It appeared there would be no Democratic challenger to run against Montana Attorney General Tim Fox until the last day of candidate registration, when an eleventh-hour call from former Gov. Brian Schweitzer convinced a former state senator and Bozeman attorney to throw his hat in the ring.
But now that he’s in, Larry Jent said, he’s in it to win it.
“I fired myself from the law firm Sept. 1. That was my last court appearance and now I am focused on representing Montana,” said Jent.
At stake is one of the most powerful positions in the state, according to former state assistant attorney general Anthony Johnstone.
“It’s important for people to understand the position does so much more than represent the state in lawsuits. It’s being the head of public safety, protecting consumer rights, and protecting the constitution,” said Johnstone, who now teaches law at the University of Montana.
Fox said he has done that job for the last three years, pointing to his work against human trafficking, help for sexual assault victims and programs to combat addiction. For Fox, it is his third run for the office after losing to now-Gov. Steve Bullock in 2008 and defeating Democrat Pamela Bucy in 2012.
“I said I was going to set out to do all these things and I did, and I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished,” said Fox, who grew up in Hardin and attended the University of Montana.
It’s a record that prompted Fox to question why Jent made the decision on the last filing day to enter the race.
“If he felt that he was strongly qualified, he would have sought this position years ago,” said Fox. Jent served in the legislature from 2007 to 2015 and briefly ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2012.
The 64-year-old Jent countered that his 16 years as a legislator and 33 years as a lawyer, combined with his service as a Green Beret, gives him plenty of reasons — and experience — to run.
“I’m different. I’ve been working on making laws in the legislature, practicing law, and everything else. To me that shows how much I am willing to take on for the people,” said Jent.
Jent said he questions many of the decisions Fox has made, accusing the Republican of putting politics above the law. Jent said Fox should not have involved Montana in politically charged cases against the federal government over clean water rules and the Affordable Care Act.
The Democrat added that Fox has also pressured other states to allow the development of coal transfer stations because of donations from the coal industry.
“They’ve got a real friend in him. They don’t have an enemy in me, but they have a real friend in him,” said Jent.
Fox countered it is his job to promote Montana’s economy and he is “just using the rule of law to promote all kinds of development down the road.” Also, the Fox campaign has not received major donations from the coal industry political action committees but has taken large donations from major law firms around the country as well as Wal-Mart and BNSF Rail.
Jent also attacked Fox for joining 26 other states challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, saying, “He should not be involved with insurance.”
But Johnstone notes those kind of moves are exactly what the attorney general must decide.
“It’s his job to challenge the administration and legislature’s decisions if he thinks they are unconstitutional,” Johnstone said.
Jent’s late start and uphill campaign against a sitting incumbent hasn’t helped his fundraising. As of the last campaign report at the end of August he had only $27,000 compared to Fox’s $200,000. Jent doesn’t see that imbalance as a problem, saying his grassroots campaign is what Montana is all about. He said that unlike his opponent he has taken hardly any money from outside the state.
He pointed out he has written more than 50 “thank you” letters for small donations and won’t be beholden to the large corporations and out-of-state law firms that have backed Fox.
“I’m not going to cocktail parties in Washington, D.C., with my pinky up asking for donations,” Jent said.
Money isn’t the issue, according to Fox, it’s about doing his job, telling Montana Public Radio in August that, “Mr. Jent doesn’t understand the office or the obligations… We have obligations as attorneys general to stand up to overreach by the federal government and when they violate our constitution the attorney general has to get involved.”
He said his support reflects the job he has done as attorney general, a job he intends to still have come January 2017.