Phoebe Patterson, the Democratic challenger in the Missoula County commissioner’s race, has an expression—“the fire inside Phoebe.” One can see what she means. She speaks quickly with the excitement and self-confidence of a strong candidate even though she is a long shot according to many.
“I certainly hope that our candidate does well but the odds aren’t really with us,” says Missoula County Democratic Party officer Tim Lovely. “But I’m really pleased that Phoebe is just giving the voters a choice.”
Patterson may have smarts, drive and commitment, but her lack of experience could be a major stumbling block in her race against popular incumbent Barbara Evans.
“I’ll confirm that Evans is a very, very formidable opponent,” says Lovely. “She’s always able to raise a lot of money, she’s always able to talk about her plans and issues and is very successful in reaching her constituency.”
If it wasn’t for Evans diminutive stature and sweet voice, she could be described as a political war-horse. She’s a four-term incumbent who will likely outspend Patterson many times over. A Republican, Evans is for the removal of the Milltown Dam and considers herself a supporter of conservation issues and the local unions. And during her 24 years in office, she’s mastered the business of county development. A Missoula County commissioners’ job doesn’t involve eloquent speeches or baby kissing. It’s about apportioning a $22 million annual budget and, in Montana’s fourth fastest growing county, it’s about shaping development.
Patterson’s shortcoming with shaping growth is her limited knowledge of the job’s specifics—when to relax land use regulations to stimulate growth, how to augment the budget with outside money and why to use impact fees. Patterson says she didn’t even know the position was paid before she entered the race.
Patterson also can’t offer specific solutions to the problems of costly sewer expansion or the ever increasing number of subdivisions. All she says is the county should gather community input early in order to avoid mistakes later.
“People sign pieces of paper and put their name on it to either approve or disapprove those kinds of developments and before I put my name on something you better believe I’m going to do homework,” she says.
Evans has a much greater nuts and bolts approach. She knows how to shape population, increase land use and foster economic development through finding money outside the county budget—something she’s become incredibly adept at. She’s traveled to Washington, D.C. about a dozen times to roam the offices of Senators Baucus and Burns and Rep. Rehberg and brought back around $40 million.
“I’ve known Max (Baucus) probably as long as he’s been in office. I’ve known Conrad (Burns) and we’re quite close friends and with Denny Rehberg, we’ve also become friends,” says Evans. “It takes time (to create relationships) and it doesn’t happen overnight.”
With this money Evans has worked to safeguard wildlife by creating open span crossings, bought open space for recreation and conservation and promoted economic growth through the Missoula Development Park and more recently MonTEC. Now she’s hoping for $1.5 million to defray the cost of Mullan Road sewer project for area residents.
The state and county smart growth organizations haven’t endorsed either candidate, but some of Evans’ and her Democratic counterparts’ county projects aren’t popular with Citizens Advocates for a Livable Missoula (CALM). The Missoula Development Park’s distance from the city leads to more traffic and longer commutes, which result in a greater environmental impact, says CALM board member Judy Smith.
“That park might have some things going for it but the placement of it is called a leapfrog development,” says Smith. “We need to do more of our development where we already have most of our facilities and it doesn’t encourage more traffic.”
The three commissioners consider the project a good and realistic one given the price of land in the county. But they don’t come to a consensus on all growth issues.
Evans is a fierce opponent of impact fees, which impose progressively steeper fees to build in areas deemed less desirable by the city and county. Some smart growth advocates consider impact fees one of the tools that can best shape growth. Commissioners Jean Curtiss and Bill Carey, both Democrats, say they’re open to the idea of implementing impact fees.
Evans thinks the fees will hurt low-income families and are an unfair burden on county landowners.
“If we really want affordable housing why should we add costs on it,” says Evans. “I don’t want to add $2,000 on to every house. I just think if we really want affordable housing we ought to do everything we can not to add to costs.”
Patterson says she hasn’t formulated a position on impact fees. All three county commissioners agree that party politics play a small role at their level and local Democrat Lovely has suggested that “people might like having a mixed commission and not want three Democrats or three Republicans.”
Regardless, in the one major uncontested county race the Democrats had trouble finding a really competitive candidate or they didn’t have enough money or resources to make their candidate a viable one.
If partisanship really isn’t a factor in the race, voters may took to the candidates’ experience and their different takes on issues.
Both Evans and Patterson value public input and know growth is inevitable. But Evans has the advantage of a substantial track record—one that can belie the Republican stereotype.
If Patterson was elected there would be a lot of on the job learning and it is possible federal money wouldn’t be as plentiful.
Still, she is convinced she can do the job even with limited party support. Now it is up to voters to decide if Phoebe’s fire is worth exchanging for Evans’ seasoned knowledge of the back and forth of county development