Do Our Politicians Play By Insider, or Outsider Rules
Cynthia Logan | Thursday Oct. 1st, 2020
This year has been scary enough for most of us to want to skip Halloween altogether. But the ghosts and ghouls behind the ‘dark money’ in national and local politics have already made their costumes and are knocking on doors. Bozeman author Roger Fleming understands all too well how this untraceable funding works. His new book, Outsider Rules is a fictional account of the 2006 Montana U.S. Senate race and its ties to the beginnings of dark money fundraising in Washington, D.C. (While an unprecedented $14 million influenced that election, an alarming trend shows close to $95 million dollars influencing the Bullock/Daines Senate race, 90% of which is likely coming from outside of Montana). The book’s narrative also highlights the history and growing problem of meth on the Crow Reservation.
Fleming is an attorney who lobbies on behalf of smaller telecom companies. Many of his corporate clients have helped bridge the digital divide by building in rural areas of the country where big players won’t go. In 2003 he was hired to help raise funds for Montana State University’s Burns Telecommunications Center. He lives in Bozeman with his wife, Alice, who has spent the majority of her career working on international and humanitarian affairs, most recently on the issue of environmental refugees.
Bozeman Magazine asked writer Cynthia Logan to sit down with Fleming to get the skinny on election politics, ‘dark money’ and why he moved to Montana.
Cynthia Logan: Have you always been interested in politics?
Roger Fleming: Yes, but not party politics until I started practicing law in 1982. I got involved as a welcome distraction from litigation.
CL: Where were you educated?
RF: I earned my undergrad at Emory University in Atlanta, and graduated from Nova Southeastern University Law School.
CL: What was your first experience as a lobbyist?
RF: As a young lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, I was charged with ‘killing’ a bill in the Florida state legislature. It would have involuntarily annexed one of the last farms in Broward County, on the border with West Palm Beach County. We prevailed—that farm is the only vegetable farm left in Broward County. It’s approximately 500 acres, surrounded by condos and golf courses. The owner (a third generation farmer) has been offered millions to sell it.
CL: What brought you to Montana?
RF: My work; initially as lobbyist for U.S. West in the late 90s. I was assigned Montana, in part because Senator Conrad Burns was Chairman of the Communications Subcommittee. I began to visit Montana frequently. When I joined a private firm, a public affairs company called Dutko Worldwide, my first client was Montana State University. My firm has been located here since 2009.
CL: Are you hopeful that Montana can lead the way to get corporate spending out of elections?
RF: That would be a huge undertaking, a huge challenge. As you know, Governor Bullock took a big swing at that as Attorney General and as Governor, and was ultimately denied because of Citizens United. It’s definitely a worthwhile effort… I don’t think Congress will be the one to change it because they’re the ones benefitting the most from it.
CL: How would you relate the documentary Dark Money to that aspect of your new novel?
RF: Outsider Rules is set between 1997 and 2006, when it wasn’t yet called dark money, in part because the Citizens United decision hadn’t been handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court yet. SuperPacs didn’t exist. That decision opened the door for untraceable money in a big way on both sides of the aisle. I do think the documentary was a little one-sided.
CL: One of your colleagues noted that elected officials come to Washington full of hope and commitment, but that idealism is eroded by the realities of power politics and the money behind it. Is there any hope?
RF: There is hope, because a number of members of Congress are not beholden to dark money. Also, I think many people both inside and outside of Washington are now aware that the Citizens United impact was not what was contemplated by the Majority. Several states are taking the initiative to counter the impacts of dark, untraceable money.
CL: You seem to try to take a bi-partisan approach in the book; are you bipartisan as a lobbyist?
RF: Yes, my clients all know I work and give money (through PACs or from my own checkbook) to both sides of the aisle. That is all filed, traced and reported.
CL: There are some great thematic explorations about controversial issues in Outsider Rules. What was your intention behind writing it?
RF: The amount of money spent in the 2006 race was more than 14 million dollars; it was the first time YouTube and the Internet had been used so effectively. I wanted to highlight that a combination of money and online campaigning was used to personally take someone down and degrade his family. Another theme is the inextricable work of lobbying in D.C. and campaign fundraising. Corporate lobbying in D.C. had become out of control in the late 90s and early 2000s… the money for sporting events, parties, food, alcohol, and jetting members and their staffers around the country was, for all practical purposes, unlimited.
CL: You also bring up the growth of methamphetamine on Montana’s Crow Reservation.
RF: I became aware of the meth problem when I toured the Crow Reservation in 1998. I came out to give a speech to the Montana Independent Telephone Association, and became more aware of the problem when the Montana Meth Project hired the firm I worked for. I saw it more close up during 2016-2018 when I visited Crow Agency to confirm some of the details in Outsider Rules.
CL: Have you had training as a writer?
RF: No formal training in creative writing. As a lawyer in Congress I wrote hundreds of communications, memorandums and floor speeches. Consequently, it took me nine years to write my first book, Majority Rules, and ten years to write this book! The story of Outsider Rules was complete in six years, but I rewrite every sentence 25 times, every paragraph 15 times and every page five times. It’s a very labor-intensive challenge. I wish I were a better, more efficient writer.
CL: They say good writing is all about the revisions! What was your process… when did you write?
RF: I wrote during weekends and vacations. My best writing is late at night and early in the morning before I even brush my teeth. I want to include a thank you to the Sacajawea Hotel for their front porch, ‘cause I’ve sat on that porch at least 100 hours and have written critical parts of both books from there.
CL: Nick Taft, a character in both of your books, is a congressional staffer who becomes a well-intentioned lobbyist. Is he autobiographical?
RF: He is very loosely based on my own experiences and a composite of different people I’ve known in Washington, D.C. who’ve been in those roles.
CL: How about some of the other main characters?
RF: Nick’s buddy, Kale McDermott, is based on two close friends I had in college, both of whom have passed on, one by suicide. The saddest day of my life was when I spoke at his funeral. Another character, Talcott Anderson (Cotter) is based on a couple of college friends… all these guys, the drinking, the betting—my friends have been hard partiers—I don’t know how I’ve survived! I’m not [a big partier], but they were my best friends.
CL: What is it like being in a ‘bi-partisan’ marriage?
RF: It’s really an education. My wife knows her issues really well and my background and issues come from seven years in the U.S. Congress. We have a lot of debates, but we call a truce when we reach a point of diminishing returns. We both learn from each other.
CL: Where did you two meet?
RF: We were introduced by a couple at a party in Washington, D.C. in 2012. She knew the wife and I knew the husband. They decided to match us up and it worked. We got married in 2017, a first marriage for both of us. Back in 2012 I introduced her to Montana and told her, “One year I’m going to live here,” and she said, “Sounds good to me.” Ironically, she got a job here first.
CL: You’re an avid fly fisherman, aren’t you?
RF: Since 1998 I, along with one of my best friends in Montana, have fished dozens of rivers here. My favorite river is the Dearborn.
CL: How have you dealt with the Pandemic?
RF: My D.C. office shut down in March; I’ve been working online and by Zoom calls and emails from Virginia or from Bozeman. We just sold our home in Alexandria, Virginia in May so I could join my wife here full-time. I’ve been out hiking every weekend and loving it!