After almost 40 years in the newspaper business, I am used to being criticized for what I write.
But I have to admit to being caught off guard by the people who thought my recent story on the voting habits of Billings City Council and mayoral candidates was somehow unfair, or even unnecessary.
I won’t defend my reporting because I think the story stands on its own, but it occurs to me that a little explanation might be in order. In comments under the story on Last Best News, on our Facebook page and on the Facebook page of KTVQ, which also posted the story on its website (as per an agreement we have with Q2), more than a few people said a candidate’s voting history is irrelevant.
The gist of the story was that while some candidates voted all the time and some only sporadically, one candidate — Nadja Brown, running for the Ward 3 council seat — hadn’t voted since 2004, and only registered to vote shortly before the primary.
Several commenters thought we were trying to shame her, and another used the word “punitive.” Some asked what it mattered, since candidates were not required by law to have been regular voters before seeking office.
Well, let’s ask Nadja Brown herself. In an Aug. 27 story in the Billings Gazette, profiling the three candidates running in Ward 3, there was this paragraph:
“Brown spoke about the importance of voting and contacting council members with whom one disagrees. ‘If there’s something you want to see changed, you have to speak up and let us know what you want changed,’ she said.”
On that particular day, at least, she seemed to think voting was important.
This all started when I got a Facebook message saying that Brown had not voted in years. I will admit that I was immediately interested, as I would have been regardless of which candidate had been named.
It seemed like such a no-brainer to me. I have covered six or seven city councils in as many cities, and I had always assumed that whatever their differences, council members at least shared the trait of being uncommonly interested in politics, and in local government.
The idea that a candidate hadn’t voted in more than a decade sounded damned interesting to me, to say the least. I got the tip not long before the September primary election, and I went to the Yellowstone County Elections Office and looked at the voting records of everyone in the primary — upwards of 20 candidates, not counting those who had withdrawn but whose names were still on the ballot.
Brown was the only one who had missed every election for many years, but I ran out of time to write a story before the primary.
I finally got back to it last week. I went to the elections office again, to make sure all my figures were correct, after which I began calling candidates whose voting records were sporadic, to give them a chance to say whatever they wished.
I called a couple of candidates only once because their records weren’t too bad and seemed to need little explanation. But I made repeated efforts to reach two of them: Nadja Brown and Shaun Brown, seeking re-election in Ward 5.
With Shaun Brown, the repeated calls were needed because we kept missing each other, but after two days and something like 10 calls between us, we finally spoke, and I thought he explained himself well, as he did in a separate email message. He elaborated still further in a comment under the story. Long story short: for many years he was too focused on keeping his head above water to think of things like voting.
In the case of Nadja Brown, because she was to be the focus of the story, I tried hard to reach her. I emailed her on Tuesday, called her several times on Tuesday and Wednesday, left a message on her personal Facebook page and even went to her house and left a business card in her door, asking her to call me.
When Brown filed for office in June, the Gazette reported that she and her husband, Zack, owned a business called Mountain West. Good, I thought, I’ll call her there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any business by that name in Billings, on the web or in a phonebook. So I called the Montana secretary of state’s office and the city of Billings finance division. Neither had any records of such a business in Billings.
I didn’t know what else to do. I still think it’s important to know how often our elected officials vote. If they can’t bring themselves to do the one and only thing they are asking the rest of us to do, what does that say about their commitment to the political process?
And then why not take the opportunity to explain why you didn’t vote, or why it’s none of the reporter’s damned business? Why not say anything rather than simply refusing to get involved by speaking publicly?
I like to think of the late John Michunovich, an old-school member of the Billings City Council who thought public voting records were a fine thing to have access to. When he lost an election one year, he once told me, he went down to the elections office and studied the lists of everyone who voted in his ward, remembering whether or not those he knew on a first-name basis had voted or not.
Then, when he saw them on the street and they commiserated with him about having lost, he’d say, “Then why didn’t you vote for me?”
When they protested, swearing that they’d voted for him, he’d say, “Like hell you did. You didn’t vote at all.”
As Michunovich well knew, there was nothing quite so important to a politician as someone’s vote.
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.