THE BUZZ 2: Morning After
Why Thursday’s candidate forum on social issues matters in the race ahead.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – “Sometimes it’s necessary to go backward,” Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “in order to go forward.”
By the time you read this, Teton County’s primary election results will be in. Eight of the 11 initial candidates are still in their respective races for town and county leadership. A look back at last Thursday’s social justice candidate forum offers an instructive lesson in the issues that will guide Jackson going forward.
Organized by One22, Shelter JH, and PFLAG, the forum pressed candidates to answer tough questions about the valley’s income disparity, affordable housing, social services, and nondiscrimination. The candidate field includes a crop of new kids on the block for whom social justice is paramount.
“I believe it’s the first time a candidate forum in Jackson has been held with those parameters of attention,” said Mark Houser, forum co-organizer of PFLAG,
The elephant in the room was palpable. Months have passed since an emergency meeting was called in the same St. John’s church meeting room to discuss Jackson’s housing crisis. Short-term solutions have yet to be enacted.
Houser said the audience attendance of 130 surpassed expectations. A mixed demographic in terms of age, race, and profession attended, with approximately 20 Latino residents in the audience.
“I wish we had more Latinos there,” Shelter JH organizer Jorge Moreno lamented. “I think they feel that if they aren’t eligible to vote, why would they go to a forum. But for me it is important because the candidates don’t know who is and isn’t able to vote, and if we are there it puts more attention on our issues.”
Despite the modest Latino turnout, Moreno says there is a rising political consciousness among Jackson’s Latino population.
“For many years, Latinos thought they’d be here for just a little bit, but now they realize this is home,” he said. “This is where their kids are growing up and where family is. A lot have become citizens.”
Houser agreed that the forum signaled a change. “I see it as the potential sparks of greater citizen involvement in local politics,” Houser said. “Involvement from individuals who are not usual players at the table.”
Houser and One22’s Mary Erickson emceed the forum. Moreno offered live Spanish translation. Candidates for mayor, county commission, and town council were first asked if they would support a living wage in Jackson as opposed to the state’s current $5.15 minimum wage.
Two of the four mayoral candidates—Pete Muldoon and Mayor Sara Flitner—responded that they would support a living wage. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator, that wage varies between $11.44 and $35.25, depending on an individual’s number of children and marital status.
Town council candidate Jessica Sell Chambers said income inequality is “a systemic problem we are seeing across the globe.”
Likening the working class in Jackson to a miner’s canary, Chambers said, “Our most vulnerable population has been suffering and it should have indicated to us long ago that the rest of our population was going to follow.”
But not all candidates shared Chambers’ sentiment. Town council candidate Judd Grossman said that income inequality is a “false argument” and that “working people come here to make money off the rich people.”
Other town council candidates say they would use means other than a living wage to address income inequality. Hailey Morton Levinson and Anne Schuler said they would seek to diversify the job market so that locals are not as dependent on seasonal jobs.
Incumbent councilman Jim Stanford spoke in favor of a state income tax on high earners. “That will really have an effect on the income inequality here,” he said.
Teton County commissioner candidates were in agreement about what they see as their roles in addressing income inequality. All say they would focus on housing, with Republicans particularly focusing on rezoning. Natalia Duncan Macker-D contributed a working-mom perspective, saying that she was interested in “all types of equality,” including stable housing, healthcare, childcare, and good schools.
In the second round, candidates were asked about passing a town ordinance on nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and sexual identity. Just as all the candidates would later agree that social services are good, all agreed that discrimination is bad. Where they differed was in how to protect LGBT people from discrimination.
Mayoral candidate Mark Obringer, Muldoon and Flitner all support an ordinance.
“These are civil rights we are talking about,” Muldoon said. “I know it costs money to enforce civil rights, but if the civil rights of straight white men in Jackson were being infringed upon on a daily basis, we would find the money to enforce [an ordinance].”
