City Commissions have been the hot topic in Helena and Great Falls of late, but nowhere are local politics filled with more intrigue, money, and slime than in the Flathead.
A city election would normally be a local contest with little statewide interest. But this is Whitefish, where the local races are ground zero in the fight between those who want unregulated development at all costs, and those who support zoning protections for local citizens against big developers and polluters. Political observers and members of the conservation community from around the state have been keeping a close eye on the upcoming city elections in Whitefish and so should you.
That’s because same big money shadow groups that spent $3-5 million to give us the Great TEA Party Legislative Disaster of 2011 cut their teeth playing in Flathead area politics, spending hundreds of thousands to influence recent city races and creating a myriad of single issue PACs with innocuous sounding names to obscure the money trail. To put that in perspective, the average city commission candidate here in the state’s capitol city raises $1,000 bucks or so.
First, the race for mayor:
Turner Askew, is a current city council member and is now running for mayor. Askew is a big shot commercial and industrial real estate broker, known for doing whatever the development industry asks. But Turner Askew isn’t just a member of the development industry who is backed by industry cash. He’s also an original member of the Flathead Business and Industry PAC–the group behind the one of the sleaziest political smear campaigns in recent memory.
The TEA Party has also thrown in with Askew. In fact, the TEA Party mega-millionaire donor Ray Thompson, who was exposed by Mother Jones for bankrolling some of the TEA Party’s most radical candidates is helping to fund his campaign.
Running against Askew is John Muhlfeld. John is well-liked and has a reputation for coming to all meetings prepared. He’s the founder of ‘River Design Group’ which has been recognized by Outside Magazine as one of the best places in the country to work. He’s supported by local folks, no PAC’s.
Here’s who’s running for city council:
Richard Hildner is a teacher at Glacier High and is probably the most knowledgeable candidate in the race. He’s known for attending more council meetings than the councilors. It’s hard to go wrong electing teachers.
Frank Sweeney is a local business attorney and has been the recipient of the majority of the personal attacks and political action committees bankrolled by wealthy landowner Rick Blake. Actually, Blake was a truck driver (born Ricky Lynn Blake) until he married an heir to the Avis car rental fortune. Blake, like Askew, is also founding member of Flathead Business and Industry Association PAC. Perhaps thinking one PAC wouldn’t buy him enough influence, Blake also founded a one-man PAC oddly titled “We Love Stumptown.” Sweeney has served as chairman of the local planning board and several other volunteer boards, and has lots of local support.
John Anderson, is another local attorney running for city council. He’s currently president of the local Chamber board. He seems to be a young family man who has a way of bringing folks together and who also has local support.
Then we have Mary Vail, who is most known for being a hard core supporter of one Derek Skees. She sits in the front row of many of his lectures. Vail will probably tout her service on the local library board, but her supporters are the usual right wingers. These include Askew and Blake’s wives and several other folks from the development community.
Word on the street is that candidate Doug Wise registered to vote here only three years ago. His known associates include Rick Blake, Turner Askew, and Ryan Zinke. When asked about city issues, Wise seems to regurgitate what he’s been told to say by them. Once the discussion becomes more in-depth however, Wise is any thing but. His money comes from the development community.
Finally, we have Life Noell, who is a young guy with a reputation for his great energy. Noell is a big advocate for medical marijuana and would probably do better to focus there rather then the city council race. He’s indicated that he is not willing do any campaigning that would cost more than $50.