There’s a running debate in the journalism world, which is pretty much everyone with a social media account now, about whether newspapers should endorse political candidates. The core of the con argument seems to be that endorsements are ineffective. Just look at Donald Trump! (But not directly, and only through protective eyewear.) This argument jumps off from the false premise that newspapers should be telling readers how to vote, and readers should vote the way newspapers tell them to.
We’re not interested in telling you how to vote. That’s not our job. Our job is to report on who’s running, and on whoever gets elected. Vote for who you want, by your own lights. If you’re among the minority who typically bothers to vote at all, you probably already have. Thanks, and good for you.
So why endorse, then?
Because we still think there’s value in the exercise of setting out to develop an opinion and come to a conclusion. As editors and reporters, we’re in a privileged position. We can call and email the candidates and they’ll (mostly) come spend an hour of their day answering questions about why they’re running and what they hope to accomplish and how. We get to hear their pitch and observe their presentation and press for clarification when they, or we, are unclear. Then we get to gather in a smoke-free basement and compare notes and argue nuances and decide who we, as voters, would choose to represent us, and why.
It’s the same thing, with varying levels of access, that you do—at least we hope you do—with your friends and family and colleagues.
We have the additional privilege of possessing a platform from which to share our deliberations and decisions, in hopes of participating in those conversations. We hope that these endorsements offer some combination of information and food for thought. They show, at least, how we think about the candidates and the issues in play. But we certainly don’t presume to sway you. Deciding who to vote for is your job. We salute those of you who do it.
The Independent endorsement interviews were conducted by general manager Andy Sutcliffe, editor Brad Tyer and staff reporters Derek Brouwer, Alex Sakariassen and Susan Elizabeth Shepard. Endorsements were written by the Independent’s editorial staff.
John Engen is a personable guy. He’s a likable guy. He’s a smart guy, and he seems to be a frank guy. He has a lot of fans—obviously, given the tenure of his time in office. During that time, he has also, it seems, generated a motivated minority—(well, we’ll see)—of people who appear to hate his guts. Most anti-Engen voters would never be so crude, but the gist of the ascendant Engen critique is memorably (and, yes, shittily) conveyed in the title of a not-quite-viral blog post by City Council candidate and writer Greg Strandberg: “Fat, drunk & stupid.”
The mayor is a recovering alcoholic, recently divorced and has a well-documented history of struggles with depression and weight, and those facts have exposed him to character attacks.
We reject the character attacks. We’re all flawed. Flawed people can govern well.
Likewise, we reject the character attacks on Lisa Triepke. We’re not inclined to nitpick the bureaucratic scheduling of whatever government benefits she received during a significant transition in her financial life, and we’ve seen no evidence to suggest that she was trying to game the system during the brief period in which she received those meager benefits. In fact, we (at least some of us) think that Triepke’s financial navigation of her divorce, rental property acquisitions and all, is, as the candidate has suggested, a feather in her cap as a manager of assets.
Which circles back to the more substantive critique of Engen, which is held or at least flirted with by a constituency much broader than the Anyone-but-Engens: that he’s spendthrift when it comes to taxpayer money. Exhibit A, of course, is Mountain Water. The legal bill for that acquisition, once predicted by Engen at $400,000, is now $8 million and possibly counting, and the city has yet to release invoices, which feeds into a narrative of the Engen administration as over-controlling and opaque.
Clearly, there’s a constituency that isn’t feeling heard and an overlapping constituency that’s chafing under the bond-happy obligations of a boomtown that gives the appearance of outgrowing some of its citizens’ means. We get it. The angle for us is more minimum wage and home prices than fixed wage and property taxes, but the frustrations are similar.
Unfortunately, it’s expensive to live in a thriving city, and we haven’t heard any solutions from Triepke—who declined to participate in our endorsement interviews—more substantive than that she’d take a “close look” at city expenditures. As a justification for change, that strikes us as pretty thin soup, and we can’t say we feel positively motivated by a campaign that from its “Enough Is Enough” motto on down seems fueled more by resentment and suspicion than by anything else.
And yes, the media, too, have been looped into the climate of suspicion, with vague allegations of influence peddling. We’re closer to those supposed mechanisms than most people, and that allegation is both specious and false. It’s based on a fantastical premise, too: that absent a directive from above, we’d be endorsing Triepke. We wouldn’t be, and we’re not. Solely because we haven’t been convinced that she’s the best candidate currently vying for the job. We think that Engen, for all his flaws and challenges, is.
