In an off-year election with no statewide races and voter turnout widely predicted to be abysmal, an ambitious student voter registration drive combined with a record student voter turnout at the University of Montana likely made the difference in a least one City Council race.
On Tuesday night, Ward Three Alderman-elect John Torma thanked student organizers and volunteers from UM for their help at getting him elected. According to the Missoula County Election Office, Torma defeated challenger Chuck Gibson by only 190 votes. Statistics compiled by ASUM and the Montana Public Interest Research Group show that nearly 300 students voted in the all-student Precinct 52—a more than 30 percent turnout rate—most of whom voted for Torma.
“This is all about the youthful energy that was involved in this campaign. ...This is about you, not about us,” said Torma during a victory party at Missoula’s Union Club. Quoting former Missoula Mayor Dan Kemmis after his first election victory, Torma said, “You folks got me elected. Now don’t go away, because now is when I need you. This is you guys that are having your seat here on City Council. Your voice, your vote.”
UM students, who historically vote along progressive lines, voted for the living wage initiative by a 67 percent margin. Still, that high student turnout—accomplished by a voter registration drive that registered more voters than any Northwest university—was not enough to secure a victory. That grassroots campaign was defeated by a 448-vote margin. Supporters of the initiative were not easily dissuaded, however, calling the close margin a measure of Missoula’s concern over low wages.
“The issue of bringing economic development to this town that pays more than poverty wages is definitely going to be high on the list of priorities,” said Torma, a living wage advocate. “What form it takes, if it takes a living wage or some other form, I don’t know. ... But those members [of the City Council] who think economic development with poverty wages, that’s not economic development.”
In other City Council races, Ward One incumbent Lois Herbig successfully fended off a challenge by downtown tavern owner Kevin Head, and Ward Two Councilmember Jim McGrath handily defeated opponents Kandi Matthew-Jenkins and Tammy Zimmerman. In the closest race of the evening, former Missoula City Treasurer Edward Childers defeated challenger Naomi DeMarinis for the Ward Six seat by a margin of less than 60 votes.