If all of the campaign yard signs springing up around Missoula are beginning to look the same, you’re not going crazy. The dark blue sign with white lettering, underscored by a flowing two-striped banner, is the mark of Team Liberty, as City Council member Jesse Ramos has dubbed it.
Ramos, 29, was elected to the council in 2017 on a campaign of lowering taxes through cuts to city spending. As the only conservative member of the council, Ramos admits he has accomplished nothing in the first half of his first term. But he’s trying to change that.
Beyond the endorsements of the local Democratic and Republican committees in the nominally nonpartisan race, a line has been drawn between the 11 council members who generally vote in step with Mayor John Engen's more liberal policies, and Ramos. But with a hand-selected lineup of candidates running in every ward but one, the council’s lone wolf conservative is setting up a showdown between business-as-usual and a substantial realignment that could define Missoula politics for years.
As Ramos sees it, it’s a referendum on Engen’s 13 years of leadership. And the candidates he’s organized into a united front agree with him on that.
“If we flip all six seats, we’ll have a 6-6 tie on the council, and that will be a great thing for our city,” Ramos said. “I told them all Day 1, I don’t want you to be a rubber stamp for me. All I ask is that you educate yourself on the city issues and you think independently.”
Beginning with a Facebook post, but eventually turning the post into letters to the editor published in the Missoulian and Missoula Current, Ramos put out a call in February 2019 for residents interested in lowering taxes and city spending. He encouraged them to contact him if they were interested in running for council.
The five candidates, Amber Shaffer, Brent Sperry, Alan Ault, John Contos and Sandra Vasecka, have a variety of backgrounds and differences on national political issues. But on the city issues that Ramos has sought to champion, their ideologies are very similar when it comes to cutting spending and reducing the number of tax-increment financed urban renewal districts.
In interviews with each of the candidates supported by Ramos — the so-called Team Liberty, named after his own libertarian views — a handful of talking points emerged over and over.
Ward 4 candidate Alan Ault was union president for oil giant Saudi Aramco employees before retiring to Missoula and beginning a nonprofit campaign to bring auto-shop classes back to Missoula public schools. His views differ from Ramos on things like the use of e-scooters in the city. But on most things, they couldn’t be more similar.
Ault suggested costs could be cut at the city cemetery, where he said eight people were doing the work that a private cemetery has done with three people. He suggested teaching some of those people how to drive a snowplow for when there’s less landscaping work in the winter.
Ramos also brought up the cemetery, and how a private one on Mullan Road has half the employees and does twice as many burials. He, too, suggested city cemetery workers be taught to drive snowplows.
“I didn’t do a litmus test with any of these guys, I wasn’t like, ‘Are you a Republican, are you a Libertarian or a Democrat?'” Ramos said. “I told them they’re being elected to be an independent thinker, not be influenced by me, and not to be influenced by the mayor.’”
And while it is true that not all the candidates hail from the same political party, Ramos’ influence is hard to dispute.
Brent Sperry, a fourth-generation Missoulian vying for a seat in Ward 2, said he is running because he is afraid his kids will not be able to afford to be fifth-generation Missoulians, due to high property taxes and too few breadwinner jobs.
He said he wants to cut city spending to lower property taxes, as all of the Team Liberty candidates do.
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“The city doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem,” Sperry said.
Sandra Vasecka, candidate for Ward 6, also had thoughts on the city’s fiduciary habits.
“The spending is out of control here,” she said. “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.”
Ramos has used the exact phrase numerous times, in multiple interviews, letters to the editor, and most notably at last year’s budget hearing, which Sperry said he attended. After observing that meeting, in which none of Ramos’ proposed cuts passed while scores of citizens protested increases in property taxes, he said he was further inspired to run.
But that same night almost made Ramos give up completely. He said he nearly quit the council after spending so much time sorting through the budget, only to get stonewalled. But rather than throwing in the towel, he said he’s taking the opportunity to try to stack the council with more like-minded people and make some headway on his ideas.
“I hate going into the council meetings, I really do. I legitimately get anxious and nervous and I don’t like it, and I don’t enjoy it,” he said. “But I’ve seen my role as to bring the hard questions no one else is going to ask and bring attention to issues that would have been swept under the rug if I wasn’t there.”
Engen, who has served as mayor since 2006, said he wasn't concerned by the threat of candidates successfully attacking his tenure, pointing out he handily won re-election in 2017 with 58% of the vote. But he said the current council doesn't always work in unison, and he's open to working with anyone elected to council.
"As I always have, I take all comers," Engen said. "If you want to talk with me about trying to move an agenda forward, I'm happy to have those conversations."
Jim Lopach, a retired University of Montana political science professor specializing in local government, and co-author of Missoula’s city charter, said he has seen the politics of Missoula becoming a reflection of the nation at large: Representatives are polarized and refuse to compromise, leaving the majority party with unabated control.
“Some years back there was more diversity on the council in terms of political identification,” Lopach said. “It would be healthier if there was more vigorous discussion. If the liberals on council were a little left of center and the conservative was a little right of center, compromise could happen, but it kind of seems like a microcosm of the U.S. Congress where both sides are firmly set in the far wings of the political spectrum.”
Missoula is a city in which the mayor plays a major policy-making role, and acts as a moderator during City Council discussion, something that isn’t the case in every city, Lopach said. He noted that in a city like Missoula, that is economically progressive and eager to try to take on new policies through a growing government, the mayor would typically play the role of the implementer, carrying out the policies created by the council, rather than leading what is the de facto majority party on the council.
With the council being nearly unanimous in its ideology, he said having a mayor that controls the conversation can even further stifle minority opinions, like Ramos’. He also noted that Ramos’ attempt at creating his own political party of like-minded people was similar to how the original political parties were formed in the fledgling United States.
When Ramos first put out his call for candidates, he said about 80 people showed interest in doing it. He eventually winnowed it down to one candidate in each ward, saying he didn’t want multiple “change-makers” running in a given ward.
In Ward 3, Drew Iverson was initially part of Ramos’ Team Liberty, but parted ways due to what he called policy differences with Ramos.
“I wanted people to feel safe that when they vote for me, it’s not for someone else’s agenda,” Iverson said. “What they were doing, it seemed to me, was to work as a team, which I felt is also what Mayor Engen is doing. So it’s kind of like you’re on Jesse’s team or you’re on Mayor Engen’s team. And I didn’t think it should be like that.”