City Council Member Has Long Road to U.S. House

Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By ERIK ANDERSON

Dave Strohmaier wants to be Montana’s next congressman and he wants to do it without running against his hometown of Missoula.

Missoula is widely known as an unusually liberal part of the Treasure State, voting solidly Democrat in statewide contests and supporting often progressive local ordinances.

Fellow Democrat Dave Wanzenreid, a state senator who briefly flirted with a run for governor, says candidates from Missoula face clear challenges.

“The most significant obstacle, I guess, is that it’s pretty well known that people around Montana regard public servants from Missoula different than other people,” says Wanzenreid, who has been active in statewide politics since 1974. “I’ve concluded that Montanans regard Missoulians in the same light as Californians; we don’t know why we don’t like them, but we just don’t.”

Strohmaier disagrees, saying his work on the Missoula City Council demonstrates he understands the core philosophy of Montanans.

“Part of the message I’ve been sharing with folks is that we need to see ourselves as one Montana; whether you’re east or west, young or old,” he says.

Dave Strohmaier and his family

U.S. House candidate Dave Strohmaier with hisfamily.

Strohmaier joined the city council in January 2005, working to implement the Missoula Greater Downtown Master Plan, developing a transportation infrastructure plan for the Rattlesnake Valley and managing Missoula’s parks.

He has also advocated cracking down on driving under the influence and restoring Amtrak service to Missoula and southern Montana.

But he says his proudest moment was co-sponsoring Missoula’s Anti-Discrimination Ordinance. The ordinance is the first in Montana to protect people from getting fired from their jobs or denied housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I think [the ordinance] epitomizes a Montanan value whether you’re on the right or left end of the political spectrum,” he said.

Strohmaier is now running for Congress stressing that authenticity. He says he hopes to excite the Democratic voters across the state, something he says hasn’t been done in past campaigns.

Despite Wanzenreid’s contention about Montana’s view of Missoula, Strohmaier says he is not concerned, but also adds he finds inspiration for his campaign from many parts of the state.

He often cites a story from Chester, Montana as representing his attitude about community.

In the town of Chester, a small group of farmers had seen their economy stimulated be the development of a new grain elevator and Strohmaier says he liked the idea of adding value to a product that already existed; in this case the grain elevator benefited the agricultural economy. He argues the answer to economic problems can be found by looking at what we already have in Montana and capitalizing on it, rather than looking for a new radically different enterprise.

“That really was a very real and tangible way that showed me something could be replicated in other ways throughout Montana,” he said. “It’s adding value to a component already in place.”

Even as Strohmaier casts himself as a practical problem-solver, James Lopach, a professor of American Government and author of the book “We the People of Montana…”, says it will be difficult for Strohmaier to overcome the Missoula stigma in other parts of the state. Missoula, he argues, has always been regarded as a Democratic city, going so far as to call it a “hotbed of liberalism.”

Lopach says just the presence of the university in Missoula has negative connotations for statewide political hopefuls.

“The University is seen as being associated with anti-war, gay rights, strict environmental regulation, anti-economy development, animal rights, and things like that,” he says. “That’s why I think when a city council member from Missoula runs state-wide they run into opposition right away.”

In his book, Lopach suggests that one of Montana’s most famous features, its size, may be the one of the most important factors for first-time campaigners.

“Montana’s distances and population sparseness pose a special handicap for candidates, especially those seeking office for the first time,” he writes in the book, “Incumbents enjoy an advantage over challengers in that their time in office has acquainted voters with their names and credentials.”

Strohmaier admits this is one of his major challenges, saying every time he takes a campaign trip it costs at least $50 to fill up his car. For a campaign already struggling to raise cash, these costs can add up.

The Missoula Democrat has only raised $72,163 for his campaign and according to the most recent filing only had $15,160 in the bank, fourth among Democrats and far behind Republican Steve Daines who had $630,561 as of the end of 2011.

“It’s a little unsettling when you have to start campaigning a year in advance to garner the resources you need to run a campaign,” Strohmaier says.

Strohmaier by no means has lost the House seat yet, but trailing in the money race and having the label of “liberal Missoulian” hasn’t helped. Still Strohmaier intends to show the state that people from Missoula can break out of their stereotypes.

“I’m a lifelong hunter, fisherman, and outdoorsman. It’s part of who I am,” he said “It’s a matter of being true to who I am and offering myself in a way that breaks through the stereotypes of being a liberal Missoulian.”