Maybe I’m biased, but Montana politics seem to produce a better story-to-population ratio than any local politics I have seen. Case in point: Missoula and Ravalli counties held their primary elections yesterday, and they produced not one, nor two, but three interesting stories—four if you count the sheriff’s race. TJ McDermott beat his two Democratic opponents to become the Missoula County Sheriff—there are no Republican candidates in the general—shortly after county Democrats amended their bylaws to endorse him, and also after he sued the Sheriff’s Department. That’s not even the best story from yesterday, though.
Probably, the most important story is Kirsten Pabst beating Josh Van de Wetering to become Missoula County Attorney, in another race with no Republican in the generals. Pabst was once a deputy prosecutor under embattled CA Fred Van Valkenburg, but she left the office and eventually joined the defense team of Jordan Johnson, the UM Grizzlies quarterback acquitted of rape. All that happened while Van Valkenburg refused to cooperate with a DOJ investigation into how his office, the city and the university handle sexual assaults—a crisis whose resolution will be the defining issue of Pabst’s first year.
The Pabst story is probably the most interesting, since she could take the county attorney’s office in either direction. She was a protege of Van Valkenburg who also resigned her position and joined the other side in a high-profile case. She’s a woman who remarked to the press that one of the most persistent “rape myths” is that everyone accused is guilty. She’s called for reconciliation with the DOJ, but she also joined a case that symbolized what’s wrong with Missoula’s attitude toward sexual assaults. So there’s a lot of fun ambiguity.
Those of you who prefer clear-cut morality tales might enjoy Ravalli County. Incumbent commissioners and arch-conservatives Suzy Foss and Ron Stoltz both lost their primaries, possibly because they A) refused federal Title X funding for reproductive health and thereby shut down the only women’s clinic in the county, and B) appointed spectacularly incompetent treasurer Valerie Stamey. Stamey, whose candidacy for re-election can only be described as gutsy, also lost with 4% of the vote. Evil is punished, you guys.
So we’ve got a victory whose meaning is yet unclear and a manichean cluster of losses no less satisfying for their inevitability. The third thing—the punch that refines the pattern, if you will—is incumbent Missoula County commissioner Michelle Landquist’s loss, in the primary, to relative unknown Nicole Rowley. Readers of The Missoulian will recognize Landquist as a machine for generating intemperate quotes. The journalists of Missoula County will miss her rock-solid wit and rapier judgment, but probably anyone else will be better. It’s not often that an incumbent loses her primary, but Landquist earned it.
About 16,000 people voted in the Republican and Democratic primaries for County Commissioner. That’s roughly 23% of the population of Missoula County. Many county residents aren’t eligible to vote, but many more could and don’t. In the end, that may be the most interesting thing about local politics in western Montana: the pool is not just lively, but small enough that any candidate or activist can make a difference.
Thanks to low turnout, even the individual voter sees his power magnified by a more substantial factor than he would in most towns. Missoula politics is weird, possibly crooked, and fascinating on the level of sport as much as governance. Like all sports, though, it’s more fun to play than to watch. You should pick it up.