Senatorial Race Gets Headstart on 2008

By Beacon Staff

In January as Flathead voters recover from the holidays, they will find themselves thrust into an extended political season likely to be as heated as any in recent memory. Political interest always runs higher during presidential-election years, and the current anything-goes race for the White House will certainly trickle down into the myriad state and local elections in northwest Montana.

In the Flathead, candidates for many races remain undeclared, but in the run-up to 2008, state legislative elections are beginning to take shape as candidates quietly mention to friends their intent to run, and the deadline to file the paperwork draws nigh.

For months, Republicans have made no secret of their intention to unseat north valley incumbent Democrats Sen. Dan Weinberg of Whitefish and Rep. Doug Cordier of Columbia Falls, both of whom won narrow victories in districts that have supported the GOP for other offices. Democrats, on the other hand, believe the Flathead’s growth signals a shift away from the conservative bastion it has traditionally been, and that northwest Montana is an area worthy of increased attention.

The announcement last week by Weinberg that he would not seek re-election, followed almost immediately by announcements from candidates in both parties to succeed him, ensures the campaign for Senate District 2 will be one of 2008’s central political battlegrounds. Barring announcements by anyone else, it looks as though Democrat Gil Jordan of Coram will face off against Republican Ryan Zinke of Whitefish.

Jordan, 62, is currently the executive director of the Northwest Montana Historical Society and Museum at Central School in Kalispell. A former social worker at the Lamplighter House with the Western Montana Mental Health Center, he is also a volunteer firefighter. Zinke, 46, is a retired Navy SEAL who served 22 years performing operations in areas including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf.

It’s early in the game for policy specifics, and most of the candidates are busy assembling their nascent campaign organizations. But in the wake of a bitterly partisan 2007 Legislature, both candidates spoke of a desire to run clean, issue-based campaigns and avoid character attacks on their opponent.

Describing himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” Zinke said he is dismayed at the cost of living in the Flathead.

“I know at least two dozen families that have had to move because they just can’t afford to live here,” Zinke said. “I think it’s immoral.”

Zinke disparaged the $400 property tax refund that came out of the most recent session as “disingenuous,” and predicts property tax reappraisal to be one of the central issues in the 2009 Legislature. He opposes expansions in nationalized healthcare, instead favoring measures to increase business opportunities and education – allowing Montanans to pay for healthcare themselves and encouraging young people to remain in the state.

Jordan said he was troubled by the partisan antics in the recent session, and characterizes himself as more of an independent than strictly a Democrat.

“If I had my way, once elections are over we would take away the labels,” he said, and quoted Weinberg when he added, “I put people first, not party.” Jordan also anticipates property tax reappraisal will be a crucial issue in the next session, and doesn’t feel the tax burden should “come on the shoulders of long-term residents who live in the family home.”

Jordan said he supports the work done by Flathead Democrats in the most recent session and plans to also focus on education and expanding affordable housing opportunities.

Other races are beginning to take shape as well. At a recent meeting of the Republican Central Committee, West Valley farmer Bruce Tutvedt announced his intention to run for Senate District 3, where incumbent Jerry O’Neil is term-limited. As of this writing, a Democrat has yet to announce a candidacy for that seat. In House District 6, which comprises western parts of Whitefish and Kalispell, Democrat Scott Wheeler will once again challenge incumbent Republican Bill Beck. Wheeler lost to Beck in 2006, 2,305-1,937.

A few days after announcing he would not run, Weinberg was sanguine, saying he wanted to spend less time in Helena, more time traveling, and that it was simply time to “move on.” As for any advice he might offer to his successor, he criticized politicians who focus too heavily on personal ambition, and not enough on the people they serve. Then he offered up a wish not likely to be granted in an election year.

“I think not enough people take the time to shut up and listen to their constituents,” he said. “People in political office ought to talk less and listen more.”