Where's the Party? 

For nearly a decade the Missoula New Party defined much of the agenda for city politics. Now many are wondering: IS THE PARTY OVER?

Where’s the party? That’s what I’m asking myself two years ago. It’s March 31, 2000, and I’m driving around Reserve Street looking for the Orchard Homes Country Club where (I’d been told) the Missoula New Party is holding its third annual Progressive Awards Ceremony. Something about that just doesn’t sound right. A progressive awards dinner… at a country club?

I pull into a dirt lot jammed with old Subarus and Datsuns sporting Nader/LaDuke stickers and license plates like “HSNG4ALL.” A sign reads: “Orchard Homes Country Life Club.” Inside, the place has the modest charm of a neighborhood VFW hall dolled up for the junior prom. Later, author and radio host Jim Hightower is slated to speak, followed by music from Bob Wire and the Fencemenders, an excellent double bill of Texas honky tonk and Austin populist agitation. Say what you will about the New Party, but they threw some rocking parties.

I recognize a few faces scattered around the room. Organizer Secky Fascione with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) is in the kitchen dishing out pasta. Ren Essene from Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development (WORD) is talking to some lobbyist from Helena. Or is that Janet Robideau from Indian’s People Action? Wait, doesn’t Janet lobby too? There’s Doug Campbell, a lifelong Democrat in his 80s and the “wise old sage” of the New Party, chatting with Judy Smith. She’s also with WORD. Or is it the neighborhood councils? Geez, these progressive wear so many hats I can’t keep it straight.

Above the stage hang two banners: one for the New Party, the other for the Missoula County Democratic Party. The significance of this new détente wasn’t immediately apparent to me, a relative newcomer to Missoula. I had no idea that only seven years earlier, many of the people in this room were the ones who, frustrated with the rightward shift of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, had gathered at the home of Jim Fleischmann to talk about starting a new political party in Montana. Joined by New Party National Director Dan Cantor and backed by a who’s who of Missoula progressive groups—notably, Montana People’s Action (MPA), HERE and WORD—the group of about 30 people would go on to form the Missoula New Party.

“I see it as a rhythm or cycle, especially in Democratic politics,” says longtime Democrat and former Missoula Mayor Dan Kemmis. “There seem to be periods in which the energy of the progressive wing of the party begins to relax a little bit, people lose their edge and organizing starts to fall off. The party becomes sort of tired and worn out, and it’s that kind of vacuum that I think the New Party stepped into.”

This rightward shift was also being felt in Missoula, where many progressives were tired of those conservative Democrats who had strayed from the party platform and opposed any effort to manage the unchecked growth that threatened the Missoula Valley.

“These were old-time Democrats. They’re not bad folks at all, but they weren’t as active,” says Jim Parker, a founding member of the Missoula New Party. “They weren’t organizing new constituencies. They weren’t bringing in the workers in our community, especially the low- and moderate-income wage earners. They weren’t bringing in people on affordable housing issues, injustice issues, gay and lesbian issues and Native American issues.”

In its first election in 1993 and with only 40 dues-paying members, the New Party helped elect two out of its three candidates to the City Council, allowing a progressives majority to break the conservative stranglehold that was led by councilmen Al Sampson and Jack Reidy for nearly a decade.

Needless to say, some old-guard Democrats saw the departure of these progressive as a bitter betrayal of the party of FDR, long the bastion of liberal ideals. But in the years that followed, the New Party unabashedly flexed its political muscle, electing six New Party members to City Council in three years before a conservative political action committee called Citizens for Common Sense Government checked its progress.

By 1995, the New Party held five of the council’s 12 seats, not a true majority but enough to refocus the political debate in Missoula politics toward such issues as urban growth management, open space, affordable housing, the living wage, urban infill, and the preservation of neighborhood schools. New Party members are the first to admit that their early victories—the open space bond, urban growth boundaries, neighborhood plans—were never achieved in isolation, but through coalition building with labor, environmental and social justice groups.

By the time the guitars started wailing and the heels started flying on that last night of March, 2000, any bad blood that had once existed between the Missoula Democratic Party and the New Party seemed like ancient history. Like biblical brothers Jacob and Esau, they had finally made their peace, ending years of bickering over who was the rightfully heir to the progressive birthright. With membership rolls growing and a new generation of promising young candidates like Naomi DeMarinis and Allison Handler poised to enter the political fray, the future for local progressives looked brighter than ever.

