Progressive’s year - Montana citizens vote to oppose war in Iraq

This week’s elections were good news for Montana’s progressives, who won a pile of races and ballot issues in communities across the state. Back that up with some encouraging results across the rest of the nation, and it looks like the American people have had it with the lost and stumbling status quo as we seek a path to a brighter and more peaceful future.

Here in Montana we often read the results from national polling and wonder if they represent our views. But in both Missoula and Helena, referendums to bring the disastrous war in Iraq to an immediate end passed with overwhelming margins that almost exactly reflect what the national polls have been saying. Simply put, about two-thirds of our citizens agree with the campaign slogan of the Iraq referendum organizers: “Out of Iraq, bring ’em back.”

Critics of the ballot measures complain that the referendums are meaningless and that municipal governments have no business involving themselves in foreign policy, much less opposing President Bush, the self-described “war president,” while troops engage in active combat around the world. In Helena, those opposing the peace referendum went so far as to put their own ballot measure in front of voters that called on Congress to “fund our military forces totally and without conditions in the global war on terror.”

Obviously having the opposing measures in front of voters presented a clear choice and, perhaps not surprisingly, when the ballots were counted the votes reflected public sentiment in an equally clear manner. Helena’s peace referendum drew about 62 percent approval with the opposing measure losing by almost exactly the same numbers.

Missoula voters approved their own peace referendum by an even larger margin, drawing 64 percent of the vote. Considering the clear language of the measure, which calls for Congress “to authorize and fund an immediate and orderly withdrawal of the United States military from Iraq,” it’s hard to see how anyone can misinterpret the results. Faced with their own upcoming votes on both a massively bloated military budget and
continued funding for the Iraq
and Afghanistan wars, Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Congressman Denny Rehberg should have received a clear and concise message against the war. That these votes were cast on the same day as the announcement that 2007 has become the deadliest year in Iraq for American soldiers only adds to the urgency to pull us out of the expensive and un-winnable war immediately.

But while the celebrations over these victories were in full progress, other elections around the state were considerably less decisive. In Great Falls, for instance, opponents to the construction of the controversial coal-burning Highwood Generating plant didn’t get what they hoped for. Incumbent Mayor Dona Stebbins, who voted for the plant, is in the lead and likely to retain her seat. Meanwhile, the races for the commission seats basically replaced one anti-coal plant commissioner with another and did the same for a pro-coal plant candidate. The disappointing result for opponents of the plant, who say it will pollute the local environment with mercury and other toxins and add millions of tons of global warming gases to the atmosphere, is that the city commission retains a slim one-vote majority of those who support construction of the facility. The battle, as they say, goes on, but opponents of the plant are quick to note that only city residents voted, not those in the county likely to be affected by the coal plant’s construction and emissions.

Some other high-level votes were also cast this week, most notably by the Board of Livestock in decisively rejecting Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s effort to split the state into two brucellosis management zones. Schweitzer had hoped to have the Board approve his plan to create a separate brucellosis management zone in the area surrounding Yellowstone Park, where bison and elk carry brucellosis and Montana’s first case of the disease in 20 years showed up in a cattle herd this summer. If another case is discovered in the next 18 months, the entire state would lose its federal “brucellosis free” status, which would require ranchers to take a number of measures before selling their cattle out of state.

Schweitzer’s plan split the state’s ranching community, however, with the Montana Stockgrowers in strong opposition, saying it would pit ranchers against each other,
and the Montana Cattlemen’s Association supporting it. During the acrimonious hearing before the Board of Livestock on Tuesday, most of the testimony opposed the plan and in the end the Board voted 6-1 against it.

The acrimony didn’t end with the vote, however, as Schweitzer launched a highly-personal attack against the Stockgrower’s mouthpiece, claiming opponents were “given faulty information by the lobbyist,” who should be personally blamed for the consequences if another case of brucellosis is discovered. The Stockgrowers, however, said the Board, with 5 of its 7 current members appointed by Schweitzer, stood up and “grudgingly put to rest the governor’s marching orders.” While the vote doesn’t spell a definitive end to the issue, it’s hard to see it as anything but a serious setback to Schweitzer’s plan.

With all the voting it also became apparent that some things are changing in how we express our views, elect our government, and decide to spend our tax dollars. Following Missoula’s lead, Helena used mail-in ballots for the first time.  The encouraging result is that Helena set a new record with a 61.5 percent voter turnout, which is about double the previous election results for most of the last 30 years. Missoula, too, set a record for a municipal election via the mail-in ballots at 46 percent.

Democracy works best when we all take the responsibility to do our part. Both winners and losers deserve credit for their efforts, as do those who took the time to cast their ballots. For a mid-term election, Montanans should be proud of their record participation and, overall, happy with the progressive results.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent.
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