised approximately one third of the $6,284 Waterman reported spending on his campaign between June 17 and Oct. 21.
Waterman cited his profession and roots elsewhere in Montana as boons for his campaign.
“That is one of those advantages that I had, I have a nonprofit background and a fundraising background,” Waterman said. “I was able to do that here, but also I am originally from Helena and I was able to reach out to teachers and people who supported me and had mentored me as I grew up here in Montana and talk to them about what I was working on.”
Waterman said he spent about what he anticipated spending when he first considered running. He said he knew that unseating an incumbent presented a big challenge, and a sizable marketing budget would be necessary.
A large chunk of his campaign spending went toward print advertising, including ads in the Daily Inter Lake and Flathead Beacon.
He also said he was smart with his money, utilizing lower-budget strategies like knocking on doors in Ward 3, perusing Main Street Kalispell and using Facebook to establish a larger web presence than his adversaries. He said he put approximately $200 into pushing Facebook posts to a larger audience, a service the social media site offers to any user.
“I’m not a digital native, I’m in my 40s, but it seemed like a really good way to use some of my funds that I had to engage people,” Waterman said. “Strategically, it was a good way to use my money.”
Waterman’s opponent Jim Atkinson, the incumbent in Ward 3, reported one out-of-state donation worth $100 from Illinois. Atkinson reported spending $611 through Oct. 27 in his unsuccessful re-election bid.
The third member of the three-way race for Ward 3, Karlene Osorio-Khor, thinks the presence of outside money in local politics is a big problem.
“It does bother me in one respect, because I always want local things to be local,” Osorio-Khor said. “It always scares me when you have outsider influence, especially on a race that is supposed to be non-partisan.”
Osorio-Khor didn’t spend any money until the final leg of the race. She said she printed some fliers to hand out when she knocked on doors, and believes she is still waiting to be billed for the expense, which totaled just a couple hundred dollars. She said she wasn’t aware of Waterman’s donations from outside the valley until very late in the race.
She said she thinks Kalispell residents should influence Kalispell elections, and if she had been aware of them earlier she would have made it a bigger campaign issue.
She said she worries the high sums spent in this year’s race will open the floodgates and make it difficult to challenge an incumbent without a lot of money. She will consider running again, but said she wouldn’t gather money from outside Kalispell.
“If I had to raise more money, I would do it in the city,” Osorio-Khor said. “I would never do what Kyle [Waterman] did, because I think it hurts us all.”
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.