Endorsements 2011

The Indy braces for a progressive tide in Missoula


Two of the Missoula City Council's weakest members, Ward 4's Lyn Hellegaard and Ward 5's Renee Mitchell, also happen to vote with the conservative bloc. They stand a very good chance of being unseated this year by challengers Caitlin Copple, a lesbian activist with solid name recognition among Missoula progressives, and Mike O'Herron, who lost a close election against Dick Haines two years ago and impresses us as one of the strongest Council candidates we've ever met. The only promising contender with even a moderately conservative streak this year is Ward 2 candidate Adam Hertz, who's taking on enigmatic incumbent Pam Walzer.

The way we're reading the wind, the conservative bloc should expect to lose two seats. Meanwhile, a Copple victory would give progressives unprecedented control of city government. For some, that's an exciting prospect. But perhaps they should be concerned. The last time the left had the Missoula Council locked down, back in the mid-'90s under the banner of the New Party, they handled it so badly that within a few short years the group's label had become political poison and it disbanded.

It wasn't the New Party's policy positions that ruined them. It was their insufferably high-handed approach to political process. Everyone outside their own cabal hated them—especially mainstream Democrats, who gnashed their teeth while the New Party torched the prospect of a durable center-left coalition in favor of liberal orthodoxy and a smug power trip.

Those folks are gone now, their memory almost forgotten—which could be the fate of Missoula's next progressive city council if it caters to its idealistic enablers instead of the broader community.

We're not discounting the progressives' substance. Almost every time a council vote splits the members into blocs, the conservatives get the policy pieces wrong. But that doesn't license the liberal majority to run roughshod over bewildered citizens or trade the meat-and-potatoes work of city government for undergraduate social justice projects.

With that in mind, we offer our endorsements this year with a cautionary note to Missoula's liberal voters: Winning creates more demands than losing, and for the vast majority of citizens, street projects likely have a more obvious impact on their quality of life than federal election reform, gender equity or even (gasp) marijuana laws.

Ward 1

Mary "Maer" Seibert vs. Jason Wiener

Endorsement: Jason Wiener

Hot-button issues like deterring serial inebriates from spooking shoppers and rebuilding the Poverello homeless shelter loom large in Ward 1, which encompasses the Rattlesnake area and parts of downtown.

We like that incumbent Jason Wiener invariably demonstrates a strong social conscience. He voted with the minority against council's 2009 vote to ban aggressive panhandling, expressing worry that the law, which now prohibits asking for money from strangers near ATMs and doorways, would unfairly target homeless folks rather than high school students soliciting cash through a car wash. And Wiener maintains that Missoula has a responsibility to support a new Pov, whether it's erected in his ward or elsewhere.

Missoula news
  • Jason Wiener

Since he was elected to council in 2007, Wiener has become one of its hardest working, most outspoken members. He talks easily about the Rattlesnake sewer project, the importance of acquiring Missoula's public water supply and housing density.

Wiener's knowledge contrasts with the relative inexperience of challenger Maer Seibert, who says she's "really green." Seibert, a special education teacher who considers herself socially liberal, prides herself on active listening and giving voice to the underdog, and she supported passage of Missoula's antidiscrimination ordinance, which makes it illegal to deny services, housing or employment to people based on sexual orientation or gender expression.

We like Seibert. She's passionate. We think Ward 1 is fortunate to have two candidates who care so deeply about their neighborhoods. But Seibert just can't match up with one of Missoula's most productive and knowledgeable representatives, which is why we support Wiener's bid for another term.

Ward 2

Adam Hertz vs. Pam Walzer

Endorsement: Adam Hertz

We like that Ward 2 incumbent Pam Walzer is straightforward and accountable. She doesn't hide in rhetoric. She says flat-out that the city needs to spend more money on things like parks and roads, which are important if we're to maintain Missoula's quality of life. Creating and preserving amenities will lure fresh blood—and new business—to further grow Missoula's economy. Yet at the same time, we sense Walzer's flagging enthusiasm.

Her challenger is 26-year-old Adam Hertz, a mortgage broker and retail-pricing analyst for Moody's Market who maintains that a representative who doesn't march in lock step with Missoula's liberal majority could better serve Ward 2. We agree. We think democracy works best when many divergent perspectives come together, which is one reason we're endorsing him.

Missoula news
  • Adam Hertz

Hertz bills himself as a fiscal conservative compared to Walzer. He says the city's 2012 budget, which raised taxes by about $24 on a home valued at $225,000 and was supported by Walzer along with six other council members, was wrongheaded. Rather than sticking taxpayers with the tab during tough economic times, Hertz says, the city should have looked more closely to find ways to trim its spending. We think he might be on to something there, and we certainly appreciate his obvious enthusiasm for the job.