Town council hopefuls were mixed. Chambers clearly understood the symbolic as well as practical importance of an ordinance, and spoke in favor of both. Schuler, Levinson and Stanford each said they want something passed, but not until it can have political “teeth.” Grossman, however, said he does not support an ordinance.
County commissioner candidates were asked a variation on the discrimination question that broadened the issue to human and civil rights. Most candidates responded in terms of LGBT rights.
Greg Epstein-D urged the town to pass an ordinance, which he said would give the county leverage in pressuring the state to ban discrimination. Macker said she is already networking statewide to make progress on this issue. Lisa daCosta-R and Nikki Gill-R both support change at the state level. Sandy Shuptrine-D said the county could pass a resolution supporting town action on the issue.
Trey Davis-R responded to the discrimination question by talking about the Latinos he employs at Sweetwater Restaurant. “They don’t necessarily feel comfortable in all parts of our community,” he said.
Latino issues were addressed indirectly throughout the forum, since topics like housing, discrimination, and social services cross lines of race and ethnicity in Jackson. Forum organizers addressed housing in a uniquely engaging way—opting for a lightning round where candidates held up “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” signs for their responses.
Town candidates were asked questions such as “Do you support:”
Increasing residential mitigation on market-rate homes?
Allowing four stories in some places, designated for deed-restricted, income-limited housing?
Passing an ordinance with tenant protections regarding leases, evictions, and repairs?
County candidates were asked similar questions, but with some variation, such as their views on: Increasing the county property tax mill levy for housing and human services, and allowing overnight parking on public parking lots like Stilson.
Candidates were given one minute to clarify their answers. The boldest candidates by far, in terms of action, were Muldoon and Chambers who each held up their “Yes” sign in favor of all housing solutions, except for Chambers’ “No” vote on commercial mitigation.
“I voted no on commercial mitigation—we cannot have more employees onto this,” Chambers said.
“I think the town can take unilateral action in a lot of places,” Muldoon said. “Tenant protections is on my agenda on my first day in office. On the four stories, I don’t like them, either, but I’d rather see them built up on a few lots than a three-story Marriott.
Chambers spoke to the option of establishing a property tax mill levy in town. “I am a homeowner and I understand what that means,” she said. “This would definitely push me and my husband. But, leading by example, this is one of those times when if we want quality services, they cost money.”
The property tax mill levy was not supported by any other mayoral candidate other than Muldoon. Obringer’s rallying cry throughout the forum was for addressing issues in a countywide approach. His specifics on issues were thin. Flitner and Stephen McDonald championed Accessory Residential Units (ARUs) as part of the housing crisis solution.
“ARUs keep housing local and keep it with people who need it most: Jackson homeowners,” McDonald said.
Flitner said she is moving forward with ARU zoning plans. Regarding a town property tax, she said, “I don’t want to double burden where working people are.”
Unlike the circus that has ensued on the national political stage, civility reigned throughout this local forum.
“I observed a room of candidates who carried integrity into their races,” Houser said afterward. “They had respect for forum structure and respect for one another. That speaks to a positive value that can be cultivated in our community.”
Many candidates stressed the need to work together across party lines and town-county lines. In the county commissioner lineup, closing statements from Gill, Epstein and Macker echoed one another.
Some of the only people to close with statements about practical solutions to implement now were county commissioner candidates Davis and Shuptrine. Despite being on different sides of the political aisle, both spoke in favor of installing trailers or modular homes on county land to solve homelessness in the near term. “Do I want to see trailers around Jackson? No,” Davis said, “but we have to do something.”
Shuptrine echoed Davis, saying, “We need to stop worrying about constructing, but what we do need to do is get modular in here.”
After the forum, Moreno expressed appreciation for the entire candidate field participating. However, he said he was disappointed that some candidates seemed to be “answering but not answering.”
“Now is the time to do something,” he said. “There’s always time to change direction. But let’s stop being afraid of changes because changes are happening anyway.” PJH