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Split right

Subtle power shift evident in B’root Valley politics

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As the West goes, so—perhaps—goes Ravalli County.

Only a week into the formal 2002 election season, the ballot in conservative Ravalli County is looking crowded—with Republican candidates, that is.

Though the ballot is tilting heavily to the right, it’s too early to rule out Democratic challengers, says the chairman of Ravalli County’s Democratic Central Committee.

Republicans, who control the county commission, all five legislative seats, the sheriff’s office and every county position other than county attorney and treasurer, aren’t taking this election lightly. Moreover, the Republican party, strong and confident in the Bitterroot in recent years, may be going through a subtle power shift, though opinions differ as to whether it’s significant enough to make a political difference.

The Democrats, who have nowhere to go but up, look fairly cohesive going in to the election year. The Democratic Party was seriously wounded in 2000, both statewide and in the Bitterroot, where a “D” following a candidate’s name has been a liability since at least the 1994 mid-term election.

But Democratic leaders insist that party faithful have had two years to lick their wounds and are looking to November to redress their grievances, notably on energy deregulation and decreased funding for education. What they’re lacking so far are candidates and a clear message that resonates with voters.

As of last week, the ballot was crowded with Republican office-seekers, five for sheriff alone. Two Republicans have filed for county commissioner, and two others for the state senate seat left vacant by the untimely death last year of state senator Dale Berry.

Additionally, at least two House seats are up for grabs in Ravalli County. Rep. Rick Laible and Rep. Allan Walters, both incumbent Republican legislators, are giving up their House seats in the southern Bitterroot Valley to run for Berry’s Senate seat. Republican candidate and political newcomer Bob Lake has filed for one of those vacant House seats, and at least one Republican candidate has hinted at filing for the other.

So many open seats may represent the party’s one vulnerability, says Ron Heppner, chairman of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee.

Still, the party may be vulnerable in another way. The party may be fracturing, with conservative Christian Republicans splitting from the party’s more moderate wing. Jay Klawon, a Hamilton stockbroker and treasurer for Judy Martz’s gubernatorial campaign, says the Republican Party has split into two camps: the moderates on one side and the religious conservatives, led by Stevensville’s Dallas Erickson, on the other.

Erickson has made rooting out obscenity a personal crusade in recent years, with mixed success. Now a Republican precinct committeeman, Erickson has brought other conservative Republicans under his wing.

Klawon calls Erickson and his devotees “Taliban Republicans” for, as he puts it, trying to tell everyone else how to live.

Heppner disagrees. “Jay [Klawon] has been away from the central committee since April. Obviously, he’s entitled to his opinion like everybody else is. From my position I have not seen any weakening or real division within the party.”

“There’s definitely a split, but it’s not like I’m going around organizing people,” admits Erickson. “It’s not like someone’s leading the effort. It’s a concern about where the party is heading and to bring it back to where it was.”

Erickson agrees that Bitterroot Republicans have split over certain moral questions unacceptable to the conservative majority. “There’s an attempt nationally to get the party to accept homosexuality, to accept abortion,” he says, “and I think it’s [also] happening right here at the grassroots level.”

On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats, with only incumbent County Attorney George Corn up for reelection, say they have no time to waste on internal squabbles.

Democratic Central Committee Chairman Marty Essen sounds upbeat when he says only one minor argument has surfaced in the party: his party’s position on guns. In an effort to perhaps shed their anti-gun image some Democratic central committees in Montana have sponsored gun raffles.

“The National Rifle Association makes it sound like every Democrat is anti-gun and that’s something that’s absolutely not true, but people believe that,” Essen says. The gun raffle “was a way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re not anti-gun.’” But some Ravalli County Democrats, Essen included, believe it was irresponsible to hand out a gun to a potential stranger and voted down the idea. With their biggest internal battle fought, the Democrats are free to begin fielding the candidates who are waiting in the wings, Essen says.

“The perception that we’re not going to field candidates isn’t correct,” Essen says. “Just because we didn’t file candidates in the first week doesn’t mean we’re not going to file at all. I don’t think we’re as inactive as you think we are.”

He does agree, however, that unlike Republicans, Bitterroot Valley Democrats aren’t as involved in party politics. Instead, you find left-leaning citizens filling the ranks of activist groups like the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance, the League of Women Voters, Bitterrooters for Planning, Friends of the Bitterroot, and the like.

This time around, Democratic candidates will focus on a myriad of issues, including, he says, the disastrous Republican policies that led to energy deregulation.

In fact, says Essen, the Democrats will push a lengthy list of values that most Montanans can get behind: more money for education, protecting the environment, health insurance for low-income kids, working for small Montana businesses, and finding solutions to the problems of deregulation.

Still, Essen acknowledges that winning the political battle is a tough job in a conservative county in a conservative state and region, saying, “It’s an uphill battle in Montana.”

Or as Klawon puts it: “You’ve got to really screw up in this county to not get elected as a Republican.”

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