by Pete Talbot

No breaking news here. This is a short story about Missoula in the ’90s and an alternative party. It was called the New Party and I was a member.

Lately, there has been a lot of venting, some with good reason, over Democratic disappointments: from Obama to Baucus to Tester to Schweitzer. This talk inevitably leads to a call for a third party.

Here’s a very personal third party experience:

After watching a majority of Democrats on city council vote against sustainable land-use planning, affordable housing, a city-wide living wage and numerous other progressive measures, I heard about a third party being formed. I had attended a Missoula County Democratic Central Committee meeting; made up of mostly good old boys and girls whose main concern was where to hold the party’s summer picnic. Then I went to a New Party meeting. Energetic folks from all walks of life were talking strategy: how to recruit and win campaigns, what good policy was and how to achieve it, how to do outreach to the disenfranchised, and much more. I was hooked.

It worked well, for awhile. Missoula’s New Party had four-of-twelve seats on council. With sympathetic votes from two-or-three other councilors, and even the mayor, progressive legislation was enacted.

New Party Icon

A Fair Economy.
A Real Democracy.
A New Party.

We had, at the least, a half-a-dozen year run. Missoula was the better for it.

There were other New Party chapters in places like the Twin Cities and Madison, Wis.; Little Rock, Maryland, Chicago and New York.

I went to a few workshops and conventions. I bunked with Hispanic and African-American activists. I heard from some of the best of the left, folks from outside Montana’s typical political circles. I even met Barrack Obama at a Chicago meeting when he was running for the Illinois Legislature (he was endorsed by the New Party).

And what struck me was how connected we were, all hoping for the same things — things that the Democratic Party had promised: decent health care and a good education; peace; gender, social and economic equality for all. It was transforming.

New Party principles were basically stripped down Democratic principles.

The demise of the New Party started with a Supreme Court decision against fusion voting, in a 6-3 ruling that said folks couldn’t vote on more than one party line.

(Fusion voting wasn’t an easy sell — more complicated to explain than our ingrained two-party system — but it’s actually pretty straightforward. The State of New York does it successfully. Here’s how it would work.)

The SCOTUS decision and some other factors killed the New Party in Missoula. There were a couple of hard-fought contests that the NP lost by small margins, which took some wind out of our sails. And, of course, leadership in the two major parties vilified the New Party, occasionally joining ranks to defeat a New Party candidate. NP membership started drifting away toward other, more specific causes, such as smart growth, gay rights, economic justice, and labor and environmental issues.

I turned my attention to the Democratic Party in hopes of building coalitions and advancing progressive policy. At the time, the state Democratic Party was on the ropes: a Republican governor, and Republican majorities in both chambers. We fared a bit better on the congressional landscape with Pat Williams and Max Baucus, but they had their foils in Ron Marlenee, Rick Hill, Conrad Burns and Denny Rehberg.

Party conventions were sparsely attended. (I was actually elected to the state’s executive board because I was the only person running for the western district seat.) But Democrats made a comeback, picking up seats in both the state house and senate, some statewide offices and finally governor and our other U.S. Senate seat. Nothing like winning to help build the party. So now there’s a machine, and probably not a lot of room for questioning and dissension in the ranks, or for perceived interlopers such as myself.

After reading this account, one might think I have a great fondness for third parties. I do. But I’m not willing to give up on the Democrats, yet.

Montana’s perennial candidate Bob Kelleher (D,R,G) wanted a parliamentary system of government — with its multiple parties and coalition building inherent in that system. Perhaps not a bad idea. But since that isn’t likely to happen in my lifetime, I’ll keep working, and pushing reform when necessary, for the party that best represents the people.

Corporate domination of politics has to be reigned in. We need strong campaign finance reform and lobbyists need to be subservient to legislators, not vice-versa.

Then, maybe, citizens will have renewed faith in and accountability from their elected officials.

The populist movement of the late 1800s came about because the difference in the two major parties at that time was minuscule. Let’s hope that message hasn’t been lost on Democratic Party leadership. As should be obvious, the electorate really wants the change that was promised in 2008. Please, pay attention.

  1. Big Swede

    Love to hear the definition of a “Fair Economy”.

  2. petetalbot

    Glad you asked, Swede. I watched a documentary last night on the Enron debacle. So I can give you some examples of what ISN’T a fair economy:

    Enron execs, colluding with banks and traders, to defraud consumers and bring rolling blackouts to California.

