Missoula County Democrats endorse 3 incumbents, 3 newcomers for City Council

Candidates for Missoula City Council fielded a wide range of questions at Tuesday night’s Democratic Party forum. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Following a forum Tuesday night, the Missoula Democratic Central Committee endorsed six candidates in the upcoming primary and general elections for City Council, three incumbents and three newcomers.

The Democrats’ picks:

Heidi West, Ward 1; Mirtha Becerra, Ward 2; Gwen Jones, Ward 3; Amber Sherrill, Ward 4; Alex Fregario, Ward 5; and Nick Shontz, Ward 6. 

West, Becerra and Jones are incumbents running for another term. The rest are making their first run for the council. The nonpartisan election will be held November 5, following a September primary to narrow the field in wards 1, 3 and 4.

The Missoula County Republican Central Committee will hold a similar forum Wednesday night to endorse candidates. 

“We’re vetting our Democratic candidates to ensure that they uphold our Democratic values,” said central committee chair Karen Wickersham, who ran the forum.

To be considered for endorsement, candidates were required to fill out a questionnaire and submit it to the central committee by June 29. Nine candidates did so. In addition to the six candidates who received endorsement, candidates Amber Shaffer and Elizabeth Weaver, of Ward 1, and Greg Strandberg, of Ward 4, were also considered. Strandberg did not attend the forum.

About 60 people attended, and were able to submit questions for the candidates.

It was an evening of agreement, with all candidates sharing similar views on issues such as:  support for a city ordinance requiring background checks for the purchase of guns; support of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency; the need for affordable housing; dealing with population growth in a sustainable manner, and addressing the threats of climate change.

During a “lightning round” of questions, candidates were asked to write down their answer to questions on a sheet of paper, and then hold up their answers at the same time.  All the candidates wrote “Yes” when asked if they support human rights and equality for the GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer) community. All also wrote “Yes” when asked if they are “pro choice,” and again all wrote “Yes” when asked if they opposed the transfer or sale of federal public lands to state or private interests.  

When asked about the “top things” that could address climate change, West wrote, “Update homes and make them more energy efficient.”  Weaver wrote, “Invest in more clean energy.” Shaffer: “More carpooling and alternative forms of transportation.” Becerra: “Urban forests.” Jones: “Plant trees.” Sherrill: “Reduce carbon emissions,” and Shontz wrote, “Reduce waste to zero.”

When asked what they would consider a good minimum, hourly wage in Missoula, West wrote, “$18.” Shaffer: “$12.” Becerra: “$16.” Weaver, Jones, Sherrill and Shontz all wrote, “$15.” 

 In response to the question, “What do you see as the greatest threat to citizens in Missoula?” West answered: “Apathy.” Weaver wrote: “Lack of mental health services.” Shaffer: “Addiction.”  Becerra: “Cost of living,” and Sherrill: “Population growth.” Jones and Shontz both wrote, “Climate change.”

Before holding the vote, central committee delegate Ben Darrow expressed his disappointment that the group did not include Ward 3 candidate Dakota Hileman in the forum, and consider him for endorsement. Hileman, who is also a delegate and was in attendance, did not qualify for consideration because he submitted his questionnaire form three-days late, according to Wickersham.

Darrow said exceptions had been made in the past, and an exception should have been made for Hileman. After discussing the issue, the DCC voted to support Wickersham’s decision to not include Hileman because he missed the required deadline.

“I felt it was unfair,” Hileman said after the meeting. “They’ve made exceptions in the past. I believe it’s because I am a progressive candidate with a progressive agenda and they prefer more centrist candidates.”

Wickersham disagreed. “We’re all progressive,” she said. “Progressive values are Democratic values. It was a tough decision, a tough call, but he did not meet the deadline and it wouldn’t be fair to other candidates to make an exception.” In regards to past exceptions Wickersham said, “I’m new to the job, and I have never made exceptions.”

Also before the vote was held, central committee vice chair Chase Porter Gay gave a brief talk that was a rallying cry, of sorts, to oppose what he claims are efforts by current Ward 4 City Councilman Jesse Ramos, who is a Republican, to recruit, endorse and bring more Republicans onto the City Council who don’t share “Missoula values.”

He showed a photo of Ramos standing by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and another photo of Ramos attending a Grassroots Leadership Academy organized by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group funded by businessmen brothers David and Charles Koch.

“These are his values,” Gay said. “He is using misinformation and lies to bring outside Republican values, McConnell and Koch brothers values, to our City Council. We need to support candidates who make decisions based on facts, reason and what is best for our community.”

In an interview Wednesday morning, Ramos – who still has two years to serve in his current term — dismissed Gay’s claims.

“Mitch McConnell and the Koch Brothers could care less about what is happening with the Missoula City Council,” he said. “It’s just fear-mongering. Instead of focusing on me, they should focus on what’s best for the city of Missoula, such as lowering taxes, fixing roads, and improving our police and fire departments.”

The Missoula County Republican Central Committee will hold its forum Wednesday, starting at 6 p.m. in the Lambros Building at 3011 American Way.

For more information about the Missoula City Council, candidates and elections, go to: http://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/314/City-Council