Endorsement: John Engen
Candidates in other wards have talked a lot about South Reserve’s infamous (and so-called) “bridge to nowhere.” In Ward 1, incumbent Bryan von Lossberg is concerned about a bridge to somewhere. Specifically, he’s troubled about the state of the Northside pedestrian bridge, a piece of infrastructure that he, his family and scores of others use on a regular basis to access downtown.
“It’s in horrible shape,” he told us, painting a picture of cracked concrete and rusted steel stemming from water damage. The state of the bridge, he says, is indicative of the broader connectivity problems plaguing his ward that he’d like to tackle in another term.
There’s a lot to like about von Lossberg at the end of his first term. He co-chairs the mayor’s Downtown Advisory Commission, placing him at the forefront of issues like infrastructure improvement and panhandling, and he hopes to resurrect the now-dormant issue of open-access broadband in Missoula. Von Lossberg also played an active role in the Mountain Water acquisition, which he said necessitates a significant amount of city follow-through regarding service line upgrades, water rights and conservation issues. Another area where he feels a particular need to help move Missoula forward is the establishment of low-barrier housing for the homeless—or, as it’s more commonly and crassly known, “wet housing.”
Absent low-barrier housing, “Our first responders essentially have two choices: jail or the ER,” von Lossberg says. “Those aren’t great choices for those responders, and those aren’t good choices for the person who needs help.”
Von Lossberg confesses that much of his first term was spent simply getting up to speed on the ins and outs of city business. And true, he spent a fair amount of time last year shepherding a co-sponsored ordinance to extend background checks to private gun sales past Council, only to have Attorney General Tim Fox overturn the law. But even if he weren’t running unopposed this year, we’re confident we’d like to see what von Lossberg does with the knowledge and momentum he’s built.
Endorsement: Bryan von Lossberg
“Enough is enough” is the battle cry of the disgruntled and tax-burdened opponents of the current city administration. “Enough of what?” retorts Ward 2 incumbent Jordan Hess.
The line makes us chuckle, readying us for the defense of city spending that follows. “We’ve done some really good work,” Hess says, referencing Mountain Water and the city’s transportation policy.
Transportation is in Hess’ wheelhouse (he’s the transportation director at UM), and it’s where he’s able to make the most convincing case that city priorities are not misplaced. Take one of the “enough is enough” crowd’s favorite targets: the Reserve Street pedestrian bridge. Look, Hess says (we’re paraphrasing here), people use the bridge, and even if you don’t, you’re benefitting from the pressure it relieves from a congested intersection (see “Southern crossings,” pg. 6).
Good public officials can explain their decisions clearly and confidently while still keeping an ear open to different viewpoints. As Hess runs unopposed for a second term, he passes that test. He won’t let trails and bike lanes become ensnarled in a provincial culture war, yet he was recently willing to hear out residents in the Linda Vista neighborhood who insisted that a city-mandated bike lane didn’t make sense along one of their streets.
Hess says Missoula is undergoing an “exciting, transformative period of growth”—a true statement, certainly, but one that tastes a little too much like Kool-Aid without acknowledgement of the city’s accompanying growing pains. Hess adds that Council ought to be using the tools at its disposal, including TIF, zoning and “transparent investment” to “guide that development.” We agree, and hope he can translate the approach he’s brought to transportation to the city’s housing conundrum, where leadership on Council is sorely needed.
Endorsement: Jordan Hess
At first glance, all three candidates in Ward 3 seem ideologically similar, a trio of progressive and engaged citizens. At second glance, beneath the surface, differences in experience and personality become apparent.
Tom Winter is youthful and enthusiastic, and we appreciate his obvious willingness to learn. He also understands that no single Ward 3 issue is independent of the others—that transportation, housing and historic preservation are all intertwined. His thoughts on policy, however, need some more time in the oven; one of them includes a theoretical big box store tax, which makes little sense in a retail climate where shopping centers are losing box retailers at a clip that mimics the loss of mom-and-pop stores two decades ago.