    Closer to home, think Montana Power. Goldman-Sachs and CEO Bob Gannon make millions while running a company into the ground; consumers, employees and stockholders take it in the shorts.

    And that’s just in the energy sector.

    How about million-dollar bonuses, on top of bailouts, for the executives who brought us the recent ‘great recession’ while small businesses go under and folks lose their homes?

    Here’s a brief example of a fair economic structure, taken from the New Party principles:

    “The democratization of our banking and financial system — including greater accountability of those charged with public stewardship of our banking system, worker-owner control over their pension assets, community-controlled alternative financial institutions, and full disclosure of lending practices.”

    • Big Swede

      That’s a relief Pete.

      For a minute I was thinking economic fairness meant taking half my income and giving it to some guy sitting on his ass.

  3. Pogo Possum

    Pete, let me give you and anyone else contemplating reintroducing a 3rd party in Montana just two suggestions drawn from my memories of Missoula’s New Party. First though, I want to make it clear that from what I saw and heard, you were always above board, respectful and honest Pete. Some of your New Party members were not. They could be downright mean and arrogant.

    Suggestion #1: Don’t go out the way to insult, bully and piss off the base of the Democratic Party. Stories from the Democratic faithful were rampant about the insulting attitudes and remarks by many of the New Party followers. Everyone who has worked in local party politics knows Central Committee meetings can be contentious whether Democratic or Republican. Many Democrats told me the New Party members added a new definition to contentious with their own special brand of shenanigans and tricks. The ultimate insult I witnessed occurred when the newly elected Chair of the Democratic Central Committee (who was a New Party member) stood up in the Missoula City Council and told long time Council member Jack Reidy (a long time Democrat, Union member and member of the Democratic Central Committee) that the New Party run Democratic Central Committee no longer considered him to be a Democrat. You could see the hurt and anger in Jack’s eyes when the young lady threw that in his face at a public televised meeting. Jack is not the only Democrat insulted like that.

    Suggestion #2: Don’t lie to the public and to Democrats about your intentions then pretend to be insulted when called out. When the New Party first hit town, many New Party members put the word out to long time Democrats that they were just there to reinvigorate the Party, help Democrats get elected and bring it back to its roots. Many Democrats were initially supportive thinking they and the New Party were, as one old time Dem told me, “on the same side.” When the party faithful actually got into the heart of the organization, they discovered the New Party bad mouthed Democrats as much or more than Republicans.

    The real goal of the New Party, as co-founder Joel Rogers bragged about during his presentation at a University of Montana speaking engagement was to work within the Democratic Party infrastructure and pretend to be Democrats until it was strong enough to run as a single party and destroy both Democrats and Republicans. I believe it was Rogers who said the Democratic Party was no longer a useful organization and needed to be replaced. Many local Democrats were enraged and insulted when they finally figured this out.

    In the final dying stage of Missoula’s New Party, it was reviled and distrusted more by local Democrats than by Republicans. In fact, one way to get an edge in an election, whether a Dem or a Republican, was to accuse an opponent of being a New Party member. Just ask Mike Kurtz about New Party accusations against him when he lost to Democrat endorsed Myrt Charney for City Council.

    In the end, both Democratic and Republican candidates knocking on doors reported that people in Democratic households would frequently ask if they were one of those “damn New Party people.”

    It may have started off as a noble experiment for you and some of your friends, Pete, but the New Party had an ugly side and some less than noble people in the middle of it.

    • petetalbot

      Pogo, your comments are insightful as to the perception of the New Party by some. Your final analysis is skewed. Perhaps your sources are suspect.

      The New Party challenged the status quo and this made the old guard defensive, and perhaps a little jealous. Who likes being challenged by aggressive, well-organized campaigns?

      I suppose there was some arrogance in the membership. Members hailed from hard-fought battles in the women’s movement, social justice, labor and environmental campaigns. They’d paid their dues.

      But the New Party always rejected the “shenanigans and tricks” and “insults” that you refer to. Those were the politics we fought against. Many members came from the peace movement and hostile confrontation was anathema to them. The NP wasn’t as contrite as some in the established party hierarchy would have liked. That wasn’t NP’s role.

      We brought new energy and people into the political realm. We worked hard for our candidates. We passed some good policy that has served Missoula well.

