Donkey business



The Party's Over

Democrats search for an olive branch as New Partiers face off with the Old Guard

"She's scum." Craig Sweet practically spat those words at me across the table at the Union Hall on Tuesday, June 8, as Democrats lined up elbow-to-elbow to watch the primary election returns. The words surprised me-after all, Sweet was talking about a fellow Democrat, Vicki Cocchiarella, who was on the verge of claiming her race for the state Senate.

Up until then, we'd been having a friendly conversation about the weather and the landscaping business by which Sweet, a former city council president, makes his living. He had just dropped by the bar after a day of digging in the dirt to congratulate his fellow Democrats on their successful primary campaigns for the legislature.

But as soon as I asked him about Cocchiarella, his tone turned surprisingly hostile. The House minority leader earned Sweet's ire-and angered many of Missoula's progressive New Party members-by campaigning for a pair of newcomers making their first bid for state office.

This spring, Cocchiarella turned her Livingston Avenue house into a headquarters for John Parker and Valerie Thresher, a couple of University of Montana law students.

This pair ran against candidates who, like Cocchiarella's own challenger, happened to be members of Missoula's New Party. Thresher and Parker were defeated by Gail Gutsche, a women's rights activist with a strong environmental record, and open space guru Ron Erickson.

These races underscore the mounting tensions which increasingly surround Democratic politics in Missoula and across the Big Sky between the party's old guard and liberal New Party members. The situation's been exacerbated as progressives on Missoula City Council have taken the lead to place controls on growth and speak up for environmental concerns while also working to control housing costs and raise wages in the Garden City.

Such moves contrast strongly with anti-regulatory voices across the state, including the ongoing domination of the legislature by conservative voices, the loss of Montana's lone U.S. House seat to Republican Rick Hill, and Gov. Marc Racicot's teflon tenure in Helena.

To Sweet, the revitalization of local Dems by the New Party should have been embraced by those such as Cocchiarella, who have viewed the progressives with suspicion-if not downright hostility. "I just found it completely inappropriate that a Democratic leader would take sides like that," Sweet explained a couple of days after election night.

Affiliated with the progressive national group of the same name, Missoula's New Party is registered with the state as a political action committee. Six of its members have won seats on Missoula's city council since 1993 (though Sweet himself was bumped in the last go'round), and somewhere between one-third and half of the Democrat's 140-odd precinct members either belong to the group or share its political sympathies.

With Erickson and Gutsche coming out on top in the June primary, the New Party won two of three legislative races. Bryony Schwan, Cocchiarella's challenger, was defeated. Democrats will likely send all three victors to Helena in January, where they will have to figure out how to work together.

Rather than embrace the progressive wing's success, many old time Democrats have reacted negatively. Cocchiarella was not the only one to aid and abet the law school wannabes. They also gained support from Senate Minority Leader Mike Halligan. Most of these so-called traditionalists express concern for the party's future, fearing that Democrats will begin losing races if divisions aren't healed.

A few Dems say they feel betrayed and used by what they see as a undercover effort at legitimacy by New Party members functioning within the Democratic Party structure. More conservative voices resort to outright red-baiting. And those who say the New Party needs to either merge with the Democrats or strike out on its own include some of Missoula's most prominent left-wingers: Mayor Mike Kadas, former mayor Dan Kemmis, Halligan, Cocchiarella and others.

"Progressives have a place in the Democratic Party," says Kadas. "But if the New Party is truly a party, then it doesn't have a place. And if the New Party went on its way as a party, it wouldn't survive. I think they understand this. The strategy is to attach themselves to the Democrats and peel off progressives.

"Ultimately, it means you start losing races. We don't have so much strength that we can have Democrats going off in two different directions."

New Party members counter that they've brought energy to Missoula politics. Theirs is a movement that attracts and generates enthusiasm and energy for electoral politics like none other in recent memory.

"We are gaining strength and appeal, particularly among young people," says Doug Campbell, an 82-year old life-long Democrat referred to by some as the "wise old sage" of the New Party. "We make people think about what's going on in this country, instead of just blindly following whatever the parties say. Whether it's local politics or national, the issues need to be discussed."

Kadas makes a similar concession: "If the Democratic Party was doing the organizational types of things the New Party does, we'd be going gangbusters. Are we willing to learn? Yes, but there's going to be people who don't like it-'Oh, it's a takeover from the left.'

"The vast majority of Democrats," Kadas concludes, "are looking for new energy and enthusiasm."

The current, local Democratic rift has deepened to the point at which many compare it to the Vietnam-era division between hawks and doves. Former allies find themselves arguing bitterly at party meetings and public debates. Elected officials and long-time activists accuse each other of sabotage and subterfuge, while both sides claim the party's legacy.

