The days of a fractured, contentious Missoula City Council may be numbered as Missoulians choose between keeping or replacing up to half of the members in the upcoming election.
This year four incumbents could lose their positions: Ed Childers (Ward 6), Stacy Rye (Ward 3), Jerry Ballas (Ward 4) and Don Nicholson (Ward 2). Wards 1 and 5, where current members are not running for re-election, will have new representation no matter what.
The outcome of any one contest could lead to significant changes on the closely divided council, but the race that stands to cause the biggest shake-up is the Ward 2 race between incumbent Nicholson, and his opponent Pam Walzer.
While a common first reaction would be that Nicholson has the advantage in the contest as the incumbent, that’s not necessarily the case.
“I’ve always said that at this level of government incumbency is not an advantage,” says former Ward 2 representative Jim McGrath. “There isn’t a safe incumbent seat.”
If the history of Ward 2 elections says anything, Nicholson and Walzer will be in a very close campaign. In 2001 Anne Kazmierczak defeated Allison Handler by only nine votes. In 2003 Nicholson won his second term by only six votes. John Hendrickson pulled off a rather stunning defeat in 2005 when he got the Ward 2 equivalent of a landslide, winning by 36 votes.
A loss by Nicholson would be a sizable blow to the conservative council bloc, which aligns him with Jon Wilkins (Ward 4), Hendrickson, Dick Haines (Ward 5) and Ballas.
Since the 2005 election, this five-member bloc has become what some council members have called the “no group” for their characteristic voting history. In fact, Nicholson has voted “no” more times than any other council member during the last two years. And when the five persuade one more person to vote with them, they can tie up any measure.
Most recently the group was able to block the Urban Fowl Ordinance. They succeeded in sending the ordinance back to the Nicholson-chaired Public Safety and Health Committee where, despite pro-chicken councilors making concessions on licensing fees, Nicholson, Haines, Wilkins and Hendrickson all voted against sending the measure back to the council. The vote ended with 4-4 tie in committee that effectively killed the ordinance.
That kind of power over council has its perks when it comes to pushing an agenda, and removing Nicholson from the mix would alter the balance of power considerably.
Nicholson won easily in the September primary, receiving 700 votes to Walzer’s 541. But a third candidate, Dave Huerta, received 218.
In candidate forums Walzer has portrayed herself as a compromiser on issues, as opposed to Nicholson, and says she won’t just say “no.” She has also trumpeted her service on the Missoula Local Government Study Commission, which gave her insight into the council’s function. Based on that experience, she believes the council has ceded too much authority to the mayor’s office.
In public Nicholson has stumped for fiscal responsibility in the city’s budget, along with lower fees and taxes to create a more affordable housing market.
Nicholson has also invoked the specter of the defunct New Party, a liberal political faction that disbanded over five years ago after the Handler/Kazmierczak contest. In a letter sent to select voters in the ward, he attempts to link Walzer with the New Party cabal.
Nicholson didn’t return calls for this story, and did not attend a candidate meeting he had scheduled with the Independent. However, just before press time, he attempted to reschedule his candidate interview for a later date.
Ward 2 resident and Missoula GOP Chairman Will Deschamps worries that mail-in balloting will impact this election, because turnout will be higher, and the campaign season is changing dramatically. Candidates used to campaign until the last day, but with mail-in ballots coming back sooner, that won’t be necessary anymore.
“This election is going to be over by [Oct.] 22, and that’s going to effect things,” he says.
But the winner of this contest may be influenced most by changing boundaries and existing divisions within Ward 2, which encompasses affluent, more conservative Grant Creek as well as lower income, largely Democratic neighborhoods on Missoula’s Northside. In March the City Council voted to shrink the size of Ward 2 in an attempt to keep the population proportional with the other wards, a move that both Talbot and McGrath think could swing the election for Nicholson.
“They took two Democratic precincts out,” McGrath says. In a ward with historically close contests, that could very well spell the difference.
Whatever factors into this year’s election, the outcome will soon be known. On Oct. 16 the Missoula County Elections Office will send out thousands of mail-in ballots for the city council election. When the votes are tallied, the balance of power on council could shift decisively.
Before you vote, make sure to read next week’s issue of the Independent, when we’ll announce our endorsements for this year’s election, on newsstands Thursday, Oct. 18.