Will Common Sense Rule the Day? Can the New Party Survive?
Election years tend to exaggerate political differences, but ironically, the polarization this fall has two groups involved in Missoula's City Council elections accusing each other of the same thing: trying to turn Missoula into a gated community, where only the wealthy can afford to live.At stake, say members of the New Party and Citizens for Common Sense Government, is the future of Missoula and the quality of life that has established the Garden City as one of the fastest growing boom towns in the New West.The city council's job appears straightforward from the newly-revised charter. It's when you get down to the details, that differences of interpretation arise.Besides passing the budget and overseeing departments, the council is the city's "policy-making body" with the "authority to enact such ordinances and resolutions necessary for the protection and benefit of the people's health, welfare and security."Just how to achieve these goals, however, remains up in the air. On the one side, there are the progressives, nearly uniformly affiliated with the New Party, a liberal caucus claiming as its goal to reinvigorate American politics by bridging environmental and working-class concerns. On the other side, Citizens and a conclave of fiscal conservatives say they want to reduce government interference in development and ensure that Missoula continues to grow according something akin to a free-market model.The face-off taking place has been brewing since the New Party had its local political ascension four years ago. In the last pair of elections, the Missoula City Council has increasingly come under the New Party's sway, with the election of Jim McGrath, Lois Herbig, Andy Sponseller and Linda Tracy, and with the selection of Craig Sweet as council president two years ago.Sweet's campaign manager, Jim Parker, described the conflict at a press conference earlier this week, saying: "Our candidates are currently battling for the soul of Missoula. We must emphatically state that these city council seats are not for sale to the highest bidder." In the meantime, many conservatives and old-time Democrats and Republicans alike, longtime players in city politics, have grown increasingly angry with the New Party's tactics and goals. They accuse the group of blocking both housing and business developments that could bring an economic boost.And, this election season, these so-called Citizens for Common Sense would like nothing better that to route their more liberal counterparts and create a development-friendly atmosphere in city hall. What it comes down to-beneath all the name-calling and the political disagreements-is the philosophical question of how government fits into our civic lives. Citizens for Common Sense Government Treasurer Diane Beck puts forth the core of her group's philosophy succinctly. "It's an issue of property rights versus government intrusion," she says. "It's a huge issue that goes right along with the right of people to choose what to do with the land they own." This week, things heated up as the New Party went on the offensive with its message that outside developers are attempting to buy victories at the polls. On Monday, Sweet and Rattlesnake candidate Dave Harmon held a press conference to announce that they were filing a complaint with Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Ed Argenbright. The core of the complaint is that Citizens has been coordinating its efforts with the individual candidates it supports: Carolyn Overman, Jamie Carpenter, Bob Luceno, Myrt Charney and Tracey Turek. If true, the tactic would be illegal under state election laws. Sweet admits the evidence is circumstantial-things like similarities in pamphlet and yard sign designs, and wording on fliers. But there's enough, he claims, for Argenbright to stop the Citizens' campaign. Citizens spokesperson Charlie Brown, however, dismisses the complaint as "baloney."Legally, neither Citizens nor the New Party are allowed a connection to any of the individual campaigns; the state laws separating political contenders and like-minded committees are there to keep the committee's "soft money" from being funneled to the candidates. This is because committees can collect and spend as much as they want, while individual candidates are limited to accepting donations of $100 or less. These groups-akin to PACs (political action committees) on the national level-can only spend money to inform voters on the issues, giving no more than $100 worth of support to any single candidate. This fact is complicated by the nature of the campaign, which unlike years past, was declared nonpartisan in 1995 through a voter referendum. Adding to the confusion is that Sweet, Tracy and Harmon are New Party