Will Common Sense rule the day? Can the New Party survive?
Slingin' mud at City Hall
Conservatives raise $15,000 in fight to wrest control of council from progressive politicosElection years tend to exaggerate political differences, but ironically, the polarization this fall has the two groups involved in Missoula's City Council elections accusing each other of the same thing: trying to turn Missoula into a gated community, where only the wealthy can afford to live.
At stake, say members of the New Party and Citizens for Common Sense Government, is the future of Missoula and the quality of life that has established the Garden City as one of the fastest growing boom towns in the New West.
The city council's job appears straightforward from the newly-revised charter. It's when you get down to the details, that differences of interpretation arise.
Besides passing the budget and overseeing departments, the council is the city's "policy-making body" with the "authority to enact such ordinances and resolutions necessary for the protection and benefit of the people's health, welfare and security."
Just how to achieve these goals, however, remains up in the air. On the one side, there are the progressives, nearly uniformly affiliated with the New Party, a liberal caucus claiming as its goal to reinvigorate American politics by bridging environmental and working-class concerns.
On the other side, Citizens and a conclave of fiscal conservatives say they want to reduce government interference in development and ensure that Missoula continues to grow according something akin to a free-market model.
The face-off taking place has been brewing since the New Party had its local political ascension four years ago. In the last pair of elections, the Missoula City Council has increasingly come under the New Party's sway, with the election of Jim McGrath, Lois Herbig, Andy Sponseller and Linda Tracy, and with the selection of Craig Sweet as council president two years ago.
Sweet's campaign manager, Jim Parker, described the conflict at a press conference earlier this week, saying: "Our candidates are currently battling for the soul of Missoula. We must emphatically state that these city council seats are not for sale to the highest bidder."
In the meantime, many conservatives and old-time Democrats and Republicans alike, longtime players in city politics, have grown increasingly angry with the New Party's tactics and goals. They accuse the group of blocking both housing and business developments that could bring an economic boost.
And, this election season, these so-called Citizens for Common Sense would like nothing better than to rout their more liberal counterparts and create a development-friendly atmosphere in city hall.
What it comes down to -- beneath all the name-calling and the political disagreements -- is the philosophical question of how government fits into our civic lives. Citizens for Common Sense Government Treasurer Diane Beck puts forth the core of her group's philosophy succinctly.
"It's an issue of property rights versus government intrusion," she says. "It's a huge issue that goes right along with the right of people to choose what to do with the land they own."
This week, things heated up as the New Party went on the offensive with its message that outside developers are attempting to buy victories at the polls. On Monday, Sweet and Rattlesnake candidate Dave Harmon held a press conference to announce that they were filing a complaint with Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Ed Argenbright.
The core of the complaint is that Citizens has been coordinating its efforts with the individual candidates it supports: Carolyn Overman, Jamie Carpenter, Bob Luceno, Myrt Charney and Tracey Turek. If true, the tactic would be illegal under state election laws.
Sweet admits the evidence is circumstantial -- things like similarities in pamphlet and yard sign designs, and wording on fliers. But there's enough, he claims, for Argenbright to stop the Citizens' campaign. Citizens spokesperson Charlie Brown, however, dismisses the complaint as "baloney."
Legally, neither Citizens nor the New Party are allowed a connection to any of the individual campaigns; the state laws separating political contenders and like-minded committees are there to keep the committees' "soft money" from being funneled to the candidates. This is because committees can collect and spend as much as they want, while individual candidates are limited to accepting donations of $100 or less. These groups -- akin to PACs (political action committees) on the national level -- can only spend money to inform voters on the issues, giving no more than $100 worth of support to any single candidate.
This fact is complicated by the nature of the campaign, which unlike years past, was declared nonpartisan in 1995 through a voter referendum. Adding to the confusion is that Sweet, Tracy and Harmon are New Party members, so the committee must keep its distance and avoid giving more than $100 worth of financial or in-kind support.
