May 25, 2017 ยท 9 minutes

A few days ago, I started paying attention to the special election in Montana.

Particularly how the Democratic candidate was making in-roads not by running against Donald Trump - who apparently is still pretty popular in Montana - but by running against Paul Ryan. That is, by running against the GOP’s health care plan.

Then I saw that the GOP candidate was a businessman named Greg Gianforte.

Wait. The RightNow Technologies guy? The guy who I’d interviewed maybe a dozen times when I was covering the early days of the software as a service business for BusinessWeek? That guy?

It seemed even stranger when I read that this Greg Gianforte was cozied right up to Donald Trump, all for taking away people’s healthcare, the right to same sex marriage, and women’s reproductive rights. Totally cool with Trump firing the FBI director if it got the whole Russia thing to go away.

Wait, seriously, the RightNow Technologies guy? Can’t be that guy. That guy was smart. He’d built a huge technology company. He seemed like a nice, empathetic leader.

And then last night I got off a plane and saw my social media feeds blowing up with the news that this same candidate Greg Gianforte had allegedly body slammed a journalist. And then punched him. On tape. In front of multiple witnesses.

OK, this cannot be the RightNow Technologies guy. The Greg Gianforte I had interviewed was a comparatively boring CEO for the enterprise software world. At the time Gianforte was building RightNow, Marc Benioff was engaging in aggressive stunts like picketing its rival Siebel’s events, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and PeopleSoft’s Craig Conway were trading barbs about killing each other’s dogs, and somewhere Ben Horowitz was listening to angry hip hop and swearing his face off as Opsware was finally about to get its vindication.

Gianforte, by contrast, was the cookie-cutter, tall, devoted husband white guy who was really passionate about call center efficiencies and wanted everyone to come visit Bozeman, Montana. At no point during the course of our interviews did he punch me or anyone else. In fact, if you asked me to rank enterprise software CEOs I’ve interviewed in my career in order of their likelihood to viciously assault a reporter I’d put him somewhere close to last. Maybe right before Aaron Levie.

Finally, I opened up Wikipedia:

Greg Richard Gianforte[2] (born April 17, 1961) is an American politician and businessman. Gianforte and his wife founded RightNow Technologies, a customer relationship management software company.[3] The couple maintains relationships with various conservative and Christian groups including Focus on the Family and the young-earth creationist Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum.[4][5]

In 2016, he ran for Governor of Montana in 2016 for the Republican Party, losing to Democratic candidate Steve Bullock. He is the Republican nominee for Montana's House seat in the 2017 special election. On May 24th, 2017, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper alleged Gianforte assaulted him and broke his glasses.[6] Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault by the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office following the incident.[7]

Gianforte opposes abortion[8] and Planned Parenthood,[9] supports clean coal technology,[10] opposes Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and supports the American Health Care Act,[11] opposes sanctuary cities,[12] opposes same-sex marriage[8] and opposes the legalization of marijuana,[13] opposes minimum wage increases,[14] and supports Donald Trump including his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

Holy shit. The boring RightNow Technologies guy just bodyslammed and punched a reporter who asked him a question about healthcare.

I mention all of this not -- absolutely not - because I think Greg Gianforte is innocent, or to defend him in any way. Rather I mention all of this as a reminder that, well… you just never know what someone - even a boring enterprise software guy in Montana - is capable of.

I consider myself a reasonably good judge of character. I have a pretty good track record at identifying tech CEOs who are hiding their inner asshole, months -- or even years-- ahead of others. And yet I never once got a sinister vibe from Greg Gianforte.

Greg Gianforte -- The RightNow guy turned Trump supporter turned alleged assaulter of reporters -- should be a(nother) cautionary tale for us all in Silicon Valley. The Valley used to be remarkably apolitical. Since that’s started to change, we’ve started to see increasingly ugly sides of industry icons that used to be widely loved and admired, or at least respected. [Pando investor] Peter Thiel is the most obvious example. But consider too Oculus founder Palmer Luckey. And then there are the sinister allegations surrounding the personal lives of men like Gurbaksh Chahal, Mike Goguen, and Abhishek Gattani. (The latter by the way is another guy caught on tape hitting someone, and whose victim didn’t get justice.)

