House District 93 candidate Denise Moore knows looks can be deceiving. While campaigning at a recent Griz football game, Moore says, she was talking with a young woman about her stance on political issues, and by conversation’s end Moore had won her over.
“She said, ‘I’m just so excited to find a Democratic candidate I can finally get behind!’” Moore says, before describing how the woman’s mouth dropped open when Moore told her she was Republican. “I get that from a lot of people. They’re stunned. They say, ‘What are you?’”
The question is a good one, though easy enough to answer after perusing Moore’s positions. Nevertheless, the race between political newcomer Moore and Ron Erickson, a longtime leader in the Missoula and university communities as well as a Democrat who’s served three terms in the Montana House of Representatives, has shaped up as one of Missoula’s most interesting legislative contests, due to both candidates’ hard campaigning and the fact that both are pushing traditional party boundaries.
Many would find Erickson a daunting opponent. A retired chemistry, humanities and ethics professor who co-founded and later directed UM’s environmental studies graduate program, Erickson was chairman of Missoula’s Open Space Advisory Committee during the mid-1990s when the city’s first major open space bond was approved and implemented. In 1998, he was elected to the first of three successive legislative terms, and in 2004 he decided against a fourth run when redistricting pitted him against sitting Democrat Rosie Buzzas. His hiatus from state politics marked a re-entrance into the local version, and for the last two years he’s served on the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board as well as the Missoula County Local Government Study Commission. Now he’s hungry to return to Helena.
Besides his wide-ranging experience, he also has the advantage of running in a Democratic-leaning district currently represented by term-limited Rep. Buzzas. In the 2004 redistricting, the district picked up some traditionally Republican neighborhoods in the upper parts of the South Hills, Linda Vista and Miller Creek neighborhoods, to complement the Democratic bastions of the university and Pattee Canyon neighborhoods. Signs for both candidates pepper the district.
The first clue that Moore isn’t running your average Republican campaign is her truck, emblazoned with the words “Powered by bio diesel.” Another sign on the truck reads, “Moore protection for: Montana’s environment, ethanol, bio diesel, wind energy, coal gasification, alternative energy.” Moore moved to Missoula from Colorado eight years ago to pursue an undergraduate degree in political science after a career as a hotel and restaurant management consultant. She speaks thoughtfully and brings a political newcomer’s energy to discussions about Montana issues. She says she’s running for the Legislature because her recent studies inspired her “to take a hard look at myself and what contributions I had made and what contributions I could make.” She says she’s the better candidate because of her open-mindedness and willingness to reach across the aisle to tackle issues, and she’s frequently called herself a “new breed” of candidate.
Two key differences between the candidates reflect a traditional party split. Erickson supports the open space bond because, he says, undeveloped land isn’t getting any cheaper and it’s important to seize the opportunity to preserve agricultural land in the county. He thinks raising the minimum wage is long overdue, and that tying it to the Consumer Price Index will help ease inflation’s effects on Montana’s lowest-paid workers. Moore says she likes open space but doesn’t support the bond because it will increase tax burdens. She’ll vote against raising the minimum wage because it doesn’t include a tip credit for Montana restaurant and bar employers.
The big split between the two, though, is on energy policy, where a state legislator might be expected to have more influence. Moore enthusiastically endorses Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s plan for building coal gasification plants as an alternative energy source, and she touts biofuels as one way to infuse rural economies while promoting cleaner energy sources. Erickson strongly supports alternative energy, but doesn’t favor the Democratic governor’s ambitions for clean coal plants. He says state resources would be better put toward wind and solar power, not coal gasification, which he describes as too expensive and not clean enough.
“The idea of using Montana coal for synthetic fuels is a very old one and I think it’s a very bad one,” says Erickson, who studied the science and technology as a chemist in the ’70s.
For some, the apparent blurring between traditional political stances has been confusing.
Rep. Buzzas says she’s taken calls from constituents wondering whether Moore is actually a Democrat, and Moore says more than one Democrat has told her they’ll vote Republican this time around.
Part of the confusion is likely due to Moore’s campaign literature and signs, which note her party only in the tiniest of print, while Erickson’s clearly identifies him as a Democrat. Moore says she didn’t highlight her party affiliation because she “just never considered that to be the central or the dominant theme of my campaign.” Others, like Buzzas, say it’s also a helpful strategy for flying below the partisan radar in a traditionally Democratic district. Five Valleys Pachyderm President Thelma Baker acknowledges that it makes strategic sense for a candidate in HD 93 to concentrate on issues over party affiliation, though Moore says her move reflects not tactics but her underlying philosophy of bipartisanship.
Former Missoula Mayor Dan Kemmis draws an analogy between Moore’s effort at cross-party appeal and attempts by Western Democrats to downplay their liberal leanings: “It’s not especially unusual for people from a party that finds itself in a minority position to downplay the party label and begin to pick up on some of the themes that have made the other party more popular,” he says.
And in a Democratic stronghold like Missoula, at a time when Montana’s Democratic governor enjoys lofty approval ratings, Kemmis says, it only stands to reason that a Republican candidate would do well by inching toward the local political center.