Rise of 'New Party' Jolts Politics of the Old West

Missoula Makeover

Ross Perot tried to do it. So did Ralph Nader. Now America's two-party political juggernaut is under siege again, this time high in Montana's Rocky Mountains.

Quietly and with little fanfare, Missoula, Mont., has emerged as one of the few cities in the nation where a minor party has upstaged the traditional Democrat-Republican power apparatus.

By mixing old-fashioned grass-roots organizing with an unabashedly progressive reform platform aimed at shaking up the status quo, breakaway New Party candidates have notched stunning victories.

Five New Party representatives now control seats on the 12-member city council, and after today's vote the number could increase to an unprecedented six. It's a clear message that, as the West experiences an influx of newcomers and a host of new issues brought about by growth, voters are eager for a legitimate option to the business-as-usual, two-party political scene.

"We see this election regionally as a battle front between the Old West and the emerging New West," neighborhood organizer Jeffrey Smith says. "I think the New Party has a role to play not only statewide but nationally."

When University of Wisconsin professor Joel Rogers founded the New Party earlier in the 1990s, he intended it to serve as a sort of left-oriented counterpoint to the right-wing popularity of the Christian Coalition. The party champions a higher minimum wage, universal health care, and urban renewal.

Here in Missoula, the party has adapted its platform to address key local issues. Among the controversial measures it endorses are impact fees on new development and buffer zones to preserve open space, as well as requiring companies that receive public-works contracts to provide child care.

These more-liberal positions have created flash points with the local business community. As a result, campaigning that used to be done door to door has now entered the realm of high-stakes politics. For example, the pro-business Citizens for Common Sense Government committee has in recent weeks unleashed an advertising campaign underwritten by developers and land brokers. In turn, the group has backed its own slate of anti-regulation candidates.

ET New Party officials see Missoula - a working-class college town - as fertile ground, and they're using it as a beachhead for third-party activism in the inner West and beyond.

Plans already are under way to expand the New Party's influence to other states, though organizers say they intend to pick their contests carefully.

This means that the party has kept its focus local, hoping to build grass-roots support. So far, candidates endorsed by the New Party have won three-quarters of the nearly 150 political races they have entered from Portland, Ore., to Annapolis, Md.

But the record may be a bit deceiving. In some races, the party had endorsed a candidate from one of the established parties who had a similar platform to its own. Now, this process, called "fusion," has been outlawed by the US Supreme Court.

Still, some say today's election has important implications for the American political landscape.

"I think there is a certain inevitability to the growth of additional parties in this country," says Pat Williams, a loyal Democrat and a nine-term Montana congressman who retired last year. "What's happening in Missoula and a few other places are precursors to that trend."

Many attribute the New Party's success to a growing discontent among Democratic voters. Critics say the Democrats are unwilling to stake out riskier positions on issues such as urban sprawl. It's a development that concerns Mr. Williams.

"The New Party is a divisive force because it has caused constituents to separate themselves on policy questions and ideology," he says.

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