Despite the systematic separation of candidates and groups, the contributor lists filed by the committees closely match those turned in by the candidates. Likewise, Citizens' agenda is parroted as the party line by the conservative candidates in the five contested races; New Party ideals come uniformly out of the mouths of the liberal candidates.
Those on both sides profess a strong desire to keep Missoula a good place to live, and they generally agree that "good" means a town where people from all income levels can afford to live, where the air is clean and the streets are navigable. And while everyone agrees that Missoula is at a crossroads, that it's time to choose a path, the New Party and Citizens are drawing up divergent maps for the future.
The warm rainy day which heralded the New Party's debut on the Missoula political scene wasn't all that long ago. That 1993 block party on the northwest side of town was more akin to a neighborhood barbecue than a political event. Local kids playing in rock bands provided the entertainment; hamburgers and potato salad abounded.
At the time, no party members held office in Missoula.
Four years later, with five New Party members on council, things are different. During a time when Missoula is experiencing an overwhelming influx of people, the debate weaves itself around the complex issue of growth management. Attend a few council meetings and you're guaranteed to see the polarization that has shaped this election's debates:
- Is the community better off with little government intrusion beyond providing the basic services and ensuring personal freedoms like property rights?
- Or can government take on an activist role by providing services that go well beyond the basics in an attempt to help people gain a higher standard and quality of living while creating a better, more healthy community to live in?
It's no secret, however, that these folks are currently in the minority.
The majority of council members use bold strokes to encourage sweeping changes. They ask detailed questions, often sending staffers scrambling for answers. These officials, including Craig Sweet, Andy Sponseller and Chris Gingerelli, are willing to use just about any means necessary to block proposals that they don't think will make Missoula a better place.
Case in point: Eagle Hardware. Last month, a developer stood before the city council and proposed building a 205,000-square-foot store and five other, as yet unspoken for, retail buildings on North Reserve Street.
But the council raised concerns that turned into conditions -- 27 in all -- that Eagle would have to meet in order to build. The conditions addressed worries about things like traffic flow and landscaping. Council delayed the store's opening until the North Reserve widening project is finished next fall, and tacked on a requirement for 25 bike racks.
Using words like "micromanagement" and "obstructionist," Brown says the conditions on Eagle are the tactics that some New Party members use to hide their no-growth agenda even while furthering it. "When you talk about someone like Eagle," he says, "which is one of the highest paying retailers in the Northwest, and you get confronted about bicycle racks, it's asinine."
But even non-New Party council members defend the city's actions. "It's the biggest store to ever come to Missoula, so of course it's going to get some extra attention," says council member Scott Morgan, who chairs the city's Plat, Annexation and Zoning Committee which reviewed the development.
"I don't think Eagle gave one big hoot how many bike racks were required." In fact, Eagle agreed to the bike rack requirement quickly and wanted to move on to bigger issues, says Morgan.
Morgan goes on to say that subdivision regulations are not well-defined, so every project that comes up requires a certain amount of haggling over the details. "When the regulations are rewritten, which we're in the process of doing right now, it will be much easier for developers to know what they are getting into ahead of time," he says.
Another source of contention between the groups is the proposed "delineated urban services area" -- or the DUSA, which would effectively draw a line around the city.
Supporters say the DUSA will enable officials to plan where to extend city services -- including sewer systems and water mains -- in an efficient manner. A possible beneficial side-effect, they say, is that the DUSA would encourage development close to town, where services would be provided by the city, and effectively discourage development outside the line -- and therefore sprawl -- because builders would have to pay those costs on their own.
Still, most Citizens' leaders are outraged by the idea; the simple law of supply and demand will drive up housing costs inside the DUSA, they say, eventually driving out Missoula's middle class with high property taxes.
"I challenge anyone to show me a DUSA in this country that works," Brown says, "I've looked at DUSA's from smaller cities like ours to metropolitan areas like Portland and have yet to see one where housing prices didn't escalate tremendously; the cost of doing business and the cost of living increases."
Those who leave, Brown says, will likely move to the Bitterroot in search of cheap land and affordable housing, punching in wells and septic tanks in the process, and magnifying traffic problems with increased commuter trips.
And so those things that the DUSA was meant to keep in check, namely urban sprawl and declining air and water quality, will only be exacerbated, Brown says.
New Party members admit that the DUSA is no automatic cure, but only one of several proposals to direct growth in such a way as to lessen impacts on air and water quality and reduce urban sprawl.
"Growth is going to happen. You don't try and stop it. You just try to direct it in the right direction," says Doug Campbell, "the New Party's wise, old sage," in the words of his cohorts. "Property values can't go up much further than they have in the last few years. All growth costs taxpayers money. But the farther out (subdivisions) go, the more it will cost to bring services."
At the core of the New Party's complaints about Citizens is that the group is a bunch of outsiders: Its leaders live outside the city limits and are trying to influence a campaign in which they can't even vote; its biggest contributors are from Billings and Spokane.
"These people want to buy, build and run," asserted New Party supporter Butch Turk at a press conference earlier this week. "They don't live in Missoula; they don't pay taxes here. We don't need these people running the city of Missoula."
But it's an accusation that Citizens organizers brush off. The group's president, Bob McCue, points out that his businesses -- which include a storage facility, and an investment and development company -- are affected by city policies.
"I'm right on the edge of the city," McCue says. "I use city services, and eventually I will be annexed into the city. There's an area out there beyond the line where the city stops where people are just as active and interested in what happens. We should be counted."
Indeed, a DUSA would have repercussions beyond the Missoula city line. And with overlap in authority between the city and county converging in the joint Office of Planning and Grants, and the City/County Health Department, it's not hard to see where McCue gets the idea that he has a right to a voice.
The coffers of both groups meanwhile provide a glimpse of the constituencies they see themselves as serving. And, to a degree, the numbers back up the New Party's claims. McCue's "small, grassroots group" -- his words -- amassed more than $10,000 by Oct. 18; with only $385 of that amount spent so far, the Citizens entered the campaign's final week with more than $9,900 at its disposal.
In a radio interview after the filing deadline, Brown told listeners the group had reached the $15,000-mark -- an amount unheard of in Missoula city politics. Half of the Citizens' reported money came in the form of $5,000 from Billings road contractor Joel T. Long. Another $500 was donated by a Spokane resident, Eagle Hardware builder Harlan Douglass.
While many of the contributors named in the Citizens report are simply listed as "business owners," the document also shows that at least 69 percent of the money came from people employed in the development and real estate businesses.
In defense of his committee, Brown points out that the vast majority of Citizens' contributors are from the Missoula area, and that most gave in modest amounts; of 40 donors, 30 chipped in $100 or less.
"The reason we want to bring this money into the campaign is to identify the issues that will be affecting Missoula for good or ill," Brown says. "Whether you live outside town in Miller Creek or downtown on South Eighth, you know you're going to be impacted."
The New Party, by contrast, brought in just over $7,800 this year, spent nearly $6,600 of membership dues, travel, office costs, and the like, counting $1,289 in its bank account as election day nears. The party's national office sent its Missoula chapter a grand total of $133 this year -- a membership dues rebate.
In the New Party's corner, the biggest contributors are University of Montana professor and New Party treasurer Bill Chaloupka at $316.40, Fact & Fiction bookstore employee John Fletcher at $315, Margaret Kingsland, former director of the Montana Committee for the Humanities, at $240, and writer Dan Baum at $236. Of 66 donors comprising the New Party's list of contributors, 53 gave $100 or less.
While the New Party leaders paint their opponents with the green brush of capitalist opportunism, the Citizens characterize New Party members in shades of red.
Charlie Brown warms up the crowd gathered at the Linda Vista golf course in early October like an evangelical preacher's opening act for a small-town revival.
Many of those here were notified via a flier inviting them to the Citizens for Common Sense Government fundraiser that reads: "Members are a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Some are not allied with any political group. All are seeking to expose the NEW PARTY to the voting public for who and what they are so the voters can make an informed choice at the ballot box."
Microphone in hand, Brown uses the phrase "common sense" repeatedly, to explain what his group is, and what the New Party is not. Reading from a draft of Missoula New Party Principles, Brown questions the group's commitment to democracy. "'Businesses respecting our communities' need for clean air and water, living wages, affordable housing, affordable and accessible health care and childcare should be rewarded with economic benefits.
"'Those who do not have that respect should pay fairly to offset the negative economic impact they impose on our community, if'" Brown pauses dramatically, "'they are allowed to operate at all.'
"That does not sound like democratic principles at all," he tells the crowd.
New Party members call this "Red-baiting," harking back to the days when Sen. Joe McCarthy ruined lives and careers by calling people Communists. But in a longer interview over tea a week later, Brown explains his statements, and points out that the New Party has not been immune itself to the tendency to divisive speech-making.
Brown, when pushed, tempers the rhetoric he displayed for the Linda Vista crowd. "Philosophically, the leadership of the New Party is espousing antagonism and I don't think it's good for Missoula. People have to respect each other for where they are coming from, not rip each other apart in meetings.
"Some New Party people do good things. [Jim] McGrath is very sincere and has worked hard on the issue of affordable housing. That's a good example. Although I disagree with him vehemently on other issues, I've never seen him belittle anyone in city council meetings."
Citizens' President McCue, meanwhile, hammers at the idea that it is his group that is local, and that the New Party is con-trolled by outsiders. "We're just a grassroots, Missoula, Mont., group trying to get started. The New Party is a national organization and they're getting support from the national group," he says.
But Ren Essene, the coordinator of the Missoula New Party, counters that her group is the true grassroots organization in this campaign. Essene is upfront about her discomfort with the Citizens' claim of grassroots support. The New Party, she says, has a long range vision and a platform supporting progressive issues like a clean environment and a sustainable economy.
"We want to give a voice to neighborhoods and to citizens. We want to give citizens a way back into government."
Essene scoffs as well at the notion that the New Party is somehow against affordable housing or development altogether. "We're for doing good development that is good for the community," she says. As an example, Essene points -- like Brown -- to McGrath's work on a report outlining ways of creating more affordable housing recently submitted to the council for review.
And then Essene indicates herself as yet another example of the New Party's commitment to "good development." In addition to her duties with the New Party, Essene is also the housing director with Women's Opportunity and Resource Development Inc. WORD uses a
a variety of strategies -- including the use of alternative materials -- to create affordable housing aimed at Missoula's lowest income households, she says.
"New Party folks are really the ones to make recommendations on affordable housing," she says.
Doug Campbell adds that he is baffled why his group is attracting such strong feelings of contempt in this election. "New Party people are not from outer space. They're progressive Democrats who have become disillusioned with the way things have been going. I don't know why these people are so upset about us. I just don't get it.
"We've never backed anybody but progressive Democrats."
What is comes down to, Campbell says, is a revolution of democracy, from the bottom up. "That national Democratic Party has not been representing the people as they used to. Both of the parties are captives of special interests as far as I can see. Corporations and mining companies give money to both candidates, hedging their bets.
"Why is the New Party a threat? I guess because we're seen as a little different. Progressives always have an uphill battle because most think things could be done a little different and a little better. Everything is against starting up a third party. But the New Party is here to stay."
New Party media coordinator Jeff Smith led a crowd chant of "City hall is not for sale" at a press conference the morning after the Citizens' fundraiser.
Artie Dorris, Chuck Sterling and Pat McCarthy listen to Citizens for Common Sense Government President Bob McCue make a pitch for money at a fundraiser in early October at the Linda Vista Golf Course.
Citizens President Bob McCue explains to supporters that organizers are donating their time so that money contributed to the group will go directly to fund their campaign.
Related Story: 'NEW PARTY' JOLTS POLITICS OF THE OLD WEST (Christian Science Monitor)