Before he ran for city council, Mike Kurz was warned about the danger of labels.
“One thing I was warned over and over was, don’t get labeled a New Party member because it will never fly,” he says.
In the months leading up to last month’s city election, Kurz, a Democrat, repeatedly saw himself tagged a member of the New Party in public forums, letters to the editor, and statements by his opponent. Kurz lost the election for the Ward Four seat to incumbent Myrt Charney, a fellow Democrat who was endorsed by both the local Democratic and Republican parties.
Kurz is one of numerous candidates who feel they were misrepresented during this election season. Many of them blame the city’s nonpartisan system of elections, in which candidates run and officials serve without any party affiliation.
Five years after the city of Missoula dispensed with parties, some are now saying the nonpartisan system has done more harm than good. Missoula County’s Democratic Central Committee has even begun looking for a way to restore partisan elections. Meanwhile, proponents of a nonpartisan local government stress that a large majority of voters support the current system. The election in Ward Two, like that in Ward Four, pitted two Democrats against one another. Both emerged from the election feeling like they had been unfairly labeled.
“I had people calling me a Republican, which I never have been and never will be,” says Anne Marie Kazmericzak, who won the election by nine votes. While she supports the idea of a nonpartisan council, Kazmericzak doesn’t feel the current system has succeeded at making the elections any less partisan. “I found it ironic, because being nonpartisan, partisanship became a very big issue here,” she says. Kazmericzak’s opponent, Allison Handler, believes the nonpartisan system began with good intentions but has “backfired.”
“It gave people the opportunity to mislabel each other,” says Handler, a Democrat who is also affiliated with the Missoula New Party. “Because this was a so-called nonpartisan race it gave people the chance to say I was not a Democrat but a New Party member and then to mischaracterize it. I was called a communist, I was called a socialist.”
In the case of Ward Four, Mike Kurz says the New Party tag was more frustrating because he has never had a formal affiliation with the party. He says his political opponents unfairly linked him to the New Party, which was then characterized as a segment of the extreme left. “It was redbaiting, essentially,” Kurz says.
Nina Cramer, chairwoman of the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee, agrees that the nonpartisan system allowed for misrepresentation and confusion in this year’s race.
“What has happened is that you don’t necessarily get the true feel for the values and belief systems of all the candidates because they don’t necessarily have to put those values right out there,” she says. Within the Democratic Central Committee, there is “a lot of interest in exploring going back to partisan elections.” They are looking at options such as a referendum, and Cramer plans to meet with the city attorney soon to discuss the issue.
The chairman of the Missoula County Republican Committee, John Angwin, believes there are advantages and disadvantages to the current system and would like to give it more time. However, he agrees that it has caused confusion among voters. “I had a number of calls come in from people on the city election. People didn’t understand who was on the Republican line,” Angwin says. “They may have been somewhat confused about some of the people and felt uncomfortable because they didn’t understand where they stood on some issues.”
Missoula’s nonpartisan system has its roots in a provision of the Montana constitution which requires that every 10 years voters of a municipality be asked whether they want to reevaluate their form of local government. In 1993, Missoula voters said they did, and a Local Government Review Committee was formed. The committee produced a new city charter, which voters approved in 1996 along with two amendments. One created neighborhood councils, the other the nonpartisan election system.
Geoff Badenoch, now director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, was on that committee. He says the committee pressed the nonpartisan election issue only after a survey found that 65 percent of the population supported dispensing with parties.
“The commission itself didn’t feel comfortable making the change without consulting the voters,” Badenoch says. “Sure enough, when we put the issue on the ballot, 62.76 percent favored nonpartisan elections. That’s not a squeaker, that’s pretty solid.” Badenoch himself favors the nonpartisan system because he believes the two-party system can be confining. “When you run as an Independent you’re running uphill no matter how good you are,” he says. “When you have nonpartisan elections everyone runs as an Independent and you have a level playing field.”
By adopting a nonpartisan system, Missoula joined the majority of Montana’s cities and towns. Of the 128 incorporated municipalities in the state, 115 have nonpartisan governments. The ratio is nearly reversed, however, in Montana’s counties. Of the 56 counties in the state, only 4 have nonpartisan elections.
The difference is that counties are traditionally seen as being administrative arms of the partisan state government, whereas municipal governments are seen as being local service providers, according to Jim Lopatch, political science professor at the University of Montana.
The nonpartisan system, Lopatch said, emerged from the progressive movement, which sought to eliminate corruption by purging politics from local government. “That approach misconstrues politics because almost any policy at the local level is going to have political implications,” Lopatch says. “That is, some people will benefit and some people will be disadvantaged.”
Mayor Mike Kadas, reelected to a second term last month, opposes the nonpartisan system but does not think it makes much difference one way or another. “Even with partisan elections the council just was not very partisan,” said Kadas, a Democrat. Nonetheless, he agrees with Lopatch that local issues cannot escape partisanship.
“Essentially the parties are there to provide people with the opportunity to get together and talk about issues,” says longtime Missoula Democratic Committee member Tim Lovely. “Is there a similar vehicle? They’ve taken a good forum out of the process.”