Missoula City Council races are billed as nonpartisan, but are they really?

Vondene Kopetski, chair of the Missoula County Republican Central Committee, attempts to deliver pizzas to the City Council during a budget hearing last year in what amounted to a campaign ploy. Kopetski, along with the Missoula Democratic Party, have vetted and endorsed their preferred candidates for the upcoming municipal election, raising questions over allegedly nonpartisan City Council races. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In early July, Missoula County’s two largest political parties held a forum to endorse this year’s crop of City Council candidates, each looking to emerge from a field of contenders in what traditionally has been billed as a nonpartisan race.

But some members of the City Council, along with community sentiment, believe the nonpartisan label is misleading and a disservice to voters. Others, however, feel it works just fine.

“It appears that in partisan elections, voter turnout is higher and there’s some indication that voters are better educated about the candidates,” said city council member Bryan von Lossberg. “I think there’s at least a theory that the reason turnout is higher in partisan races is because voters feel more informed about candidates and their positions.”

That theory was fronted by Montana State University political science professor David Parker, who told members of a Gallatin County forum this month that candidate biographies are generally vague. The party a candidate affiliates with speaks louder and “is a very good indication of the values of the individual running.”

Von Lossberg agreed, saying that while nonpartisan races may be appealing given the absence of a label, be it a Democrat or a Republican, it’s those labels that go the farthest in revealing a candidate’s true values and his or her position on certain issues.

“I try to read these candidate questionnaires, but you’re operating on pretty limited information if you don’t catch things at the right time with these candidates,” said von Lossberg. “There’s a set of values largely advocated by both of these parties, and as a voter, I want to know if this person I’m going to see on the ballot represents this set of values or that set of values.”

Those values were partially revealed during this month’s candidate forums in Missoula, hosted by the local Democrat and Republican parties.

The Republican Party “recruited candidates who would … lower taxes, reduce spending and save money,” Vondene Kopetski, the county Republican chair, said at her party’s forum. Likewise, Karen Wickersham, the county Democratic chair, said her party vetted candidates “to ensure that they uphold our Democratic values.”

“It’s hard to put all Republicans in one basket and all Democrats in one basket,” said council member Jesse Ramos, who helped recruit candidates for this year’s City Council races. “The intention of the (nonpartisan) rule was good, but at the end of the day, everyone knows where everyone stands as far as who the parties are endorsing. A lot of City Council issues aren’t partisan at all, and I think that was the intent of the law.”

While the 12 candidates endorsed by the two parties will appear on the ballot without a party label, their affiliation has already been branded. But many voters won’t likely remember who was endorsed by who, and some feel that may place those voters at a disadvantage when casting a ballot.

Elected officials who have run for public office also believe the nature of City Council races has become more partisan and divisive, even if such races are branded as nonpartisan.

Council member Stacy Anderson went through the endorsement process two years ago when she ran and won a seat on the City Council. She saw it as means to gain access to vital voter files to make the best use of resources in what’s typically a shoestring campaign budget.

“I think our entire country has become more partisan in the last few years, and City Council is a reflection of that as well,” Anderson said. “If you’re having a conversation with someone at the door and you’re talking about values and whether or not there should be regulations and what the role of government is, it becomes pretty easier to discern the underlying context of who a candidate would identify as.”

But that only works if the candidate is knocking doors, speaking with voters, and how honestly he or she answers the questionnaires submitted by media. Without that information, voters may approach Election Day with limited knowledge.

Anderson sees “plus and minuses” in holding partisan and nonpartisan races.

“I’m a proud Democrat and I have no problem identifying as that when as I knock on doors,” she said. “But I also understood that I wasn’t running to represent the Democrats in my ward. I was running to represent everyone in my ward. I wanted people to judge me on that and not the ‘D’ or ‘R’ after my name.”

Even without a party label, local politics has taken a darker turn, reflecting the partisan bitterness most often seen at the national level, according to several City Council members.

And the upcoming municipal race is proving to be no different. When council member Gwen Jones ran and won her first term four years ago, she described the tenor as “sleepy.” Now that she’s up for reelection, the atmosphere is far more “charged.”

When council member Gwen Jones ran and won her first term four years ago, she described the tenor as “sleepy.” Now that she’s up for reelection, the atmosphere is far more “charged.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“The tenor is very different,” she said. “I think our entire culture in America has changed. People look at politics very differently now. They’re far more engaged, and it hits us on a local level.”

Anderson offered a similar take.

“In this particular race, this is going to be a more partisan municipal election than we’ve seen in a while because there’s more people running with divergent viewpoints,” she said. “This time, we have a lot of people who have very different views on taxation, the role of government, what should be funded, and their general belief in public service and the role it plays.”

Ramos also has noticed a new tone, though he passed it off on politics-as-usual and blamed the increased partisanship on his own political opponents.

“In my opinion, the Democratic forum where they came after me over (Sen. Mitch) McConnell and the Koch brothers, that’s what turned it more partisan,” Ramos said, saying he didn’t care what party one affiliates with, so long as they subscribed to his views on taxation and revenue.

“All I care about is the issues of property taxes and folks who want to see more efficiencies in city government, as far as spending goes. That’s not a partisan issue. There are plenty of Democrats who agree with me on that.”