Ward 2

Cynthia Wolken unopposed

Endorsement: Cynthia Wolken

Missoula City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken doesn't do business in half measures. Since she was appointed to the council last winter to replace outgoing councilman Roy Houseman, the progressive attorney has jumped into city business with a fervor befitting a rising political figure.

Missoula Mayor John Engen and city council peers lauded Wolken for introducing the anti-corporate personhood referendum that goes before Missoula voters Nov. 8. If locals support the referendum, Missoula will join a handful of cities that are officially calling upon state and federal representatives to protect citizens from the increasing power corporations have to influence politics. While looking to reshape the big picture, Wolken is also attending to matters closer to home, seeking ways to improve gridlock at the I-90 interchange at Grant Creek and working to get a roundabout built at Spruce and Scott streets.

Missoula news
  • Cynthia Wolken

Wolken is passionate about politics, yet she doesn't get defensive when she's challenged. We appreciate that. She's also a quick study. After serving council for less than a year, she's becoming an encyclopedia of municipal affairs. She's an obvious pick to serve Ward 2.

Ward 3

Paul Bohan vs. Sean D. Ives vs. Alex Taft

Endorsement: Alex Taft

Paul Bohan, Sean Ives and Alex Taft are all vying for a chance to replace outgoing progressive council member Stacy Rye. Taft is the best choice—he's the most level-headed, approachable and knowledgeable candidate in the race.

Ives has kept a low profile this election season. He didn't respond to a request for an interview with the Independent, leaving us unsure about his political goals.

Missoula news
  • Alex Taft

Bohan voices a familiar refrain when explaining why he's running for council: Missoula leaders are not responsive enough to citizen concerns. One of Bohan's biggest gripes is with the council's penchant for non-binding resolutions, such as the 9-3 vote this year to support Montana's 2004 Medical Marijuana Act and Cynthia Wolken's anti-corporate personhood referendum, which also goes before voters Nov. 8. Bohan says advisory resolutions alienate voters who disagree with council. What's more, they waste time.

Bohan is earnest. He says he likes to help people. We believe him. But he has no background in city government, which leaves him at a distinct disadvantage in a race against Taft.

Ward 3's third candidate has decades of experience working with municipal governments. Before moving to Missoula seven years ago, Taft served as executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to enhance transportation systems. While in ostensible retirement these past seven years, Taft has compiled an extensive résumé of volunteerism, working with Bike Walk Alliance for Missoula, Five Valleys Audubon Society and Missoula Advocates for Sustainable Transportation.

Taft sees himself as an "urban mechanic." Unlike Bohan, he isn't concerned about advisory referendums. He'd like to focus instead on the nuts and bolts of city government, including helping Mountain Line to expand service and ensuring that the long-anticipated Russell Street redesign will safely accommodate cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. We like his pro-active stance and think he's ready to serve Ward 3 well from the get-go.

Ward 4

Caitlin Copple vs. Lyn Hellegaard

Endorsement: Caitlin Copple

Neither Missoula City Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard nor her challenger, Caitlin Copple, minces words. That makes for a fun race.

Copple, an organizer for the Pride Foundation, a nationwide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, was instrumental last year in helping to pass Missoula's antidiscrimination ordinance. If elected, she'd be the first openly gay member to serve on Missoula's lawmaking body.

Missoula news
  • Caitlin Copple

It's not a coincidence that Copple aims to unseat one of the two council members who voted against the anti-discrimination ordinance, the state's first. In fact, Hellegaard's "no" vote partly inspired Copple to run. "It's what tipped me over the edge," she says.

The two candidates also have divergent views on economic policy. Hellegaard is a fiscal conservative with a 20-year banking background. She likes to drill into the financials when she can and believes Missoula needs to better analyze how its money is spent. She wants to cut taxes and reduce spending. She was one of four council members last year who voted against creating special tax districts to pay for roads and parks. Unhappy with the new districts, she took her case to the Montana Legislature, which failed to nullify the districts.

There's no mistaking Hellegaard's combative personality. She can be downright confrontational during council meetings. She was also one of three council members who sued the city in 2009, aiming to stop a zoning-regulation rewrite.

Copple says her would-be constituents get a great deal on property taxes in light of Missoula's quality of life. She says she believes they, like her, would happily pay more in taxes to preserve and grow amenities in the Garden City.

We appreciate Copple's work furthering LGBT rights. We also appreciate her energy. However, we'd urge her not to discount the impact that tax increases have during tough economic times. Doing so gives credence to criticisms from her opponent and others that liberals like Copple just don't listen.