      Finally, if you read the post again, please note that I’m not advocating for a third party. I’m just recounting some memories of political activism that I was proud to be a part of.

  4. problembear

    until the obama election, no one would ever have accused me of being very politically involved. so i have no real dog in this fight and not much experience, but i do remember several years ago a good friend on the central committee asked me to do some volunteer sign work. but i can tell you that the brief contact which i had with several new party members that day steeled my resolve to remain an independent.

  5. Lizard

    thank you pete for this post, and pogo for your contribution; i had no idea. i’ve only lived in this town for 10 years, and am relatively young, but it seems to me there are some rifts that go back decades. good thing us youngsters are starting to win council seats and make other runs (shout out to roy houseman!)

    if the strategy was like pogo described, to infiltrate through misrepresentation and disrupt from within, then that’s pretty weak, and ultimately self-defeating.

    but this post forces me to acknowledge i really have no idea what a successful alternative to the corporate stranglehold would look like.

    what i do know is the US social forum happening in detroit is happening in detroit because there is no other alternative–either radical change (shutting down sections of the city, building a network of urban gardens, neighborhood focused patrols, etc.) or the city dies.

    naomi klein’s shock doctrine describes how disasters, either man-made or natural, are moments when existing social orders and institutions are most vulnerable to change. around the world (like in haiti happening right now) disasters are used to exploit local populations and resources by the elite moneyed class. because crisis is opportunity.

    but in places like detroit and flint–decimated by america’s shift from a manufacturing-driven economy to a debt-fueled, funny-money, perpetual war economy–there is an opportunity to get there first and use the opportunity to show there are other models to consider.

    i would suggest anyone interested check out the collapse party because its author recognizes where we appear to be going and offers practical ideas about how to mitigate the effects of the inevitable transition.

  6. Pogo Possum

    The “shenanigans and tricks” comments came from numerous Democrats in Missoula, several of whom had served on the Democratic Central Committee. Anyone who was around in the early to mid 1990s would know the names. You may not agree with their comments, but they are hardly “suspect” sources.

    The interaction between the New Party Central Committee Chair and Jack Reidy is an example of both the New Party shenanigans and the insults accusations. The young lady opened her remarks by stating positions taken by the Democratic Central Committee. Jack responded that he was a member of the Democratic Central Committee and he was not aware of any Central Committee votes on those specific positions. The young lady then said the Central Committee had met without him and some other members in attendance. Jack then accused her and the New Party members of repeated failure to give proper notice to all the members of the Central Committee and to any Democrat who wanted to attend. He was very upset and said this had happened on numerous occasions and he and other Democrats were tired of their games. That is when she said he was not being notified because they (the New Party controlled Democratic Central Committee) no longer considered him to be a Democrat. He sure looked like he had been insulted. Over the next few weeks other long time Democrats were very vocal in their views that New Party members were going out of their way to insult the older men and women of the Missoula Democratic Party that had been in the trenches for decades before the New Party. Problem Bear seems to have experienced this first hand.

    I know the fusion issue is the reason quoted by national New Party members for the demise of the group but I don’t fully buy it. From what I saw, the New Party wore out it’s welcome among Democrats when its members showed their true colors. In the very end, few Democrats wanted anything to do with the New Party and went out of their way to distance themselves from the group.

    The anger and hard feelings against the New Party felt by many Democrats did not exist because of the court ruling on fusion. You may feel the NP didn’t insult people or use tricks to stack the Central Committee with last second appointments or randomly tell Democrats they were no longer welcome at Central Committee meetings but many other Dems see it differently.

    In the end, the New Party didn’t leave town, it was run out of town.

  7. petetalbot

    ” … use tricks to stack the Central Committee … ”

    Pogo, here’s how you stack the Central Committee. You file for precinct committeeman or woman. Your name appears on the ballot. You either get elected or you don’t. Not a lot of trickery there.

  8. Pogo Possum

    Pete, these aren’t my words or charges. They came from several Democrats. If I remember correctly (it has been over 15 years) one issue occuered when some old line Democratic Central Committee members walked into a Central Committee meeting to vote on a replacement to a Democratic candidate who had withdrawn. They were suprised to see a room full of newly appointed members on the Central Committee all of whom were New Party members. The old line Dems told me they felt the New Party chair played fast and loose with the appointment process rules to stack the deck without informing them.

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