A group of high-profile Missoula Republicans on Thursday night hosted a re-election party for incumbent Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott, a Democrat seeking his second term in office.
The event, which included some of the city’s top Republican king-makers, joined a handful of Democrats in promoting McDermott as the right candidate for the job, citing his experience and achievements in office.
But they also agreed on something else: The nation must move past the current rancor of public discourse and work more closely together in accepting differences of political opinion.
Both parties, they agreed, are often to blame for the dangerous tone in politics.
“Hopefully this county will emerge from this (election cycle) seeking unity more than an absolute position on policy,” said David Bell, a Republican who helped organize Thursday’s event. “Eventually, I hope that people will be more willing to concede on certain issues in the interest of finding middle ground, and making progress together rather than trying to find an absolute position.”
In an age of political name calling and caustic comments on social media, the evening’s coming together came as a refreshing change of pace. The tone of the current election cycle weighed heavily on most of the evening’s attendees, regardless of party affiliation.
And most are looking for a reset and a change of discourse.
“This is what we need in our community these days, recognizing that it’s not about partisan politics in a lot of cases, but about the office and the leadership of the position,” said David Parker, a Democratic campaign manager. “We need to regain some of that civility that we’ve lost. It’s okay to have different opinions, but it’s not okay to be mean, and it’s not okay to cause harm and support violence.”
McDermott was first elected to office in 2014 in what, even then, proved to be a bitter election. Four years later, the incumbent sheriff has focused much of his attention on jail overcrowding, substance abuse and mental health issues.
He also increased his staff by six deputies, the first increase in decades, allowing him to fully staff the violent and drug task force. He added a deputy to Seeley Lake, created a K-9 unit, and added a school resource deputy.
Given the requirements of law enforcement, McDermott said he doesn’t see his position as a partisan one. The law, he added, must look out for all citizens, regardless of their political opinion.
“The sheriff’s job is about law and order and protecting the community, regardless of your political affiliation,” McDermott said. “I’ve always tried to be the type of person that works well with everyone from all walks of life and ideologies.”
Thursday night’s function included representatives from Sen. Steve Daines’ office, and former Missoula County Republican chairwoman and electoral college voter Thelma Baker. City Council member Jesse Ramos was there, and Rep. Greg Gianforte lent his support via a short statement.
McDermott said he was humbled by the support.
“To have Republicans throw a function and support the campaign of a Democrat shows there’s good people on both sides of the spectrum that are willing to do the right thing, or what they feel is the right thing, to support who they feel is the right person,” he said.
The nonpartisan requirements of law enforcement may have made it easier for Republicans to reach out in support of a Democratic candidate, but it’s not the first time that’s happened this election cycle.
Back in September, several state Republicans gave their support to Sen. Jon Tester, the state’s senior Democratic senator who’s seeking his third term in office. That included a list of GOP leaders like the mayor of Glasgow, a city council member from Columbia Falls, and the former chair of the Butte-Silver Bow County Republicans, among others.
While much of the Republican support Thursday night for a Democrat ended at McDermott, many still believe that middle ground is possible, regardless of the candidate. And it’s middle ground the city, the state and the nation should be seeking.
“I think it really comes down to committing to one another and ourselves that we’re all people, and we all have ideas about the best way forward politically,” said Bell. “Some of those ideas are very different and some of those ideas we each feel very strongly about. But it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all people and they’re just ideas.”
Bell added, “We should share those ideas and argue about them, but have a beer or soda afterwards. That’s what seems to have gone away, where it’s now an us versus them. It should be an argument over policies and ideas, not an argument over good versus evil.”