Ward 5

Mike O' Herron vs. Renee Mitchell

Endorsement: Mike O' Herron

Ward 5 incumbent Renee Mitchell bills herself as a fiscal conservative who strives to keep city government transparent and accessible. She says the city should curb onerous permitting and regulation requirements to make doing business easier. But one won't spot a slew of Mitchell-written laws coming down the pike. She's not among the most productive council members. In fact, she often comes across as more of a burden than a help during deliberations. She appears to have a hard time tracking procedure and sometimes asks questions about subjects that already have been thoroughly covered.

Missoula news
  • Mike O’ Herron

Mitchell's challenger, Mike O'Herron, is more astute. He's a self-proclaimed moderate who works in timber sale planning for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. He lost narrowly in the 2009 council election against another conservative incumbent, Dick Haines.

O'Herron says the council's creation last year of special maintenance districts to help pay for roads and parks was a good idea, while Mitchell voted against them. The two differ on social policy, too. Mitchell voted against Missoula's antidiscrimination ordinance. O'Herron says he supports it.

The challenger says he also differs from the incumbent in personal style. "She tends to complain and gripe," he says of Mitchell. "I won't be doing that."

O'Herron was an educated newcomer when he ran in 2009. Since then, he's had more time to learn about municipal workings. He started volunteering for the Mountain Line board in January and it's served him well. He's sharper than Mitchell, which is why we're endorsing him.

Ward 6

Peggy Miller vs. Shane Stack vs. Ed Childers

Endorsement: Ed Childers

After decades of service, veteran municipal servant Ed Childers is resigned to the fact that city projects always take longer and cost more than anticipated—the Russell Street redesign being a prime example. "I could get frustrated and quit, but you've got to keep trying," Childers says, illustrating his plodding commitment to city government.

Missoula news
  • Ed Childers

One of his challengers is Shane Stack, an engineer with the Montana Department of Transportation. Stack declined to interview with the Independent, but he's said publicly that his engineering experience would give him a leg up when it comes to grasping the ins and outs of public works projects such as the Russell redesign. Stack is a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative who's pitched the concept of creating a tourism tax in Missoula to help raise revenue. We like the initiative, but his low profile during campaign season concerns us. We worry that if he's elected to office, he won't be responsive to citizens.

The third candidate in Ward 6, Peggy Miller, is an herbalist who owns an art gallery and herb shop. Miller says she wants Missoula to do more to help secure renewable energy and locally grown food and protect its water supply. These are great goals, but Miller's pitches begin to break down when examined more closely. For instance, she says the city needs a water purification system. That's a strange priority. As for the Russell redesign, Miller says the street is fine the way it is, which strikes us as screwy considering the challenges that pedestrians, cyclists and motorists have navigating a flawed and at times dangerous roadway.

While Childers may not seem fired up about his own candidacy, we know that we can trust him to make reasoned decisions and communicate with his constituents. He's still the best choice for Ward 6.

Missoula City Referendum

Recommendation: No

Obviously, money goes a long way to determine success in American elections. Out of necessity, candidates spend more time whoring themselves for campaign cash than attending to the people's business, and they're compelled to adopt aggressive policy stances that energize potential donors, as opposed to settling for practical solutions that make television pundits drowsy and thus advance the national interest. For all of you who fear that American democracy is unraveling before our eyes, we're right there with you.

But trying to cure the political malady with a full frontal attack on our fundamental rights to assembly and free speech would be more destructive than the affliction itself. That's why we're opposed to Missoula's referendum on corporate personhood.

Never mind concerns about the meaningless, symbolic vote. The whole idea's plain wrong, and clearly intended to strip speech rights from groups with disagreeable policy positions. The earnest supporters think they're facing off with the Fortune 500 and billionaire wingnuts, but they're actually threatening the voice of any interest group that seeks legal recognition. That scares us. We don't want the government hindering all the great advocacy work done by countless nonprofits.

Nor do we want to undermine our press protections, which the Supreme Court majority explicitly warned might follow if the Federal Election Commission got its way in the Citizens United case. One corporation or another owns almost every newspaper, radio station and television broadcaster in the country. If the government regulates institutionalized "electioneering," the Court argued that it would not be able to distinguish reliably between the protected editorial function of the press and campaign propaganda disguised as modern pamphleteering. (What's the real distinction between Microsoft stumping for lower corporate taxes and hiring Rachel Maddow to talk about tax reform on MSNBC? Darned if we can tell.)

Vote no on this municipal referendum. Money pollutes our politics, but gutting our First Amendment rights is the wrong fix.

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