Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Who is Tim Sheehy? Taking a closer look

by Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
| April 3, 2024 2:00 AM

Before Tim Sheehy was the frontrunner in Montana’s 2024 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the ex-Navy SEAL, aerial firefighter, millionaire business owner, part-time rancher and occasional political donor was a 2004 graduate of a Minneapolis-St. Paul area private high school who grew up in a lake house outside Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

Sheehy emerged earlier this year from relative obscurity as a top recruit of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — the organization tasked with winning back a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate — in its quest to topple three-term incumbent Jon Tester, the only Democrat left in Montana with a statewide constituency. But even as Sheehy’s name recognition in Montana has grown — and his electoral viability against both possible primary challenger Matt Rosendale, a Republican congressman, and Tester along with it — little information has been made public about Sheehy’s biography before he came to Montana in 2014, or before he enlisted in the military a decade prior.

“Where was Sheehy born?” has become a persistent question in the in-boxes of Montana Free Press reporters.

The answer: Sheehy “was born in the Twin Cities area and grew up in Shoreview, Minnesota,” Sheehy’s campaign told MTFP last week. 

Based on public records, press clippings and a lengthy statement from the Sheehy campaign, MTFP has pieced together some basic facts about Sheehy’s life before he entered the political limelight. (Sheehy’s campaign did not make the candidate available for an interview in time for publication). In brief: He grew up in a multimillion dollar lake house, learned to fly under the tutelage of a neighbor, attended a private high school, graduated at the top of his U.S. Naval Academy and Army Ranger School classes, sustained multiple injuries while serving in the Navy, and ultimately was “medically separated” from the military in 2014. The next year, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke — also a former SEAL — awarded Sheehy a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, the first time the two met, according to Sheehy’s campaign. 

“Family was, and remains, very important to the Sheehys. Sheehy was never interested in politics, but leading a life of mission-oriented service always motivated him,” the campaign said in a statement. “In the Summer of 2021, after watching the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, Sheehy heard the call of service again and decided to get involved in politics.”

Sheehy had never run for office before declaring for the Senate in June, but he had pre-existing connections with many prominent Montana Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who chairs the NRSC, and Gov. Greg Gianforte. According to Federal Election Commission records, he made his first political donation in 2012, when he gave $250 to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In 2016 he made his first donation to Greg Gianforte, who was running for governor at the time. In 2018, he began donating regularly to Daines and continued his support for other Montana Republicans. According to state campaign finance records, he’s also donated almost $40,000 to various state and local committees affiliated with the state Republican Party. 

When national outlet Axios broke the news in March that Republicans were close to confirming Sheehy as a candidate, Montana Republicans showered him with praise. 

“Tim Sheehy is a good friend, a successful businessman and a decorated veteran who served his country with honor and valor. Montana and our nation would be better for his continued public service, and I’m confident without a doubt he would serve Montana well as a senator,” Gianforte said in a statement to Axios at the time. 

Still, his campaign launch was met with pointed curiosity from both the right and the left that, to varying degrees, stemmed from one question: Who exactly is this guy? Tester is one of Montana’s best-known political quantities, an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Senate and of leadership positions in the state Legislature before that. Sheehy, aside from being described in national media as a “friend” of people like Daines and Gianforte, had no such record. 

“For the grassroots movement, and people who knock doors and put up the signs and are busy for conservative Republican candidates, we have no idea who Tim Sheehy is — it’s ‘Sheehy who?’” Dr. Al Olszewski, chairman of the Flathead County GOP, told the Daily Caller, a right-wing news site, in July. “He’s a ghost, he has not been involved in local politics or statewide politics.”

In the months since his campaign’s June launch, more about Sheehy’s history has emerged. He has a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star from his military duty in the Middle East. After moving to the Bozeman area in 2014, he founded the aerial firefighting company Bridger Aerospace and an affiliate company, Ascent Vision Technologies, the latter of which he sold for $350 million in 2020. The same year, he and a business partner purchased a series of adjoining ranch parcels in Martinsdale and started the Little Belt Cattle Company. Later, national media reported that he had never paid livestock registration fees at the ranch — an error he subsequently remedied. 

He currently owns luxury properties in Big Sky and on Flathead Lake, and maintains a primary residence in Bozeman. 

The early chapters of his life, though, have remained obscure. 

Shoreview, Minnesota, is a city in Ramsey County with a population of about 26,000 as of 2021. It’s an 18-minute drive from the heart of Minneapolis. It was there, in a house on Turtle Lake, that Sheehy, the child of Richard and Denise Sheehy, grew up. Richard, according to LinkedIn, owned a financial services firm. He has one brother, Matt, with whom he later founded a cattle company along with other business partners.