Most New Party members interviewed say the controversy is a healthy one, good for civic life. One of these is Barbara Berens, chair of the Democrats, who tried to walk the thin line separating the factions before throwing in with the New Party last month. Now she says, "I like to think it has, in some ways, been revitalizing. The [Democratic] central committee meetings are fairly well attended these days, the meetings are lively. We've got a lot of people talking, interested in what the central committee does."

But others are not so sure. Kemmis, a man known for his coalition-building talents and respected nationally for his writings on civic life, says he is deeply concerned for the future of democracy in the Missoula Valley.

"It's a situation fraught with some danger for progressive politics in Missoula," he says, "because if there were to be a deepening, lengthening split between New Party and non-New Party, then progressive causes of every kind will suffer."

Kemmis adds that the New Party's greatest contribution to local politics-a willingness to do growth management planning-is too precious to abandon over political differences. He points to a conservative PAC that emerged during last fall's city council elections as proof of the dangers. "There are political forces in the county, represented by Citizens for Common Sense Government, who seem committed to making sure the community does not tackle growth.

"It's an issue of such central and vital concern, those who understand its importance have got to work together or we'll have regression. The result will be the undermining of the quality of life in the valley."

Set the clock back to August 1993 and head on down to city hall on Monday night to find the seeds for the current debate. City council members have just approved the annual budget and planning advocates have good reason to be disappointed.

Under the "Al Sampson regime"-the former Democratic council president Sampson's own tongue-in-cheek description for the six years he ran the council-has turned down about half the money requested by planners in favor of maintaining an emphasis on basic city services. It's a theme that has dominated city policy since Sampson was elected a decade earlier.

But things are about to change.

Missoula has never been a Republican town, and in those days, conservative Democrats held the power. Battling against Sampson and crew were a handful of progressive Democrats. In '93, a fledgling Independent dubbed Sampson's conservative majority a "gang of eight" that rode roughshod over the "group of four," a small caucus of more liberal members. That summer, the New Party held its first event, closing off a block near Lowell Elementary School for a neighborhood-style barbecue.

By November, the New Party had two members elected to council. Two years later, in 1995, they added three more and Missoula City Council had a progressive majority.

"The electoral activities of the New Party resulted in a step forward by city government," Kemmis says. "One of the most important effects was to contribute substantially to the election of a progressive majority, which enabled us to get serious about some key issues of growth management in a way we had not been able to do."

As Missoula voters reacted to the conservative '80s by shifting left, Democrats nationally were on the move as well. The success of '80s Reaganism sent the country careening right, and party moderates like Bill Clinton scrambling to claim middle ground. But if Clinton's "Republicrat" policies left liberals feeling betrayed, so too did the New Party's new-found power alienate conservative Missoula Democrats.

"To some extent, they [the New Party council members] were a little arrogant with their power," Kadas says today. "You could see it in some of the comments made. And other people in the community were ready to be alienated, so as soon as someone made a comment that was slightly antagonistic, that got the ball rolling."

Pete Talbot, a founding member of the local New Party, remembers things similarly. He was campaign manager for Bill Clarke, a Rattlesnake candidate who was the group's sole loss in its first foray into Missoula elections. "I won't mince words here. When I got involved in politics, [Al Sampson] controlled the Democratic Party. That left me cold," Talbot says. "I didn't see any difference between them-Jack Reidy, Al Sampson, Donna Shaffer-and the Republicans. It was the good ol' boys and gals."

One of these alienated Democrats is Warren "Dight" Little, a former FBI agent who spent the 1960s and '70s conducting surveillance of extremist groups on both the right and the left. Little, who says the New Party is a communist movement in disguise, is easily the group's most outspoken critic within the Democratic ranks.

"When I read their material, it convinced me they are nothing more than the same old failed policies of the radical left wing," he says. "When I came back to Missoula after a career with the FBI, I wanted to be a good Democrat, but felt the party was left of where I wanted it to be.

"I finally talked with a member of the Democratic Central Committee who said, 'Dight, if it's not where you want it to be, get to work and change it.'"

It was about that time Little started what he calls his "jihad" against the New Party. "Here we are allowing them in as a Trojan Horse," he says. "They'll leave and take with them the guts of our party. It seems logical to drive them out. We need to purge ourselves of the New Party."

New Party members say they are perplexed by Little's holy war. None claim to be communist, just good-hearted liberals. Butch Turk, a long-time peace activist and nurse by trade, says he believes Little is simply stuck in his Cold War soldier role.

"He's the only Missoulian who still reveres Joe McCarthy. He's still living it out," Turk says. "Some might call me one of the more radical members of the New Party, and I'm not a communist. It's as simple as that."