Some of these people-- like Goguen and Gianforte-- were just considered kinda boring if successful and didn’t get a lot of press or attention. Others were thought of as “contrarians,” and others still along the lines of the “brilliant but broken” trope of a Steve Jobs. They are artists! How many people have excused - even celebrated - the horrible behavior of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as “passion”? The kind of intensity you need to disrupt the corrupt taxi world!

If that is on the outside, what truly lurks underneath?

And if we’re so consistently willing to overlook these demons for the sake of disruption! at what point do we start to get concerned? When they run for office? When they use their billions to back politicians devoted to taking away people’s rights? Or only after something violent happens? Look at the GOP’s response today: Do we even care after something violent is captured on tape?

While I didn’t see it in my limited time talking to Gianforte about software, newspapers covering him more closely as a politician had seen hints of this. Other reporters were not shocked.

From the Washington Post’s write up of newspapers pulling their endorsement after the incident:

By dawn on election day, the assault charge was the biggest political story in the state, and three of the state’s largest newspapers had pulled their endorsements — endorsements that the candidate had been touting in TV ads. The Billings Gazette, which serves Montana’s largest city, told readers it had made a “poor choice” by ignoring “questionable interactions” the candidate has had with reporters in the past.

And from the Helena Record after the incident:

“In the past, he has encouraged his supporters to boycott certain newspapers, singled out a reporter in a room to point out that he was outnumbered, and even made a joke out of the notion of choking a news writer,” editors wrote. ‘These are not things we can continue to brush off.”

At what point does someone’s personal demons become relevant? Relevant to reporters covering them, VCs backing them, or voters considering electing them? As more “non-politicians” are considering public life, it’s a question we’re going to have to grapple with.

When someone like Gianforte’s impact on the world was limited to building better call center software, we mostly didn’t have to find out what they were really like as human beings. BusinessWeek certainly didn’t delve into the personal politics and beliefs of business leaders, and even a more aggressive publication like Pando mostly stays out of people’s personal lives.

But once you decide you run for office, all bets are off. It is all fair game. Every belief you hold is a litmus test for who you are and how you will govern. And what we are starting to see of what lurks beneath some successful tech leaders is horrifying.

That newspapers like these weren’t willing to call it out before it got to this point, before three-quarters of the Montana electorate had cast their ballot, is… well, it’s why we have Donald Trump. It’s why Travis Kalanick is still running Uber and unlikely to be kicked out anytime soon. In the name of “balance” and “fairness” or simply out of cowardice, the press all too often ignores the warnings signs until we get, in an increasing number of cases, that “passion” turning into charges of assault.

Remember what a coworker of Abhishek Gattini wrote on Facebook after the news of his violent treatment of his wife-- and the lack of justice she was getting-- broke:

I remember an occasion, one of very few, where he and his lovely wife Neha came to a gathering at the house of a mutual friend. I think at the time, he was trying to “make friends” with me and others in the office (most likely he was told that he needed to), so he was trying to be social. We decided to play a board game, a team game, and he and his wife were on a team, while the husband of the host and I were on another team... As we started pulling ahead, further and further, Abhishek was getting angrier and angrier. Looking back now, I realize what I did not realize at the time: he was getting angrier and angrier at his wife. He was deriding her for not doing well, even though they were a team - he was telling her it was her fault they were losing, which was not the case. I see that now. I wish I had seen it at the time.

This is not to say all billionaires are bad or the same traits that make you able to build a multi-billion dollar company also make you a sociopath. I still think there are-- on balance-- more good people than evil people in Silicon Valley. I wouldn’t have spent my career here otherwise.

But we also need to stop this trend of assuming because someone built a multi-billion dollar company, they are qualified - or have the temperament and character - to run for political office. To run a city, a state or an entire country.  

That because they seem nice in an hour-long interview, because they say they want to listen, because they say they really need to grow up and they are getting help… that any of the flashes of monster we’ve seen should be ignored. This trend of “Hey, wait a minute, I actually built a successful business that has never filed for bankruptcy… If Donald Trump can do this…”

For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a worse reason for doing something than  “Donald Trump did it.” For another, as we’re seeing every day, Donald Trump cannot do this.

With more than half of Montana’s ballots cast by postal vote, it may be too late to halt the political ambitions of Greg Gianforte. But it’s not too late for him to be a cautionary tale the next time a Valley CEO decides that his skills as a disruptor somehow qualify him to defend and protect the Constitution.

That trend needs to stop. RightNow.