Heather Harp is a more-than-qualified candidate who would make an excellent councilmember. Her time as president of the Poverello board gives her a solid grounding in the challenges facing the house-less and precariously housed citizens of Missoula. For two decades, she has been an engaged community member, and she’s racked up an impressive list of endorsements. Like many of the first-time candidates in this election, Harp was compelled to run for office in part by the results of the last presidential election. Harp is thoughtful and compassionate and would surely work to do right by Missoulians. Given her endorsements, her yard sign saturation and her deep community ties, we suspect she’ll win handily, and that she’ll be an asset to the Council.
But, unlike voters restricted to candidates running to represent their ward, we have the luxury of considering this election in terms of the overall makeup of City Council. Fact is, there are a lot of good, thoughtful councilmembers, and sometimes they need some pushing to reach further, especially in negotiations concerning development. Investing in redevelopment does pay dividends, but so does ensuring that developers who do more for Missoulians get more done for them. Jon Van Dyke, one of the founders of Missoula community radio station KFGM, is among this crop of candidates’ most insistent voices about how the Fox Triangle developers could have been held to higher standards of green building and worker treatment—after all, they’re not making any more downtown riverfront land.
Van Dyke’s academic (political science and public administration) and practical (anyone who’s worked at a community radio station knows about thankless tasks) background gives him a solid policy grounding. And we think he would bring a welcome dose of stubbornness to Council. He’s not the most charismatic speaker we interviewed, but he would be an important addition to a City Council that could stand a little vinegar mixed into its honey.
While it’s not a bad thing that we have a functional city government, it would be nice to see someone on Council willing to really push for an agenda that keeps the daily lives of working Missoulians at the forefront. Van Dyke suggests by far the most willingness to push back on what the city should require from developers who are incentivized to build here.
“The Fox Triangle, there was somebody knocking on the door saying, ‘Hey, yes, we will get this empty lot out of your way and have some new development here.’ There was the sense of, ‘All right, these developers have a great plan and they’re being responsive to our needs.’ We’re not getting any guarantees on labor or wages but ‘trust us,’ and I wasn’t convinced. And I wish the Council and the mayor’s office would have fought a little harder to get some guarantees.” We think that with Van Dyke on board, they’d fight a little harder.
Endorsement: Jon Van Dyke
We’d never have guessed, prior to our endorsement interviews, that urban deer would feature so prominently in a Council race. Every single candidate in Ward 4 has mentioned at one time or another what a risk to public safety these hoofed renegades pose. For voters looking for a representative to solve this and the myriad other issues facing Missoula’s southern reaches, there’s no shortage of choices this year. With four candidates to pick from, Ward 4 is by far this election’s most crowded field.
Which of the candidates is the best fit for Council is a different question altogether. There’s no denying that incumbent Jon Wilkins, seeking reelection to a fourth term, has the most experience. Twelve years is a long time in city government, and in that time Wilkins has made a name for himself as a man of consistency and candor. He voted in favor of Missoula’s non-discrimination ordinance, supported efforts to bolster citywide sex assault education and never backed from his critical view of Accessory Dwelling Units, despite taking flak.
But we’re not convinced that Wilkins’ status as an independent wildcard is itself enough to win another Indy endorsement. The fact that this is Wilkins’ first re-election run with opposition suggests that maybe Ward 4 agrees. Wilkins declined to participate in our endorsement interviews, citing our coverage of his behavior on Council during a budget disagreement over the city’s relationship with a nonprofit run by his wife. While we don’t take his rebuff personally, it is professionally troubling. Combined with our uncertainty whether another four years will lead to anything more substantial from Wilkins than unpredictability, we find it difficult to support him again.
On to the competition. Though Greg Strandberg’s concern for Ward 4 and its residents seems earnest enough, his nihilistic campaign is far more focused on what’s wrong with Missoula. Taxes are too high and wages are too low, Strandberg told us, and he lays the blame squarely at the feet of Mayor John Engen—a man Strandberg has called “fat, drunk & stupid” on his blog, Big Sky Words. Asked if he felt he could work with Engen after leveling such criticism, Strandberg said he couldn’t see himself winning a race in an election in which Engen also won, adding that he is “riding [Lisa] Triepke’s coattails.” Strandberg has expended his efforts identifying what he sees as wasteful city spending, and spent too little time articulating exactly what he’d do differently. On top of that, he’s already filed to run for Sen. Jon Tester’s U.S. Senate seat next year, leading us to doubt how serious his Council bid really is.