According to property records, the four-bedroom house was built on an original 1930s homestead. As recently as 2016, when Sheehy donated to Gianforte’s first and ultimately failed run for governor, he listed the Shoreview house as his residence. In 2017 his parents sold the property for $2.2 million, according to Ramsey County property records. 

He grew up with access to boats and jet-skis, according to his parents’ Minnesota vehicle registration records, which MTFP obtained through government records database LexisNexis. The campaign said he spent much of his youth learning to fly with his neighbor, a Navy veteran named Harry.

“I had my first flight in a plane when I was 8 years old with my neighbor who was a former Navy pilot, and he lived on a lake with us and had a floatplane,” he said on a 2021 radio show. “So, actually, one of my very first flights was in a seaplane, and that cinched it for me that I knew aviation would be a part of my life going forward. And I actually soloed an airplane before I got my driver’s license.”

In 2004, Sheehy graduated from St. Paul Academy, a private preparatory day school where the annual tuition currently costs about $36,000.  

He enlisted as a Navy midshipman shortly after graduating. Sheehy’s campaign said he participated in several deployments and hundreds of missions while in the military. 

“During this, he sustained several injuries of varying degrees of severity, including concussions, bullet wounds (with one bullet still in his arm today), and shrapnel hitting his right leg and head. Sheehy sustained his final injury flying in a minisub during a training mission,” the campaign said. He left the Navy in 2014. 

By that time, his campaign said, he had already visited Montana multiple times as a child and while on training missions during his military service. In 2011, his wife, Carmen, a Marine, visited Montana, and they cemented a plan to move to the state, the campaign said. 

In 2014, Sheehy and a business partner founded Bridger Aerospace, the aerial firefighting company headquartered in Belgrade, near Bozeman. He was attracted to the area because of the natural beauty and the research assets of Montana State University, the campaign said.

Sheehy’s campaign said he and Carmen accessed startup capital for the company through their personal savings, a Veterans Administration loan, and investments from members of Sheehy’s family. Today, the vast majority of Bridger Aerospace’s income comes from federal contracts. 

One of Sheehy’s business partners, Sam Beck, developed an in-house camera and sensor technology at Bridger Aerospace. That technology was spun off into Sheehy’s second business, Ascent Vision Technologies, which produced “the first drone ever to be used on an active wildfire.” 

A firm called CACI International acquired the company for $350 million in 2020, providing a major windfall for Sheehy. Since 2020, FEC records show, Sheehy has donated tens of thousands of dollars, either directly or indirectly, to Montana Republicans. 

The success of the Sheehy businesses enabled the creation of the Sheehy Family Foundation, a “charitable investment organization” through which the Sheehys have donated significant sums to the Montana Historical Society, Bozeman Health, Billings Clinic and others. 

Today, Sheehy’s total net worth, buoyed by between $16 million and $44 million in dividends from investments, is between $74 million and $200 million, which would make him one of Congress’ wealthiest members if he is elected. Tester also is a millionaire through his agricultural holdings, with assets of between $1 million and $5 million. Gianforte, a fellow former Bozeman-area entrepreneur, was himself once Congress’ richest member. 

(The personal assets of federal lawmakers and candidates for federal offices are reported to Congress in broad ranges). 

Democrats in particular have sought to attack Sheehy’s lack of deep Montana roots, a well-worn campaign tactic it last employed in Tester’s defense in 2018, when the party branded challenger Matt Rosendale “Maryland Matt.” 

“Jon Tester has farm equipment that’s been in Montana longer than Tim Sheehy,” Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Montana Democratic Party, said when Sheehy launched his campaign.

Many of Montana’s statewide officials originally hail from elsewhere, including, to varying degrees and definitions, Gianforte, Daines, Rosendale, and State Auditor Troy Downing. And several, like Sheehy, emerged from the business sector of Gallatin County, where they became wealthy and connected to the state’s political network. 

Whether anything in Sheehy’s profile — his wealth, his relatively recent arrival in Montana — will hurt him on the campaign trail against the self-described dirt farmer Tester, born and raised in Montana, is an open question. What is known is that Sheehy is far from the first transplant to seek higher office in Montana. 

“[Democrats] trot it out for every cycle, whether they’re born and raised Montanans like Ryan Zinke who happen to have a house elsewhere to folks like Steve Daines who kind of has a complicated origin story to people like Sheehy and Rosendale who really have no connection to the state,” Kal Munis, a Montanan and Utah Valley University political scientist whose research interests include political activity in Montana, told MTFP when Sheehy launched his campaign. “They’ve kind of overplayed it. But then the other important bit [is] there are so many Montanans now that aren’t from Montana. And these messages don’t resonate with them.” 

Editor’s note, since this story was written, Rosendale has dropped out of his re-election to Congress.