FEATURE: The Lasting Bern

By on August 31, 2016

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jessica Sell Chambers wielded a paint roller in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She called over her shoulder to her young son McCrae to stay clear of a step stool ladder. Conferring with a volunteer painter, she typed a quick text and dashed off to the paint store, son in tow.

As PJH reported last week, Chambers, 35, and her husband Reed have donated their basement apartment to Noemi Perez and her sons, recently evicted from the Virginian Village Apartments. This kind of walking the talk is indicative of a new generation of progressive minded people. Inspired by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, they are entering politics to improve their communities.

A few weeks before Sanders conceded to Hillary Clinton, he sent out a message to his supporters urging them to run for office. “We need new blood in the political process, and you are that blood,” he said.

In response, thousands of everyday Americans pledged on Sanders’ website to run for local office. Here in Jackson Hole, Chambers, mayoral candidate Pete Muldoon and county commission hopeful Greg Epstein heeded Sanders’ call, while incumbents commissioner Natalia Duncan Macker and councilman Jim Stanford committed to defend their seats.

With strong support in the primaries—which garnered the highest voter turnout in Teton County since at least 2008—these candidates represent a younger demographic. They are focused on making Jackson Hole a place where middle class folks can plant their roots. But as more people struggle to stay and others leave, can a Sanders’ style political revolution take hold in Jackson Hole?

A long time coming?

Back in the basement, Pete Muldoon, 43, straightened his neck after painting a ceiling, and sat down with a cup of coffee. He had facilitated the connection between Chambers and the family moving in, and now he and a few of his friends were chipping in manual labor too.

“It’s great to try to change the political dynamics so we can have affordable housing,” Muldoon said. “In the meantime, here’s a family who needs housing, and we can do something for them now.”

Housing has been one of Muldoon’s main rallying cries. He helped organize the housing advocacy group Shelter JH and has ruffled feathers at town meetings speaking out in favor of emergency and affordable housing.

“I do believe housing is a human right,” he said. “Food and shelter are fundamental human rights.”

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This kind of rhetoric doesn’t exactly echo through town hall chambers in Jackson, or anywhere else in Wyoming. When councilman Jim Stanford, 46, advocated for the town to OK worker campgrounds this summer, fellow council members shot down the idea.

A citizen rally in June that brought almost 100 people to town chambers during a town council meeting elicited similar results: The majority of elected officials told the homeless and overworked, “We’re working on it.” But the council did not adopt any of the suggested emergency housing measures the citizens presented.

Stanford takes the long view. For inspiration, he looks to a time in Wyoming history when unions had sway, and workers’ rights were paramount.

“Southern Wyoming was full of union towns, starting with those who built the railroads,” he said. “For a long time those towns were Democratic, politically standing up for workers and working people.”

After the railroad unions were busted, many rural Wyoming towns swung right. But Stanford says now there is no further right for them to swing. “People are going to realize they voted against their own interest. They were sold out by the Tea Party. The opportunity is here for progressives. Our message to working people resonates.”

Playing by the rules

Though Hillary Clinton claims to be a progressive, it takes more than being in favor of progress to truly encapsulate the leftward politics of the term. That’s why Sanders better embodies the progressive principles seen in this crop of Jackson politicos. Key principles include the belief that, in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren, “No one should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage.”

Progressives believe in women’s rights, gay rights, regulating Wall Street, getting money out of politics, ensuring good healthcare and education for all, and generally leveling the playing field so that everyone can have a good quality of life. And in America’s two party system, progressives have sometimes found a home—not always a perfect one—in the Democratic party.

Political commentator David Sirota explained to NPR recently that there is a core difference between liberal Democrats and progressives: “Traditional ‘liberals’ in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. ‘Progressives’ are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.”

Liberal Democrats in Jackson have been a minority until recently. Ben Linn, 65, is a Democratic committeeman and Wilson native. He remembers a time when to be a Democrat was simply to be a placeholder. “For most of the time I’ve been a Democrat, I’ve been trying to put a face on the party in Teton County,” Linn said. “I tried to give it a little bit of a human aspect so that people would not stereotype.”

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Linn attended his first Teton County Democrats meeting in 2000, and was one of only about 15 people there. He volunteered to be a precinct leader. At that time, Dems could only fill half of their precinct leader seats. Now they are all full.

Professionally, Linn has worked in fields typically associated with rural Republicans: Hunting guide, logger, carpenter. He has never seen a contradiction. “I don’t find that being a working man should be at cross purposes with being a Democrat.”

According to Epstein, 45, a valley native who garnered more votes in the Teton County primary election than any other county candidate, people in Jackson have been ready for change for a long time. He says the 2008 economic recession, plus years of relative inaction on the part of local government, has kept Jackson at a standstill in terms of issues like affordable housing.

“Fast forward to 2016, and here we are again,” Epstein said. “We had five to seven years of potentially dealing with stuff, but instead we were giving away development incentives.”

An avid backcountry skier and producer at Teton Gravity Research, Epstein is not opposed to working with the private sector to solve Jackson’s housing crisis, but not without considering all impacts. “While we focus on housing and issues that are fairly critical, we can’t forget about entrepreneurial spirit,” Epstein said.  “We have to grow the community across a couple of different verticals.”

Chambers, who has lived in Jackson since 2010, was a national delegate for Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. She says Sanders’ message about removing big money from politics on the national and local level resonates with her. “There’s a connection to what’s happening across the country, and what’s happening around the globe,” Chambers said. “It has to do with the middle class being decimated. Wealth inequality permeates everywhere, especially here in Jackson.”

As a young person engaged in politics, Linn’s son, Olaus, 30, says he values the influx of younger folks trying to make Jackson their home. Like Epstein, he grew up in the valley, and though his father was born here, he welcomes newcomers.

“I believe that a large part of what keeps Jackson Hole full of amazing folks generation after generation is the constant churn of young people deciding to try and make a life here,” he said. “If it becomes impossible to gain even a tiny foothold here then that wellspring of bold and adventurous new residents will slowly dry up and the luster of our community will fade.”

Olaus believes electing a new set of representatives will help to preserve the area’s vibrant local character. “There are lots of people trying to move here and make it work but all of a sudden there are fewer and fewer avenues for that to happen. The forces that are actively standing in the way of that progress—the developers tearing up trailer parks and single family houses to build hotels and commercial space, and the people who don’t want to live next to affordable housing or see more density in places because it will affect their view—will always have some politicians in their corner. It’s time that we have some in ours and change the political dynamics here in Jackson Hole.”

Olaus and his wife Jenelle hosted a get-out-the-vote event with Muldoon, Chambers, and Epstein ahead of the August 16 primary. