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Missoula pols leave the parties behind

Next week's primary election puts new ballot policy to the test

Voters going to the polls next Tuesday won't have party affiliations to rely upon when casting their ballots, and some observers say Missoula's New Party hopefuls will benefit the most from the new policy.

Last summer, in an attempt to rid city politics of divisive partisanship, Missoula voters approved a provision of the city's new charter banning party affiliations from election ballots. And on Tuesday's primary, the new measure will be put to the test as seven candidates in two wards vie for slots in the general election. The top two vote-getters in each ward will join candidates for four other wards and the mayor's position in the November race.

Officials from the local branches of the Republican and Democratic parties say they are struggling to redefine their respective roles in this brave, new nonpartisan world. New Party members, however, champion the new policy, saying that the level playing field created by nonpartisanship is nothing less than the revitalization of democracy.

The new measure has put some pressure on Missoula County Attorney Robert "Dusty" Deschamps, who is charged with making sure county elections comply with state law. Already Deschamps has been called upon to interpret one state statute over whether nonpartisan candidates can use party affiliations and endorsements in their advertisements and campaign material.

"It sure sounds good at first blush," Deschamps says. On the surface, it means that voters might cast their ballots based on people and issues rather than parties, he says. Judicial elections are nonpartisan, he adds, because judges are supposed to be above politics.

Not so for political candidates. Barbara Berens, the chair of the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee, points out that politics is about having ideas that people can agree with or eschew.

One of the most efficient ways for candidates to communicate their politics to the public at large, she says, is by listing party designations on the ballot. There are few channels for mayoral and city council candidates to get their messages out as it is, Berens says, and eliminating party designations has made it that much harder. Further, she believes it's simply not possible to achieve the sort of dispassionate ideal that advocates of nonpartisan elections strive for.

"Somehow to me having a nonpartisan election doesn't remove partisanship from the process. People are partisan," says Berens. "I think that it will reduce voter turnout. Maybe not in this election, but over time."

But Jeffrey Smith, media coordinator for Missoula's New Party, sees the nonpartisan ballot as "a restoring of democracy on a very fundamental level." He says he believes that the nonpartisan ballot will cut down on bickering and the "unceasing negativity" of past elections, while forcing candidates to address the issues "in very specific and concrete ways."

Also, he says, people will be forced to invest time finding out what the issues are and where the candidates stand.

The New Party's enthusiasm for nonpartisan ballots is understandable if you buy some people's contention that the progressive third party will benefit the most. According to Republican chair Dick Motta, the removal of party labels will make it easier for third party candidates who might otherwise lose votes to the Democrats or Republicans. This is not entirely a good thing, Motta says.

"I think it will make it harder for some people to know where candidates stand," says Motta. He also believes it will give political action committees greater influence in elections.

Motta says his party is still working out strategies for competing within the new system. "I don't think we understand yet how to run a nonpartisan campaign," he says.

Unlike the other two parties, the Republicans have decided not to endorse anyone -- at least until the primary race ends. "We'll try to at least honor the spirit of the race," Motta explains.

The role of political parties in a nonpartisan election becomes a little dicey, particularly when it comes to endorsements. According to Deschamps, candidates can seek the help and endorsement of parties, but they can't display any party affiliation on their campaign literature or announce it in speeches.

The New Party, according to Smith, sees its role as donating time and money. While the group isn't using the word "endorse," according to its July newsletter, the party is "encouraging members to support -- by contributing money and time -- candidates in Wards One, Two, and Six."

Berens says the Democratic Central Committee voted in July to endorse certain candidates, and that the party plans on publicizing those endorsements as much as possible. The vote to endorse came after much internal debate, she says. While the Dems were aware making endorsements would open the party up to criticism, Berens points out that formally supporting candidates in this way is a free-speech right.

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