Then there’s Jesse Ramos, the financial adviser whom Wilkins criticized earlier this year for campaigning at Council meetings (after a brief dust-up, Ramos voluntarily dropped the issue). Ramos said he’s running primarily in response to rising property taxes. And in a twist, he brought a certain level of financial savvy to our conversation, focusing on how the city could make its budget more efficient by identifying each department’s base needs and then allocating for additional costs as they arise.
Ramos insinuated that his work with corporate clients has prepared him to manage a municipal budget—a comment that sounded dangerously close to that whole “run government like a business” shtick. As for cutting costs, Ramos recommended having city cemetery employees double as snowplow drivers in winter. We have a hard time buying that as a path toward major savings.
Then we have Chris Badgley. A single dad with his own home renovation company, Badgley impressed us on a number of counts, not least of which was that he showed up to the interview with several pages of notes. He hasn’t built his candidacy on complaints, but he isn’t promising the moon, either. In fact, Badgley’s suggestions for improving Ward 4 were small enough and simple enough to actually sound doable. For starters, he’s in favor of building a roundabout at the base of Pattee Canyon Drive to alleviate congestion. He’s also interested in making Council meetings more accessible for single parents and others who can’t attend in person, and in streamlining the permitting process for residential and commercial projects (something he said could be as easy as developing a flowchart).
Badgley also did some math in preparation for our meeting. His personal property taxes penciled out to $8 a day, he said, which he considers a bargain for the list of city services he gets in return. We were particularly intrigued by Badgley’s thoughts on affordable housing; one suggestion involved the construction of starter homes on city-owned land that would allow would-be homeowners to prove their ability to cover long-term mortgage payments. Any affordable housing project would have to include easy access to public transportation, Badgley added, whether that be a bike trail or a bus line. Speaking of buses, Badgley wants to see Mountain Line run on Sundays and past 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Amen.
Endorsement: Chris Badgley
Cathy Deschamps has a long history of serious neighborhood involvement via the South 39th Street Neighborhood Council, working to increase traffic safety along Brooks. She also has a fascinating family background in the Missoula area, having grown up on land that would later become part of Travelers’ Rest. Her granular neighborhood concerns make her a great advocate for the ward.
But Deschamps has a shaky grasp on some basic tenets of democracy. Last week, when a visitor commented on Deschamps’ campaign Facebook page that it was unfair that county residents who own businesses in Missoula (and pay Missoula taxes) couldn’t vote in city elections, Deschamps said she agreed. We’re disturbed she so readily agreed that taxes should buy a vote in place of citizenship.
Stacie Anderson astutely summed up one of Ward 5’s unique challenges: “It’s a ward that may feel a little detached from what’s happening in the urban center in downtown Missoula.” While the central city enjoys a revitalized downtown, public transportation and the appearance of being prioritized for city services, the highly residential Ward 5 sometimes feels like a bedroom community. But it needs an infusion of commercial life and its own place in city planning and infrastructure, Anderson says.
For her ward, she advocated for a greater inventory of starter homes and homes at all levels, an expansion of Mountain Line service and more restaurants and (early-closing) bars to give people places to congregate without having to drive into the more commercial parts of town. Her grasp of city policy was thorough, from the details of the Mountain Water and EKO Compost acquisitions to the financing of the South Reserve pedestrian bridge.
Anderson spoke with great enthusiasm about all the doors she’s knocked on in Ward 5, and the time she’s taken to address residents’ concerns in person. “People’s eyes start glazing over because I get really wonky,” Anderson says, but we don’t think that’s really true, because she’s so animated in itemizing the 36 percent of property taxes that goes to the city that it’s hard not to find it fascinating. We commend her willingness to try to communicate the complexities of city finance to the public.
Anderson serves as the executive director for Carol’s List, an organization whose aim is to elect progressive women candidates to office. She’s also served on the board of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. She returned to Montana after a brief time in Seattle with her husband. We think her depth of understanding of policy and her willingness to patiently engage with constituents will serve them well.
Endorsement: Stacie Anderson
Typically, candidates for public office will “pin” their most flattering posts to the top of their social media profiles. Say, a photo of the candidate kissing a baby, or something practical, like John Engen’s three-point graphic explaining how to vote for him.
The post pinned to Ward 6 candidate Julie Merritt’s Facebook campaign page is neither. It’s a photo of a letter published in the Missoulian in September, titled “Cronyism to increase on City Council?”