But only weeks ago, following a disastrous November election for progressives, the New Party closed its doors and shut off its phone. What happened?

Visions of a third party
To make sense of why the New Party folded—supporters don’t use the word failed—it’s essential to understand the goals of its founders back in 1992: To form a viable third party in Montana that would not become a “spoiler” and draw support away from progressive Democratic candidates, to hold elected officials accountable to their party’s platform, and to change Montana’s election laws to legalize fusion, the practice of running a candidate on more than one ballot line.

From the beginning the New Party was never interested in symbolic victories. The plan was to form a true third party that would run candidates in races where they could be competitive, while occasionally endorsing progressive Democrats on the New Party ballot line. To do so, however, would require changing Montana law to allow fusion.

Fusion, which is currently illegal in Montana, is allowed in only eight states. In New York, where it’s been practiced for years, smaller political parties not only wield more power, but can have a decisive say in the outcome of elections. For example, in 1960 John F. Kennedy lost New York’s straight ballot line total of Democrats versus Republicans, but the ballots cast for him on the Liberal Party line pushed him over the top. Likewise, when New York’s Gov. Mario Cuomo , a Democrat, ran against Republican challenger George Pataki, Cuomo garnered more votes on the Democratic ballot line than Pataki did on the Republican line, but it was the Conservative Party ticket that secured Pataki the governorship.

In 1996, a New Party chapter in Minnesota took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging that state’s ban on fusion as an infringement of free speech. In 1997, in Timmons vs. Twin Cities Area New Party, the High Court disagreed, effectively putting an end to the Missoula New Party’s hopes of legalizing fusion in Montana. “In the U.S. there’s a reason we have two parties. It’s not God-given,” says University of Montana political science Professor Paul Haber, a New Party founder. “There is no other advanced industrial society that has had such a stable two-party system as the United States. There are reasons for that. One of the reasons is that they have outlawed a number of avenues that small parties typically take.”

Locally, the New Party suffered another setback in 1996 when, as part of the legally mandated review of the city’s charter, Missoula voters elected to make city elections nonpartisan. Without fusion, the New Party didn’t want a ballot line that would hurt progressive Democrats. Without any ballot lines at all in city elections, what was the point of forming a political party?

Making room in the tent

“When the New Party began,” says Haber, “I don’t know if I can convey to you the excitement of those first meetings at the national level.” Some of that excitement, say New Party adherents, was due to the group’s new approach to doing things. For example, unlike the Democratic Party and most unions, which traditionally operate on the majority-rule model, the New Party adopted the Quaker principle of consensus, struggling for long periods of time if necessary until a decision was reached that was acceptable to everyone.

“That proved to be both discouraging at times when it was hard to make decisions, and it prevented quick decision-making. But in the long run it built a constituent base of folks that really believed in the organization,” says Parker. “They felt that their voice mattered, people were listened to with a variety of ideas and expectations and we worked hard until we found the path that would please all of us. That was new.”

Not surprisingly, roughly half of all New Party candidates nationwide have been women, and more than a third are people of color.

“If people could look into an organization and see folks like themselves as leaders, that made it possible for them to believe that ‘Well, maybe this is different. Maybe I can participate. Maybe people will listen to my views. Maybe I can make a difference,’” Parker says. “It’s somewhat fanciful in the world we live in, but for a small organization in a community like Missoula, it can work. And it did work.”

Supporters and detractors agree that the New Party was highly effective at getting people off the sidelines and into the game. “They [the New Party] managed to get a number of people involved in the political process who probably wouldn’t have been involved,” says Mayor Mike Kadas, a Democrat who never joined the New Party. “They also managed to get a number of more conservatives involved that wouldn’t have been involved either.”

Among them was its fiercest—and wealthiest— opponent: Citizens for Common Sense Government (CCSG), a conservative political action committee largely funded by pro-growth developers and real estate interests.

“In politics, in part, you judge your effectiveness by what kind of response you draw,” says UM environmental studies professor and former New Party member Bill Chaloupka. “When Citizens for Common Sense Government felt compelled to spend many, many thousands of dollars against our candidates a few years ago, that race definitely put us on the map.”

“I think the strongest reason for the backlash was that the New Party was effectively advancing progressive causes that were a threat to certain vested interests in Missoula,” says Kemmis, “interests that did not want to see growth managed, for example.”

