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Are Bitterroot conservatives wearing sheep's clothing?

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Prior to the 2012 election filing deadline, in March, an ad from the Ravalli County Democratic Central Committee popped up in Bitterroot newspapers. It featured a rendering of Uncle Sam, the ominous words "Tick Tock..." and a request: Run for office.

Jan Wisniewski did just that. He filed as a Democrat for House District 87 against Republican incumbent Pat Connell. He also filed for a position as a precinct captain with the Ravalli County Democratic Central Committee. Now he's under fire.

"I've been called a libertarian, I've been called a DINO [Democrat In Name Only]...I was called a Tea Partier, a right-wing conservative–they've called me everything but a Democrat," Wisniewski says. "That's what I am. I've voted Democrat more times in my life than I have Libertarian."

Wisniewski is one of seven local candidates now accused of being Republicans disguised as Democrats on the Bitterroot's ballot. The evidence against some is fairly strong; for example, Donna Gibney, who filed for a position as a Democratic precinct captain, has written editorials in local media sounding off on conservative issues. Others seem to have appeared out of nowhere.

"These folks were ones we'd never heard of before, never seen at any Democrat meetings or events," says Ravalli County Democratic Committee Chair John Meakin. "In fact, we knew several of them who had participated at events for the extreme right. In other words, in our opinion they were not and are not Democrats."

Meakin adds he doesn't believe Wisniewski and the others were responding to the committee's ad. The phone number listed in the papers was his. He never received any inquiries, he says.

The DINO problem is a new one for Ravalli County, but Republicans elsewhere have played a similar game. Earlier this month, news broke that six candidates in various recall elections in Wisconsin are actually GOP operatives picked to force Democratic incumbents into costly primaries. Republican leaders used the same tactic there in 2011. Wisconsin election attorney Jeremy Levinson, who issued a legal opinion on the matter last week, believes the operatives have committed felony election fraud.

Wisconsin's Republican Party publicly acknowledged the tactic. Democrats in Ravalli County are still speaking out largely on speculation. And even if their suspicions about DINOs are true, there's little the committee can do to prove it. The Montana Democratic Party's bylaws clearly state that "no test of membership in, nor any oath of loyalty to the Democratic Party of Montana shall be required" from its members. Candidates are taken at their word.

"If they are real Democrats, they cannot have avoided that their names have appeared in newspapers and that there's a concern over this," Meakin says. "I would expect if they really are [Democrats], they'll come forward. Since March 12, none of them have contacted any of us on the Central Committee."

Wisniewski, who currently serves as Ravalli County's planning board chairman, says he filed for HD 87 because he feels Rep. Connell isn't "good on personal property rights." Wisniewski says Connell also bungled "that weed bill he voted for," meaning the state's hotly contested medical marijuana reform. He doesn't believe the government has any business interfering with medical marijuana. "When I get elected, everything I'm going to judge will be judged with the Constitution and people's rights."

As for the bid for precinct captain, Wisniewski says he aims to change how the Democratic Party in the Bitterroot does business. He accuses the Central Committee of masking the locations of its meetings, of not operating in a transparent manner. "They're pretty much a secretive society. They've been commandeered by a handful of what I would call Marxist people, and I don't believe they represent the Democrats in this county."

The Ravalli County Democratic Central Committee's meeting dates and times are regularly posted on the Montana Democratic Party website. Locations aren't listed, but the contact numbers for Meakin and Vice Chair Corrine Gant are. Wisniewski says he's never contacted Meakin or Gant for details regarding committee meetings.

The committee's doubts about several supposed DINOs are founded on ties to right wing activity. Meakin says Democrats have seen folks like Wisniewski participating in conservative events, particularly meetings of the now-defunct Hamilton group Celebrating Conservatism (Wisniewski counters that he's seen active Democrats such as Bill LaCroix at those same meetings). The most compelling evidence yet is the presence of three of the candidates' signatures on an online Freedom and Liberty Tea Party petition demanding a recall of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. The signatures belong to Gibney, precinct captain candidate Pamela Nearpass and Democratic county commission candidate Wayne Dunkin.

The position of precinct captain may not sound as weighty as commissioner or legislator, but Meakin contends there's serious cause for concern. Next year, those captains will be responsible for appointing a new party chair and vice chair in Ravalli County. They'll also be expected to support Democratic candidates, to show up at party functions and to "be the backbone of the Central Committee."

"We're going to do everything we can to see that they are not seated or elected," Meakin says of the seven suspected DINOs. If any do make it to the committee, he adds, the party will "minimize exposure to things that could damage us—access to funds, strategy sessions with specific candidates, that kind of thing."

The candidates could be conservatives simply making mischief, Meakin says. They could be attempting to distract local Democratic resources from bigger statewide races. Or, as Wisniewski claims, they could just be answering an ad in a newspaper.

"It's supposed to be a free country, isn't it?" Wisniewski says. "There was nothing illegal, unethical or immoral about what I did. They put an ad in the paper for Democrat positions."

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