City Council 

The politics of place

Missoula Councilwoman Pam Walzer is grappling with how a potential change in the boundary lines that define city wards will affect her constituents—and her reelection prospects.

Missoula considers reapportionment of its wards every other year, to ensure that citizens are equally distributed among them. New 2010 census data released last month reflects demographic shifts, which means that this year's process to ensure equal representation could have political consequences.

Reapportionment proposals now on the table, drafted by Missoula's Office of Planning and Grants (OPG), recommend redefining all six city wards. That could have significant implications in districts such as Walzer's, which is considered politically schizophrenic, with the upscale and conservative-leaning Grant Creek on one side and the working-class and liberal Westside on the other.

The proposed reapportionment calls for moving 332 people from the Westside into the already solidly-progressive Ward 1. Not all of those individuals are voters. Still, the largest Ward 2 victory in the past decade came when the liberal Roy Houseman won by 262 votes.

On top of that, 2011 is shaping up to be an unusual election year in Ward 2. The other Ward 2 councilperson, Cynthia Wolken, was appointed by the council in January to replace the outgoing Houseman. So both of Ward 2's seats, now occupied by distinctly left-leaning representatives, will be up for election this year.

Ward 5, which covers the southwest of the city, also could be on the block. There, Dick Haines, one of the council's minority conservatives, held onto his seat in 2009 by 68 of 2,744 votes. OPG recommends reallocating 446 people from Ward 5 to Ward 6, another progressive district. Meanwhile, the seat of Renee Mitchell, the other Ward 5 councilperson, is also up for election this year.

Wards 5 and 2 have "historically some of the closer elections," says Ward 1 Councilman Jason Wiener, who also chairs the Missoula County Democratic Party's Executive Board. "Certainly, any changes in the complexion of a ward would change outcomes."

That said, Wiener and Walzer both caution about coloring any neighborhood with one brush. And a lot can happen before Election Day. "We'll find out Nov. 3," Walzer says.

Council will decide whether to redraw ward boundaries by April 30.

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