With endorsements coming across the board, a successful career in electoral politics spanning 20 years and a war chest which dwarfs that of his Republican opponent Clint Kammerer, you'd think there'd be few things that could rankle Fred Van Valkenburg, who hopes to take over Robert "Dusty" Deschamps' seat as Missoula County Attorney this Election Day.
But somewhere, somehow, Kammerer has managed to get underneath Van Valkenburg's skin-at least a little bit.
Initially, it seems, Kammerer was seen as a straw man so that the local GOP wouldn't be perceived as simply conceding the seat to Van Valkenburg, the man who calls himself "The Logical Choice" for the job. After all, Deschamps-a Democrat like Van Valkenburg, who's taking a tilt at incumbent Republican Rep. Rick Hill for the U.S. House-held onto the county attorney spot for a remarkable 28 years.
As the election season has heated up, though, so has the rhetoric Kammerer has brought to the table. In particular, the Republican says, he's concerned that the party responsible for advising the county commissioners on a host of issues, as well as one of the region's leading prosecutors, should not be too... well... partisan.
Pointing to the outgoing Deschamps, Kammerer says, "The county attorney, in the past, has been something of a super legislator, deciding which laws he wants to uphold and which ones he'll ignore. I'm not going to be a super legislator.
"I will make decisions on the basis of the facts and the law, and not on the basis of politics."
Kammerer goes on to indicate that Van Valkenburg's experience as a majority leader in the state Senate-he served three terms, in fact, as well as one as Senate President-indicates that he may have some beholden interests as a Democrat.
"Our different perspectives come from different life experiences," Kammerer says. "He's played that game for 20 years. I on the other hand have no political baggage."
It's not a characterization, however, that Van Valkenburg puts much faith in, although it clearly bugs him. The Democrat counters that he knows the job description well enough to avoid bringing partisan politics to play in the county realm-if he's elected. "Partisan politics are not part of the county attorney's job," Van Valkenburg maintains.
Interestingly, in almost the next breath, Van Valkenburg raises the specter of conservatism in an effort to cast political doubts on his opponent chances. Noting that there's a balance to be struck between the criminal and civil aspects of the county attorney's job, he suggests that Kammerer has his own vested ideals which would color the way in which he might impose zoning and environmental regulations in the face of Missoula's continued growth.
"This is not just about the criminal side of the office," Van Valkenburg says. "I fear [Kammerer] doesn't have a commitment to defending the environmental side of the issues, and the advice he gives to the attorney's office will not uphold the commitment we have to plan for growth.
"His position is not about upholding laws with implications for land-use issues."
Kammerer asserts that he's "a conservative person," which stems from what he calls "a natural impulse to resist rules and regulations" that interfere with various constitutionally-protected freedoms.
On the criminal side of things, the dueling candidates have come to something of an impasse. Although Van Valkenburg considers himself a friend of local law enforcement-he boasts police Captain Mike O'Hara, the man behind the last election's successful jail bond, as a donor to his campaign, and takes partial credit, at least, for the "level of safety and security that's part of the reason people want to live here"-Van Valkenburg has reportedly irked some of Missoula's men in blue.
"The county attorney at times must tell law enforcement that they have overstepped their boundaries," he says. "Most of the time, we are very close together on things, so when it comes down to it, we have to tell members of our own family they have gone to far."
Kammerer, meanwhile, has parlayed some of the tensions stemming from Van Valkenburg's experience as a member of the law enforcement team into an endorsement from the local police association. "We will function with a high level of mutual respect," Kammerer promises.
Van Valkenburg acknowledges that "the vocal cops have jumped to the side of Clint Kammerer," but he attempts to explain away their public endorsement as a posture intended to send a message. Indeed, Van Valkenburg maintains that he and Deschamps have both been tough on crime during their shared tenure in the Missoula County Attorney's office. "I'm very tough on crime," he says. "Our entire office has been-within reason."
A look at who's bankrolling the two campaigns underlines the vagaries of the candidates' political differences-as well as the overwhelming support Van Valkenburg seems to enjoy-as much as anything. As of this week, the Democrat has raised $12,434, and spent nearly $8,000; that's almost $2,500 more than the $5,615 Kammerer has raised overall.
Many, many local attorneys have given to Van Valkenburg as have numerous professors from the University of Montana (where his wife Carol is acting dean of the journalism school), outgoing Democratic County Commissioner Fern Hart and local billionaire businessman Dennis Washington. By contrast. Kammerer has mined retirees, realtors and developers, as well as Republican County Commissioner Barbara Evans for funds.
In the end, it seems that both Van Valkenburg and Kammerer are counting on the Democrat's experience to get them elected. Kammerer counts on the off chance that Missoula's ready for some serious change in the county attorney's office. While Van Valkenburg, who drew an endorsement from the ordinarily conservative Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce this week, hopes that his decades of public service are enough to carry him at the polls.
"If this were a job we were applying for," Van Valkenburg says, "he wouldn't even make the first cut. But it's an election."