Sampson, these days, claims indifference to city council's ideological flip. His politics are no different than they ever were, he says, but he sees no red menace lurking in the voting booth. "There's always change and I don't resent the change," he says. "If I wanted to be active, I would have stayed in. I have no regrets."

Little, meanwhile, continues his war of words with his lefty counterparts. "'Progressive' is their little key word and it means 'out in left field,'" he says.

"The drums the New Party is beating are the same that have been used for the last 40 or 50 years by the left. It's what will sell. They're hitting the hot button issues that bring people in. They're for a clean environment. Who isn't? They're against excessive development in Missoula. Who isn't? You have to look behind the facade."

For Vicki Cocchiarella, as well as many progressive Democrats who have not thrown in with the New Party, the rift is more complicated than the bait-and-switch of progressive values for staid conservatism taking place between Cold Warriors and flower power progeny.

Unlike Sampson and Little, she agrees politically with most New Party principles, yet finds herself at odds with many of the group's members. "Personally, it's caused a division among friends," Cocchiarella says. "Those of us in the legislature who consider ourselves progressive always carried legislation for the same people in the New Party who are now on the other side of the fence. It's saddening."

Cocchiarella, a five-term House member who is running an uncontested race for the Senate this fall, has been solid on things like women's issues, the environment, and human services. Still, tensions mounted this spring when Cocchiarella faced New Party member Schwan in the primary.

Lines were drawn starkly when Democratic leaders took sides. Cocchiarella was joined in her support for the two young law students by Senate Minority Leader Halligan, who lent his name to John Parker for an endorsement ad.

Also jumping into the fray were Democratic Party officers, including chair Berens, who worked on behalf of all three New Party candidates.

Such a division cannot be easily ignored in a town the size of Missoula. So in a series of therapy sessions over the last year, Kadas, Halligan and Kemmis have sat down with pro- and anti-New Party folks to try to heal the rift.

The result was less than encouraging-the best anyone can say about the talks was that everyone had a chance to air their grievances.

Barbara Berens sees the issue as a matter of control. "In conversations with more vocal mainstream Dems, the articulated view is that they resent New Party folks for not working within the established party system. That they use the Democrats, avail themselves of the benefits. There's a resentment for being opportunistic."

Further, Berens says, Missoula's mainstream Democrats feel betrayed. "During the last two legislative sessions, from all reports it's been really horrible for Democrats. The Republicans were so outrageous, the Democrats were such a minority.

"There's a certain amount of, 'My god, we're besieged on the right by Republicans and the people who should be our loyal supporters are besieging us from the left."

It's an analysis that Cocchiarella finds accurate. "I think that if they have the intention of becoming a third party, it makes sense to do what others have done: qualify the party for the ballot rather than using the Democrats or Republicans. Somehow that seems not quite legitimate."

For his part, Halligan simply expresses confusion. He can barely answer questions without raising three or four of his own. "The first time the New Party came around, there was a lot of misunderstanding about use of the party's name. To me, to be a 'New Party' Democrat is something that confuses people. They're registered as a PAC, but I don't know any other PACs that are affiliated with a party.

"It confuses voters and that's why I want people to call themselves Democrats."

Mayor Kadas points out that controversies like this have traditionally forced parties to shift politically. "Third parties may survive for a while, but they always get swallowed by one of the two main parties. It's how they move ideologically-by swallowing up these movements.

"The Republicans swallowed up the religious right and now they're more conservative," he points out. "The same kind of thing has happened with the Democrats several times. But in the meantime, the party suffers.

"As a progressive, I want to limit the suffering."

Secky Fascione, a Missoula union organizer and co-chair of the national New Party, says that regardless of the group's fate, those involved are an integral part of the Missoula political scene, and share values with most Missoulians.

"The New Party is majoritarian, which means the things we support-the notion of reducing the influence of money in politics, the concept of a living wage, of affordable housing-most Missoula citizens agree with and support," she says. "That ought to be both compatible with and appealing to the Democrats."

It's just such an olive branch, Kemmis says, that's necessary if the old guard-New Party rift is ever to heal. "There's no simple solution. Mostly I think we have to hope for goodwill and open-mindedness on the part of all the players. And those, after all, are among the chief characteristics of good Democrats."

Photo by Lise Thompson
Although tensions between Missoula’s Democrats threaten to tear the party asunder, the central committee showed rare unity Tuesday night in unanimously supporting a New Party campaign finance reform proposal.

Photo by Lise Thompson
Former G-man Warren “Dight” Little says the New Party represents the “same old failed policies of the radical left wing.”

Photo by Lise Thompson
aNew Party meetings tend to be friendly, informal affairs. During last week’s potluck, Secky Fascione talks about the group’s Livable Wage campaign to put more stringent conditions on tax breaks granted by the city.


Add a comment