November of 1997 was an ugly electoral season marred by rabid name-calling, red-baiting and record campaign spending that exceeded $50,000 in races that had rarely garnered more than $2,000. Citizens for Common Sense Government won back two City Council seats held by New Party incumbents, at times by throwing its support behind conservative Democrats.

“I don’t think their [the New Party] views molded with the community in total,” says Ward Four Councilman Myrt Charney, a conservative Democrat and longtime opponent of the New Party. “I think the community as a whole didn’t agree with all the things they were doing. The living wage was one of them, government dictating what people should get paid. I think that was a real problem.”

The living wage issue, one of the main planks of the New Party platform, was indicative of the kind of community support the New Party could muster. Put to Missoula voters in November 1999, it was defeated by only 448 votes out of nearly 11,000 cast. Despite that defeat, the living wage campaign turned out some 40 percent of the city’s registered voters, setting new records for student voter turnout and the registration of new voters.

“The living wage fight there was one of the first in the country,” says New Party founder Cantor, now executive director of the Working Families Party in New York. “They did a lot of things that had echoes around the country.”

Better dead than red

But the one obstacle the New Party had the most trouble overcoming wasn’t CCSG, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce or the Clinton Republicrats. It was the label socialist.

In a post-Cold War world, it seems beyond farcical that people who put in 80 to 100 hours a week during an election season fighting for streets they can walk on and wages they can live on can still be tagged as socialists. And yet, as recently as last November, the New Party stereotype—of communist conspiracies being hatched in dark and smoky boardrooms in New York—still managed to sway voters.

“The socialistic agenda of the New Party was the basic reason that folks got involved [in CCSG]. They didn’t care for that,” says Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans. “This is a broad-based town with various points of view, and I didn’t feel personally that the socialist point of view that they were pushing would be acceptable, at least not to me.”

A frequent charge against the New Party was that it was being directed by well-funded out-of-state interests. In fact, the vast majority of its money came from small, individual contributions from Missoula, though Fleischmann admits that ex-Eagles band member Don Henley did contribute $1,000 to the living wage initiative.

“[The New Party] was very much of a local organization and a federation of local organizations. There were no edicts being issued from New York or Moscow or anything like that,” says Fleischmann. “It was an incredibly decentralized structure. I think the national people would laugh if you tried to tell them they had control because a lot of the time they didn’t.”

However untrue, the red label stuck, and New Party folks accept some blame for not doing a better job of getting their true message across.

“It’s fair game in the political world to try to brand somebody you’re up against as an extremist,” says Chaloupka, “and it’s up to the brandee to alter that conversation, and I think the New Party community never did that very effectively.”

Ironically, the socialist/communist label also came from Democrats whose own platform is virtually identical to that of the New Party on such key issues as campaign finance reform, livable wages, reproductive rights, environmentally sustainable jobs, gender equity, workers’ rights, a progressive tax system, and the equitable funding of schools.

Where the parties differed, say New Party folks, was in the accountability of elected officials once they took office. Candidates who received a New Party endorsement were first asked to sign an agreement saying that they agreed with the party’s principles and mission statement and would agree to meet regularly with New Party people to exchange information and work toward implementing those ideals.

“I found it really interesting that we were consistently attacked for having ideas that one could find in the Democratic Party platform,” says former New Party candidate Allison Handler. “The Democratic Party adopted this platform and no one peeped about this living wage thing, no one peeped about promoting alternative modes of transportation, no one peeped about the rights of unions to organize. This is what the New Party is all about.”

What’s in a name

Since Handler’s defeat in last November’s Ward race against Anne Marie Kazmierczak, speculation has abounded that her loss was the prime motivation for the New Party to close shop. Handler, a well-known candidate with solid experience as an urban planner, had impeccable progressive credentials in the city’s most progressive ward and wore her New Party label with pride. In the eyes of many, it was the kiss of death.

Asked if her defeat factored into the New Party decision to close, Handler says, “Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. When I lost, people were so shocked that it took us a couple of weeks to get around to saying, ‘Wow! We really should have folded up shop four years ago when this happened to Linda Tracy, who lost by14 votes.”

So why were New Party opponents so effective at painting it red?

“It’s because liberals and progressives haven’t discovered yet how to market ourselves. We just haven’t,” says Handler. “I had a consistent and clear message and I just said it over and over and over. And I was unable to break through the fear-mongering.”

Ultimately, New Party leadership could not escape the conclusion that their name had become a liability for candidates.

