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The Montana Congressman Who Just Pleaded Guilty To Assault Is Dividing The Local Tech Community He Helped Build

Not everyone in Bozeman is turned off by Greg Gianforte’s guilty plea in his assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs–but others fear his behavior will hurt recruiting efforts in the Western tech hub.

The Montana Congressman Who Just Pleaded Guilty To Assault Is Dividing The Local Tech Community He Helped Build
Greg Gianforte [Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Like many Montana voters, Chad Nybo had already cast his ballot when he heard that Greg Gianforte had allegedly assaulted a Guardian reporter late in the day on May 24. Gianforte was running to fill the House seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and the election-eve scuffle–during which eyewitnesses and the reporter, Ben Jacobs, said Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck, threw him to the ground, punched him, and broke his glasses–generated international news. As news of the altercation broke, the Montana Secretary of State office fielded inquiries from early voters asking if they could change their ballots. (They couldn’t.)

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But Nybo wasn’t among those deterred by the Republican’s aggression. Nybo, the founder of health care software company CrossTx, had worked closely with Gianforte for more than six years at RightNow Technologies, the company Gianforte had founded in Bozeman. Nybo described Gianforte as a compartmentalized executive who didn’t show much emotion, so he was surprised by the altercation. That Gianforte begins his congressional career with a criminal conviction is, to Nybo, somewhat charming.

“That is pretty much the first opportunity I’ve had to see Greg vulnerable, in a place where he didn’t plan to be,” Nybo says. “He strategizes and is careful about how he behaves. It’s kind of nice to know he’s human.”

Earlier today, Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and received a six-month deferred sentence that stipulates he must complete an anger-management course, perform 40 hours of community service, and pay $385 in fines and fees. Many in Montana are not as sympathetic as Nybo; three state newspapers rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte after the assault. He will take office after winning 50.2% of the vote; two-thirds of ballots were cast before his scuffle with the reporter. During the election, Gianforte received little hometown support in Bozeman, the center of Montana’s tech community. Gallatin County, where Gianforte lives and where he founded RightNow, favored Democrat Rob Quist by 13.4 percentage points. Furthermore, many in the tech community Gianforte helped build are distancing themselves from him in light of his recent quarrel and his past politics.

Gianforte apologized to Jacobs during his victory speech, and did so again in June while promising $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “My physical response to your legitimate question was unprofessional, unacceptable, and unlawful,” he said in the written apology to Jacobs, which was part of an agreement to settle potential civil claims (Jacobs received nearly $4,500 in restitution). The apologies, however, come after Gianforte’s campaign initially blamed Jacobs for the incident, issuing a statement that was contradicted by Jacobs’s recording of the incident.

Abby Schlatter, cofounder of Bozeman firm commonFont, was incensed when she heard Gianforte attacked a reporter. “It’s flat-out embarrassing for Montana to have a representative that has acted that way in a public forum,” Schlatter says. “I don’t think it represents how we Montanans value and treat each other.”

Susan Carstensen, founder of Yellowstone Growth Partners and the former CFO of RightNow, was in Seattle for a board meeting on the day of the election. “I walked in, and [the assault] is all anyone wanted to talk about,” she says. “I was in Utah for another board meeting the next week, and again, that was the first topic of conversation. The image of Montana is terrible.”

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It’s not just the outburst that has Bozeman entrepreneurs unnerved. Gianforte’s family trust has donated $1.1 million to groups known to oppose access to abortion and measures protecting LGBT people. Locally, Gianforte fought against a Bozeman ordinance that bans discrimination based on sexuality or gender (Montana has no statewide LGBT nondiscrimination policy). For some entrepreneurs, positions like these–especially now that Gianforte has garnered a national spotlight–make it more difficult to recruit out-of-state employees.

“His politics and the recent behavior just don’t encourage the inclusivity and diversity we think are needed to build the tech scene here in Bozeman,” Schlatter says.

It’s a sentiment shared by many in Montana’s fledgling tech community, which makes for a tenuous relationship, given Gianforte’s clout in the state. Multiple tech leaders in Bozeman, including some who previously worked for Gianforte at RightNow, declined to speak on the record with Fast Company, citing the charged politics of the situation. One executive, who declined to be named for fear of jeopardizing a round of financing, says, “Greg has a huge influence on our tech community, but most of our tech community voted for [Governor Steve] Bullock and Quist . . . There’s a set of expected values in the tech ecosystem that Greg doesn’t represent very well.”

The election-eve assault solidified concern among those opposed to Gianforte, but Nybo saw the incident differently. “I didn’t know if it was something that he was tricked into, or if he just lost his cool,” he wonders. Through texts and emails, Nybo’s social circle began to speculate whether media accounts of the incident were accurate, even though there was an audio recording and three eyewitnesses of the attack. Theories emerged. Multiple people, Nybo said, mentioned that the only way they felt Gianforte would act in such a fashion is if somebody were to insult his wife (there is no mention of Susan Gianforte in the recording). His crowd found it strange that there was no movie evidence of the incident, even though print reporters rarely record interviews on video.

Nybo’s experience reflects a growing distrust of mainstream media that, some argue, culminated in the quarrel between Gianforte and Jacobs. “I heard a lot of people who were so frustrated with the press, with how the races were covered, that they were almost happy that there was some sort of altercation,” Nybo says.

Other RightNow veterans were also surprised by their former boss’s actions. “It’s not the personality or the temperament that I’ve seen from him, so it was completely surprising,” says Andrew Hull, a RightNow alum and founder of Elixiter.

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There was plenty of campaign rhetoric between Gianforte and Quist about “Montana values,” but Matt Fulton, Schlatter’s commonFont cofounder, thinks Gianforte contradicts the values held by those who conduct business in the area. “Gianforte ran on being a business leader, being a professional–that’s his qualification for being able to represent Montana,” he says. “[The assault] is entirely inconsistent with leadership, in my opinion.”

Carstensen, who worked alongside Gianforte for 13 years, suggested to Gianforte before his gubernatorial campaign that he not run for office. She penned op-eds in support of Gianforte’s opponents in both the governor and House races. “He will hate this job,” she says. “He doesn’t like sitting in meetings, endless discussions. He’s a very action-oriented person. As a friend, I was like, you shouldn’t do this . . . he should stick to business.”

Gianforte’s merits will be an ongoing discussion. On June 5, before being sworn in as Montana’s lone representative and before entering his guilty plea, Gianforte filed for re-election in 2018.