Party like it's 1999 

Dems duke it out for seats in Helena

1998 primaries heighten Missoula's intra-party politics

The general election for seats in the statehouse is nearly half a year away, but for Missoula Democrats next week's primaries are where the action is. While the Garden City is likely to send its traditional Democratic delegation to Helena in January, most observers agree that the Republicans will probably hold power again for the 1999 session.

Only four local incumbents are seeking re-election, leaving the other eight seats open for the taking. Of the five contested races to be settled next Tuesday, three are being run by members of the progressive and controversial New Party, with the other two contests pitting Democrats against each other.

While word on the street had it that tensions in Missoula city politics were going to spill over into these state races, it has thus far failed to materialize. Conservatives in town saw evidence of a power grab when the three New Party members declared their candidacies, and in turn New Party organizers concluded that the Citizens for Common Sense Government political committee was poised to turn loose its huge bank account in favor of conservative candidates.

But with less than a week to go before ballots get counted on June 2, there is no evidence surfacing to support anybody's suspicions. Instead, the most controversial race has proven to be between House Minority Leader Vicki Cocchiarella and Women's Voices for the Earth director Bryony Schwan, with both hoping to step into Fred Van Valkenburg's abandoned Senate seat.

The race pits Cocchiarella, a senior, respected member of Missoula's delegation, against Schwan, one of the Garden City's most effective professional grassroots environmentalists. Both consider themselves progressive Democrats. Both say they'd like to see more money for schools and environmentally friendly economic development.

Yet despite the similarities, the dialogue has turned bitter. Schwan accuses Cocchiarella of failing to be an effective leader for the Democrats. Calling Cocchiarella the "fox guarding the hen house," she says that the incumbent has been bought by the extractive resources and gambling industries, and charges that she's rolled over for the Montana Power Company on utility deregulation.

"I don't believe Vicki represents the interests of some of her constituents any more," says Schwan. "Energy deregulation is the best example. There'll be enormous consequences for the state and it was rushed through.

"There's no protection for rate payers, no protection for conservation measures or low-income programs. She's saying she worked on this thing, but where's the bacon? It's not there."

Cocchiarella, a five-term veteran of the House and co-chair of the Environmental Quality Council, is known for her work on workers compensation issues. She is vice-chair of the House Rules and Legislative Administration committees, which have been streamlining the rules in anticipation of huge turnovers in the year 2000, when many legislators will be term-limited out of Helena. Cocchiarella counts union members as the core of her support.

A New Party member, Schwan brings to the table a lengthy resume of grassroots activism. She's sat on the Missoula County Weed Board, the Stone Container Citizens Advisory Panel (which she helped convene), and the University of Montana Wilderness Institute board. A former medical technician, Schwan has made a point throughout her political career in Missoula of trying to reach out to blue-collar workers, young women and racial minorities.

Schwan's attacks, Cocchiarella says, are misdirected. "I probably take it too personally, but to have people who have been on the same side now work against me, it hurts my heart," she says. "It's taking us apart [as Democrats]; we should be focusing on our goals for getting the majority back so we can advance our agendas and programs."

For the past several sessions, Cocchiarella has expressed frustration with the lack of progress made by Democrats in the legislature. The overwhelming Repub-lican majority, she says, has forced her and others to be content with improving bad bills, rather than promoting good ones.

An example, she says, is utility deregulation. "I was the only Missoula delegate who spent hours working with unions and cooperatives on that legislation to try and make it better," she says. "To sit back is irresponsible. To grasp the problem, set time lines and give Montana a chance to adjust [to deregulation], that to me is leadership."

Schwan upped the ante this week, filing a complaint with the state Commissioner of Political Practices. In it, she accuses Cocchiarella of violating campaign finance reporting laws by listing some of her contributors' occupations as "self-employed" or "business owner" rather than getting more specific.

"These omissions violate both the spirit and the letter of our campaign finance law," Schwan's campaign manager Jeff Goin wrote in the complaint. "Voters have every right to know the economic interests represented by campaign contributors."

Even Schwan spokesperson Dan Funsch admits that it's a common practice for candidates to be vague about their donors' occupations, but adds that a ruling in Schwan's favor will be helpful for voters seeking to learn who funds elections.

While Cocchiarella could not be reached by press time, she was quoted in the Missoulian as responding that she had broken no laws. In an article this week, Cocchiarella argues the complaint is a negative campaign tactic on Schwan's part.

Further, Cocchiarella has defended herself against Schwan's charges of corruption by quoting an old legislative adage: "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, sleep with their women and vote against them anyway, you don't belong in the legislature."

"My vote is not for sale," she says.

In other races, two other New Party members are running for open seats in the legislature, and both face young opponents from the University of Montana law school.

Former professor Ron Erickson, of the Missoula Open Space Advisory Committee, is opposed by second-year law student and former volunteer for Sen. Max Baucus, John Parker. Gail Gutsche, development coordinator for the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project and board chair of the Montana National Abortion Rights Action League, is running against another second-year law student, Valerie Thresher, who worked on the unsuccessful Bill Yellowtail and Clean Water Initiative campaigns.

Both Thresher and Parker say they want to help invigorate the state's Democratic party. Gutsche and Erickson tout their experience and longevity in the Missoula community. All four cite education, economics and the environment as concerns.

Beyond that, only Thresher does any name-calling, saying that because Gutsche is associated with the New Party, she'll be perceived as being part of a "fringe, extremist group... She's not a real Democrat and I am."

Gutsche counters that she's been associated with the Democrats "all my adult life," and asserts that she is running as a Democrat.

The last two contested races-both between Democrats-have come down to fine distinctions. Mike Copeland, who administrates the Organic Certification Association of Montana, says he would not consider a sales tax as part of tax reform in the state because it would disproportionately affect low-income people.

His opponent, Rosie Buzzas, says she would not exclude sales tax proposals from consideration.

Other than that, Copeland puts a high priority on televising the legislature. "There's not adequate public scrutiny," he says. "The legislature has been over-dominated by lobbyists and businesses. If we could get cameras in there and the citizens of Montana could see what's being said in their name, we might see a different makeup [of the legislature] next time."

Buzzas, a two-term member of the Missoula County Public School Board, says her emphasis lies with education, environmental and human rights issues. "Those are things I hold valuable and I'd like to try and turn around the way they've been headed the last few sessions."

In the Slant Streets neighborhood, Bonnie Gee and Tom Facey pledge allegiance to solving the school funding crisis, and say economic development would get their attention as well. The only disagreement comes with Facey's address: he lives just outside of the district, and Gee says this makes her the better choice.

But Facey counters that his connections to the neighborhood are strong. "I've lived two and a half blocks from the district for 13 years; I was baptized in the district 44 years ago. I'd rather someone say they don't like my policies or the way I would vote on an issue than vote against me for living two and a half blocks away."

Nearly all those interviewed for each of the races say they expect the gap to close between the Dems and GOP, and anticipate a Democratic revival in the year 2000, when term limits turn out many legislative veterans.

But, as one candidate points out, a big turnover this time for Missoula's delegation will give the Garden City an advantage in seniority at the beginning of the next century. "And with Mark O'Keefe in the governor's office," Erickson says with a wink, "it will be a whole different story."

Photos by Jeff Powers

Bryony Schwan and Vicki Cocchiarella face off during a public debate at the College of Technology.


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