A few members of the Western Montana chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America don’t think it was a coincidence that City Club Missoula moderators did not select them to pose a question to Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines at a Monday forum, but event organizers say it was.
“I think there was some direct avoidance of the table that contained predominately Democratic Socialists of America,” said Josh Decker, one of the organization’s members.
At all City Club forums, there is a “table talk” period where each table’s occupants chat and come up with a question they’d like to ask the speaker. Then, City Club volunteers with microphones decide which tables get to pose a question.
Decker and Western Montana DSA co-chair Andi Hoelzel believe that Jim Royan, a former chair of the local Republican Party and a former board member for City Club Missoula, purposely didn’t bring one of the microphones to the Socialists’ table. That’s because, they say, Royan and others recognized them from when they were arrested for criminal trespass for staging a sit-in at the Missoula GOP office last October to protest the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Monday, however, only seven tables out of the 23 total got to ask questions because City Club meetings always end at 1 p.m. In past meetings, many tables have not gotten to pose questions to speakers either, and Royan said no table was singled out this week.
“I didn’t even know who a lot of those tables were,” he said. “There were two people roaming with microphones, and we had trouble with a third microphone. There were 20 tables and only 30 minutes, and obviously we had a lot of people that wanted to ask questions both on the left and right.”
Decker generally wishes the City Club format allowed for wider representation of views from participants. But he and Hoelzel believe the moderators specifically sidestepped them knowing they wanted to ask pointed questions.
“I was featured in a Missoulian article after the occupation of the (GOP office) during the Kavanaugh appointment last fall, and it’s my belief that Jim was directly responding to my photograph and feature in that article,” Decker said.
“We made very clear that we had a question at our table and had our hands raised, and the event coordinator acknowledged our question and asked the person coming around with a microphone," Hoelzel recalled. "But that person was then told by someone else in the room that identified the comrades at my table that they may not have a question."
She wanted to ask Daines about why he doesn’t support the Green New Deal, she said.
“Myself and others are concerned about the climate, about education, about health care and about a sustainable future,” she said. “And really we believe that we’re in a climate crisis, and (Daines) failed to acknowledge it at any point the entire time he was in that room, which is a problem.”
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On their Facebook page, the Western Montana DSA says they support reforms that would "decrease the influence of concentrated wealth in politics, empower ordinary people in workplaces and the economy" and "decarbonize and democratize energy resources."
Daines recently introduced a Senate resolution condemning socialism, and he condemned the Green New Deal in remarks shortly after.
After City Club organizers told the crowd of about 200 that there would be no more questions, Hoelzel and Decker stood up and shouted at Daines that the world is in a “climate crisis." They both quickly stopped after clapping had subsided and others told them to stop.
Daines met privately with several people in attendance after the question-and-answer session ended, and those conversations lasted about 15 minutes each. Hoelzel and Decker were not able to reach Daines to speak with him before others crowded around.
Royan said he originally invited Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to speak at the event, but due to a scheduling conflict he was unable to attend. Royan then reached out to Daines, and he noted the first person he gave a microphone to was Dan Kemmis, a Democrat and the former mayor of Missoula.
“City Club is all about civil discourse,” Royan said. “That does not include screaming and yelling at the speaker. Unfortunately, some people’s idea of civic discourse is to shout down their opponent.”
Royan also said even if the DSA table might have expected to be able to ask a question since they paid to get in, their behavior was still unusual.
“The other dozen tables that didn’t get questions asked weren’t yelling at the speaker," he said. "We’re all pretty good at math. Everyone can understand there’s 20 tables, and with half an hour, there’s only time for six or seven questions.”
Susan Hay Patrick, the vice-chair of the City Club Missoula board, confirmed that all tables rarely get to ask questions. She said it's unfortunate tempers flared at the forum this week, but it's also unusual for City Club.
Hay Patrick said the board might consider options such as randomly assigning people to tables so participants aren’t all just sitting with like-minded souls. She also said the organizers might emphasize the purpose of the table talk period.
“City Club exists to foster civil discourse of complex issues amongst diverse people,” she said. “We are committed to finding commonality and civility and disagreeing respectfully. We put a lot of stock into that format, and we’ll put a lot of thought in going forward.”