The letter calls out Merritt for her day job as a water resource specialist with WGM Group, an engineering firm that gets a lot of city contracts. Merritt captions the photo with an explanation of how she’ll commit to avoiding “real and perceived conflicts of interest” on Council by abstaining from votes and discussions tied to her work.
She took the same tack during our interview, not shying from the topic even a bit, and responding to questions without the least hint of defensiveness.
That’s a relief, since Merritt is voters’ only choice in Ward 6—a neighborhood that needs, and has enjoyed, strong representation by outgoing Council chair Marilyn Marler. Merritt certainly has the background to be a worthy successor. She’s led the Franklin to the Fort Neighborhood Council and raised money for playground equipment at Franklin School as PTA president.
In addition to knowing her neighborhood, Merritt demonstrates a good grasp of city issues, particularly the complexities of development. She notes that developers “feel hog-tied by regulations,” but is also willing to lend an ear to inclusive zoning as part of a housing policy. Then she really surprises us, saying she liked what Mark Anderlik, of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council, was trying to accomplish by (unsuccessfully) pushing for labor, housing and environmental stipulations at the Riverfront Triangle. Given WGM’s financial stake in that development, it’s an encouraging display of independent thought.
Endorsement: Julie Merritt
We were at the Missoula County Public Defender Office, talking to an attorney about her frustration with a current case, when another attorney walked in with a sentencing order from 2013. He set it down and pointed to notes scribbled in the margins. The charge: theft of $9.92 sweatpants from Walmart. The defendant, a mentally ill woman, spent 19 days in county jail before being transferred to Warm Springs, all before pleading no contest to the crime.
Public defenders deal with hundreds of cases each year, so it takes an especially upsetting one to stick with an attorney four years later. We spoke with four public defenders sharing similar stories, which they offered up in that scattershot fashion that’s a telltale sign of exasperation.
Their stories mirror those relayed in the city-county jail diversion master plan, completed last year, including the time an individual was jailed for failing to appear on a $75 dog-at-large ticket (the night in jail cost the county $108). The report included worrisome information that the average jail stay for people booked out of Judge Kathleen Jenks’ court nearly doubled from 2011 to 2015, to 13 days.
Challenger Brendan McQuillan is running on a promise to embrace jail diversion and bring restorative justice to the bench. We’re convinced that’s the right direction: Courts should not be in the business of allowing low-level infractions to derail lives at taxpayer expense. The question is whether Jenks, an experienced judge, can effect change herself, and whether McQuillan, who’s never been on the bench, can do it better.
There’s a lot to like in McQuillan’s background. His three years as a public defender in Billings, Helena and Polson, four years at the Montana Innocence Project and two years as a sex crimes prosecutor in Lake County comprise a balance of experiences that should allow him to appreciate both sides of a case. But he’ll certainly have a learning curve. His critiques of Jenks’ court sound like they’re channeled directly from the judge’s objectors, including criminal justice reformers and a significant number of public defenders, and his advocacy for a more compassionate judicial philosophy doesn’t come with a specific plan to implement it.
Neither situation is surprising in a challenger. We do worry, however, that the objectors McQuillan is channeling have allowed themselves to villainize Jenks.
We understand why. Jenks talks about her court in strictly analytical terms, emphasizing accountability without pausing to signal empathy for defendants in difficult circumstances, or really even paying lip service to the moral perils of overincarceration.
In other ways, we find Jenks to be competent and convincing. Her success in overhauling courtroom logistics, for instance, is no trivial matter. And she makes an important point when she says that real progress on jail diversion will require some taxpayer investment. She came across as sincere and even charming when she joked that she’s “not incapable of learning.”
That comment was made in reference to her recent change in courtroom policy regarding suspended driver’s licenses. Criminal justice reformers have identified the practice of suspending licenses as an area where courts help trap poor people in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Jenks says she’s been using the tool responsibly for years, but recently agreed, at the request of public defenders, to more frequently waive the $100 so-called license reinstatement fee for poor defendants trying to get their lives back on track.
We were glad to hear it. Then, a few days later at the public defender office, one of the attorneys was venting about a pending case. She had asked one of Jenks’ assistant judges to waive the license reinstatement fee for her client, a man on food stamps. The request was denied.
Endorsement: Brendan McQuillan