Courting the coffee klatch 

The “I remember when” chat cycle repeats in Whitefish as reliably as the 10 p.m. alarm. It causes locals who didn’t buy early to shrug about their rental houses and the measly tips that keep them in polar fleece and home-cooked spaghetti dinners from Marcus Foods.

Whether they’ve done well for themselves or continue to struggle in Whitefish, City Council candidate Velvet Phillips-Sullivan can relate. She is one of four candidates running for three open seats this year. But the 40-year-old Whitefish native is the only one on the ballot who got her political start collecting tips as a waitress at the Buffalo Cafe.

Maybe she didn’t know it at the time, but those seven years Phillips-Sullivan spent refilling coffee cups and taking orders for tofu scrambles and potato pancakes could pay off at the polls on Nov. 4. Add her experience at the Buffalo to the time she spent at Third Street Market, and it’s possible that Phillips-Sullivan has something of a following in Whitefish. She is the embodiment of a community many voters want to preserve—a stop-and-chat small town filled with rusted Subarus and babies in backpacks. Some of Velvet’s would-be constituents can’t find a home for under $150,000, but her candidacy may offer a down-payment on what could be an emerging political voice in Whitefish.

“I’ve struggled here, praying I’d make enough waiting tables to pay my bills, and that experience is something we need on the City Council,” says Phillips-Sullivan, who now practices reflexology and acupressure—two more ski-town skills that bring Velvet in contact with plenty of people.

“I’m approachable,” she says. “It’s my gift of gab, that’s how I can connect.” So far, Phillips-Sullivan says her candidacy has inspired several “little old ladies” to re-register after years of political apathy. And while her born-and-raised credentials wire her in with the town’s older generation, it’s the kids who may vote for her as a block. The political awareness of the town’s rec-set has swelled following a controversy over what the state plans to do with school trust lands just outside Whitefish. Now more than ever, the mountain bikers are tuned into town politics, and Velvet may just prove their kind of candidate.

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