Rural rebound 

How a sheep rancher beat the political odds

On a recent morning at Michele Landquist’s seven-acre farm at the base of Lolo Peak, a heard of thick-coated sheep hustle through a gated pasture, and then hurry through another. Two lambs lag behind, confused about the gate situation and Roxann, a black and white sheep-herding rat terrier, leaves them behind.

“Over here girls,” says Landquist, smiling as she walks through the gate. “Don’t you want to be with the flock?”

This weekly pasture rotation helps return Landquist to a routine she’s missed for quite awhile. As an underdog candidate in a tightly contested three-way democratic primary race for Missoula County commissioner, she was mostly away from her farm leading up to the primary’s nail-biting conclusion. Landquist won the initial tally on election night, June 3, over suspected frontrunner Dennis Daneke by just four votes, then saw that lead extend to 42 votes after provisional ballots were counted June 9. Jeff Patterson finished third. Although the margin between Landquist and Daneke was close enough to trigger a recount, Daneke declined to request one.

The drawn-out results closed a polite but heated contest between Missoula County’s two most salient interest groups: urban and rural voters. And the fact that an odds-on favorite of city labor activists and local political heavyweights lost to an unknown sheep rancher seems to signal a significant switch by voters.

“These were surprising results,” says Jim Dayton, chair of the Missoula County Democrats.

Missoula County’s three commissioners fill six-year terms, making them increasingly competitive seats as countywide issues dealing with zoning, streamside setbacks, property rights and rural planning updates become more controversial. For Democrats, the importance of the open seat—held by incumbent Larry Anderson, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary—was evidenced by Daneke’s impressive lineup of supporters.

A full-time representative for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters and long-time Democratic Party activist, Daneke’s campaign drew support from a strong urban base of party loyalists and construction unions. Daneke’s individual contributors list read like a who’s-who of Missoula progressive politics: Mayor John Engen (also Daneke’s campaign treasurer); former Congressman Pat Williams and his wife, State Senator Carol Williams; City Councilwoman Pam Walzer; State Auditor Candidate Monica Lindeen; Missoula candidate for the Public Service Commission Gail Gutsche; former Missoula state legislator and City Councilwoman Rosalie Buzzas; and City Councilman Ed Childers.

Daneke also took the vast share of his financial support from 12 political action committees (PACs), mostly local construction and carpentry unions. And he relied on more than 30 volunteers to run phone-banks through the month of May, most of whom tried to target over 6,000 absentee voters. In all, Daneke’s campaign raised more than $9,700 in funds to Landquist’s $1,400.

“I knew Dennis was going to be supported by the unions and politicos,” Landquist says. “So understanding the financial strain people are under with the recession, I just told people instead of giving me money to tell five friends to vote for me.”

With little money, and even less visibility, Landquist seemed a likely runner-up. Nonetheless, she went door-to-door in rural areas like Lolo, Seeley Lake and Bonner/Milltown and spent a lot of time writing personal e-mails to voters and attending community events.

Although Daneke and Landquist’s philosophies aren’t terribly different—both consider themselves conservationists and say similar things about zoning and growth—Landquist’s message seemed to tap a certain sentiment only heard in rural parts of the county.

There, Landquist says, rural voters feel marginalized in a political process dominated by the interests of what many refer to as the “urban growth machine,” and a group of commissioners that don’t seem to listen to them.

“We [rural voters] all have the same frustration getting our voices heard by the commissioners,” Landquist says. “I thought the commissioners were losing touch, and not being able to put themselves in our shoes.”

While she doesn’t point fingers, she says many rural voters she’s talked with share the perception that the commissioners sometimes vote on behalf of business interests, another reason why her campaign stayed away from PAC money.

But as she looks forward to the general election against Anderson, her grassroots campaign will be challenged again. Landquist reports just under $200 in the bank compared to Anderson’s $6,000.

“Larry’s proven he’s a fundraiser—that gives him a sizeable start,” says Dayton. “[But] she’s just tenacious when it comes to doing what she feels is the right thing.”

Others see Landquist’s strong position among rural voters as a key in the general.

“If Michele is working hard in rural areas, the city tends to vote Democratic, so those rural areas are good places for her to be,” says Matt Singer, CEO of Forward Montana. “Plus, being the only woman on the ballot in a county that leans Democratic and tends to favor female candidates doesn’t hurt.”
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