“It would be silly not to recognize that there’s a lot of hay being made about just saying New Party and attaching it to some red-baiting for the last seven or eight years. To me that’s a reason to stop saying, ‘OK, we’re the New Party,’” says Parker. “We need to get back to the issues at hand. If anything is masquerading to confuse people not to vote on the issues that are important to them, then we have an obligation to help clear up that mess and let people identify the candidates with the issues that are important to them.”

But New Party supporters also level some blame on the media coverage they received.

“By running multiple letters to the editor in which people used words like ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’ to describe New Party members, I think that the Missoulian in particular fell down on its job of doing journalistic justice by not explaining that the New Party is not about communism or socialism,” says Handler. “By allowing those messages to be perpetuated in the press the Missoulian did a disservice both to the liberal debate about real ideas and didn’t educate the public about what was really going on.”

New Party supporter Haber puts it more bluntly.

“We got terrible press,” he says. “I think the Missoulian was out to get us.”

Missoulian Editor Mike McInally quickly dismisses such criticisms.

“In the case of the living wage thing, I think it was probably a bad idea, and the paper expressed its reservations about the ordinance in the editorials,” he says. “But I don’t think that flowed over to the news coverage of the living wage issue, or for that matter, news coverage of New Party issues.”

Perhaps. But consider the Missoulian’s editorial/obituary for the New Party last week which read: “Most people don’t reside on the political fringes, and they’re reluctant to elect fringe candidates.”

“The word ‘fringe’ falls in the same category as ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’ and it’s sort of code for, ‘They’re extremists and they’re really weird and you shouldn’t be associated with them because they’re too odd for us,” says Handler. Incidentally, Handler lost her race by nine votes.

Gauging its success

Ultimately, was the Missoula New Party a success? In the electoral process, it won 10 out the 17 races it was involved in and sent two of its members—Gail Gutsche and Ron Erickson—to the Montana House of Representatives. Currently, three members of the City Council—Lois Herbig, Jim McGrath and John Torma—are former New Party members who have done much to keep progressive causes on the city’s agenda.

“In a town like Missoula, it’s hard to recruit really talented, energetic people to be city councilpersons. The job doesn’t pay much, you need just the right mix of capabilities and professional situation,” says Chaloupka.” I think the expectation that Missoulians have of who’s going to be on the City Council is considerably different.”

Consider the policies and discussions that New Party members initiated or supported: The open space bond in 1995; enactment of a city living wage ordinance, albeit a watered-down version; linking discussions of open space with issues of neighborhood schools and affordable housing; growth plans that think outside the box store; neighborhood plans that consider how to move children, the elderly and the disabled, and not just cars.

“I’m not one to say they failed,” says Kemmis. “I think in the broader terms of recalling the Democratic Party to its progressive roots, the New Party made a major contribution. I’m glad that they existed.”

“I think the Council is more progressive and thus it’s more reflective of Missoula than it was before we got into the action,” says Haber. “It sounds a little hyperbolic, but the New Party became a school of democracy. It was a place where people could actually come and learn political skills.”

As a result of the New Party’s dissolution, some progressive activists will likely return to the fold of the Democratic Party, while others may explore other avenues, like the Glacial Lake Missoula Greens.

Nina Cramer, executive chair of the Missoula County Democrats, is excited about welcoming New Party folks back to the fold. “I hope these people feel like they can be part of our stuff,” she says. “I’d like to get back to those good debates.”

Since the Timmons decision, New Party chapters elsewhere in the nation have undergone similar changes. The Maryland New Party became Progressive Maryland, and the New York New Party was folded into the Working Families Party, now one of the strongest third parties in America. Still, in a post-9/11 world, where any deviation from the status quo becomes suspect, third parties may have a tough go at it for a while.

So, where’s the New Party in Missoula? Right where it’s always been: At MPA and Women’s Voices for the Earth, in the neighborhood councils, in Smart Growth Missoula, on the school board and the City Council. In other words, at the forefront of the social justice movement. If the protests in Seattle in 1999 taught progressives anything, it’s that single groups aren’t that important. When the big money isn’t on side, your strength derives from diversity and numbers.

“OK, so this one great experiment failed, but I don’t think it really failed,” says Handler. “I think it taught us a bunch of really good lessons and it has given us tools for figuring out where to insert ourselves so we can participate meaningfully in the dialogue, because the dialogue isn’t going away. The issues are still there.”

  • Email
  • Print

© 2015 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation