Some of the more cynical observers of public life will tell you that, in recent years, politics has disintegrated into little more than a popularity contest—that when two citizens announce that they want to dedicate themselves to public service, it’s not the best candidate who wins but the nicest, or the prettiest, or the one with the most winsome smile. Others will tell you that politics has given way to commerce—that office-seekers sell themselves to us like candy bars or frozen dinners, and newspapers simply endorse candidates in the same way that celebrities endorse products. But we like to think otherwise.
Make no mistake: We’ll be the first to tell you that our political system is in desperate need of reform. There is too much money clogging the process of democracy. It is hard to tell candidates apart when they all tailor their message to suit the same poll results. And it’s nothing short of demoralizing when more people in Montana tune into a popular game show than turn out to vote. But those troubles don’t make the decisions before us any less important. What follows are three pages of endorsements and analysis to help you get a grasp on the issues and candidates that you’ll face when you step into the voting booth on Tuesday. Our suggestions and insights, we think, are well-reasoned, but we won’t take it personally if you disagree with us. What counts most is that you read, and think, and above all, vote. It’s your Montana.
Time for a Change: Brian Schweitzer for U.S. Senate
Assuming that you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who would rather extract your own kidneys with a melon baller than vote for a Democrat, one has to wonder how any Montanan in good conscience can cast a vote for incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns. Ignoring for the moment his propensity for insensitive and thoughtless vowel movements that not only embarrass himself but the entire state of Montana, Burns has a remarkable ability to demonstrate just how out of touch he is with the issues that concern Montanans. On the environment, Burns’ voting record in the Senate earned him a zero by the League of Conservation Voters. On prescription drug prices, Burns has consistently sided with the large pharmaceutical firms that are bankrolling his campaign. And don’t even get us started on how Burns sided with Big Business to support limiting the civil damages of those in Libby suing W.R. Grace for their asbestos-related illnesses.
In stark contrast, Brian Schweitzer offers a breath of fresh air to an office that for 12 years has been for sale to the highest bidder. Schweitzer is young, intelligent, energetic, easily approachable and is yet not beholden to large corporate interests. In 18 months Schweitzer put the issue of prescription drug prices on the national radar screen and went from single-digit name recognition to make this race a dead heat. While some newspapers have screeched about Schweitzer’s so-called “demonizing” of the business community, Schweitzer is clearly delivering the message that real Montanans want to hear. We look forward to seeing him serve in the U.S. Senate.
Construction, Not Stonewalling: No on the Stadium Referendum
Missoula voters should support the civic stadium project by voting against the local referendum to revoke the city’s support for it. The referendum is a lame attempt to impede construction of the stadium near downtown.
The referendum seeks to reverse a City Council decision to pledge $1 million from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to buy land for the stadium, build a parking lot, and add a few other amenities to the site, like bicycle trails. The actual stadium construction will be financed with $7 million from Play Ball Missoula, a private organization.
The opposition group that’s keeping this issue alive, Play Fair Missoula, really wants to stop the stadium from being built at the former Champion mill site near the downtown area. Despite the clear advantages of a central location—like the benefit to downtown businesses, the easy access for residents, and the development of what is currently a blighted parcel of industrial wasteland in the middle of town—Play Fair wants the stadium to be relocated.
The supporters of the stadium and the city government went through a lengthy public process before finally deciding on the Champion site, and it was chosen for good reasons. The project shouldn’t be stopped just because a few people aren’t getting their own way.
Support the stadium project by voting against the referendum, and while you’re at it, give a big raspberry to the people behind Play Fair Missoula. They’re obstructionists.
A Smart Person for Smart Growth: Jean Curtiss for Missoula County Commissioner
It’s ironic that the races most likely to have a direct impact on our quality of life are often the ones most overlooked by voters. Such is the case this year with the contest for the Missoula County commissioner seat currently held by Democrat Michael Kennedy, which has been overshadowed in the media by more high-profile (and higher-dollar) statewide races. And yet, with the other two seats on the County Commission held by Democrat Bill Carey and Republican Barbara Evans, this election presents the real possibility of a shift in the balance of power in Missoula County.
Clearly, both candidates can speak in general terms of their commitment to improving the quality of life in Missoula County and promoting economic development. However, we believe that Jean Curtiss offers the superior choice for this office. When Curtiss discusses “restoring responsible fiscal management” to Missoula County, she cites specific plans and ideas, and demonstrates her understanding of the workings of county government. At various candidates’ forums, Curtiss has shown that she has done her homework, whether she’s discussing growth management, county services or city annexation. We were particularly impressed with Curtiss’ performance during a candidates’ forum in May, during which she explained at length her understanding of the principles of smart growth and creating livable communities. More so than her opponent, Curtiss seems knowledgeable and open-minded on issues like affordable housing, livable wages, clean air and water, and alternative transportation. Although some have criticized her lack of government experience, we believe that Curtiss’ intelligence and strong work ethic will more than compensate for any shortcomings in this area, and we fully endorse her for this office.
Keep Wildlife Wild: Yes on Restricting Game Farms Montana has gained a reputation in recent years as the state that kills wild bison for escaping the confines of Yellowstone National Park, and yet at that same time allows wild game to be held captive by private landowners. A vote for I-143 would correct at least one of those problems.
I-143 would prohibit new game farms, end the fees for “canned hunts” and ban the transfer of licenses for existing game farms, ostensibly phasing out Montana’s captive game industry.
Game farms pose a danger to public health, livestock and our wild, free-ranging herd of elk, deer, bear and other big game. Last year, for the first time, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was found in game farm elk in Montana. CWD is related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease,” and may be linked to another variant of the disease found in humans.
Opponents of I-143 claim that double-fencing keeps domesticated game in and wild game out. But fences are easily compromised. Consider last summer’s fires and the damage they did to fences in the Bitterroot Valley. The fear that captive animals will escape to spread disease or genetically pollute the wild herd is real, and isn’t alleviated by a double-fencing requirement that isn’t enforced very vigorously by the state.
That’s the science behind the argument for I-143. There’s also another argument that critics claim is based on emotion: Game farms make a mockery of Montana’s hunting tradition. Killing a captive, ear-tagged elk and calling it hunting is simply unethical, and is an insult to all those who follow the time-honored concept of fair chase.
I-143 is endorsed by Montana sporting organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Wildlife Federation and the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. It deserves the support of all Montanans.
Earning Your Trust: Mark O’Keefe for Governor
Twenty years ago, Mark O’Keefe said he wanted to be governor—and in a few days he may realize that dream. Will he be a great governor? Who knows? Just look at Racicot—he had everything going for him, but in the end, he failed to deliver for Montana. One thing is certain, between Judy Martz and Mark O’Keefe, there is simply no question of who is better prepared to lead this state.
In the private sector, O’Keefe started a small business which grew to employ 73 people. He went to work for state government, became a division administrator, and learned to supervise public employees. After winning a seat in the Legislature, he served two terms and reviewed, debated, and voted on nearly 4,000 bills covering every facet of what it takes to keep this state running—from natural resource policy to the complex appropriations for state agencies, K-12 education and the university system. Years before Judy Martz would spend her time as lieutenant governor giving ice-skating speeches to high school students, Mark O’Keefe was debating and voting on issues critical to the state’s future.
As state auditor, O’Keefe has served eight years as our chief consumer protection advocate. On the Land Board, he has always stood up for the sportsmen and -women, for public access to hunting and fishing, and for long-term protection of the 5.2 million acres of state lands we hold in trust for future generations.
After these long years of experience and commitment, he deserves this chance to realize his dream and become governor. If there is a downside, it’s that no matter how good a governor he may become, critics will always say that he bought the election. But he didn’t—he earned it.
Beyond Death and Taxes: No on Repealing the Inheritance Tax
Voters should oppose Legislative Referendum 116 to repeal Montana’s inheritance tax. Proponents of repealing the tax argue that it’s a burden for family-owned farms and small businesses, forcing heirs to subdivide or sell. Nonsense. The Montana inheritance tax exempts spouses and lineal descendents, so the only people who end up paying it are those who inherit wealth from others with whom they’re not directly related. It adds up to $12 million annually for the state. That’s $12 million the state will need to get from everybody else if the inheritance tax is repealed.
The recent interest at both the state and federal level to repeal so-called “death taxes” has little to do with fairness. It’s really about preserving the wealth of the extremely rich for their heirs. And the people who are affected most are the ones who are best able to avoid the taxes with a little advance planning. If you don’t want your heirs to be burdened with inheritance taxes, get some life insurance.
Proven Integrity: Ruth Thorning for Ravalli County Commissioner
Before we endorse Ruth Thorning for Ravalli County Commissioner, we must point out in the interest of full disclosure that Thorning covered the Bitterroot Valley for this newspaper for nearly a year.
It is precisely her experience covering people and politics in Ravalli County that makes Thorning, a Democrat, uniquely qualified to sit on the County Commission board.
The battle for the south valley commission seat has been marked by an extraordinary event, even by the already strange standards of Montana politics. The sitting board has accused the Republican commission candidate, Betty Lund, of official misconduct while serving as Ravalli County’s elected Clerk and Recorder, her current post.
The board has asked the state Department of Justice to investigate its claims that Lund has withheld public documents and altered official minutes of a county meeting, among other serious allegations.
Though Thorning’s candidacy has been largely eclipsed by all the charges directed against her opponent, she has managed to stay above the fray.
While her opponent has spent her time fighting and denying the charges against her—and not doing a very good job of it—Thorning has been studying Ravalli County’s numerous challenges, from airport expansion to weed control, and has emerged as an honest candidate with a reporter’s passion for open government.
It’s not as if Thorning needs much of a crash course in local politics, however. Indeed, as a 20-year Bitterroot Valley reporter, Thorning is already well-versed in Ravalli County and its particular needs. Her particular inside-the-courthouse knowledge combined with her distance from the current Battle of the Courthouse make Thorning the best candidate for the job.
You Asked For It: Yes on the Library Levy
Some would say that, this spring, Missoula was presented with a test, and we failed it. Faced with a small levy that would have helped fund Missoula County’s art and historical museums, we had to come to a reckoning: Were we, in fact, the small but proud cosmopolitan town that we thought we were? Could we boost culture in the same way that we boosted trout, trees and tourism? Our answer, it turns out, was no. But Bette Ammon of the Missoula Public Library reminds us that last spring’s levy for art is not quite the same as this fall’s levy for literature.
“The museums were really looking for survival money,” she says. “For us, this is the culmination of two years of long-range planning.” Unlike the museum levy, she notes, the library levy on Tuesday’s ballot is there at the request of Missoula’s own citizens. “For two years, we met with 600 people throughout the county, and what people told us time and again is, we really like the library but we want more—more books, more books on tape, more and faster Internet access, more hours.”
In order to meet those goals, a 3.5-mil levy for just five years has been proposed for the Garden City’s literary benefit. For the owner of a home worth $100,000, that amounts to just $12.69 each year—far less, supporters point out, than the cost of the latest Harry Potter book.
To the library, though, that money will allow them not to get ahead, but to simply break even. Among Montana’s seven largest libraries—including those in Billings, Butte and Bozeman—the Missoula Public Library has the most borrowers and the highest circulation, and yet it suffers from the lowest income per capita. The central building on Main Street has not been refurbished in 26 years. And as Ammon points out, the Missoula library's book budget is only a third of that in similarly sized libraries in other cities.
Look at it this way: It's your last chance to re-take that test you failed this spring. And besides, you asked for it in the first place.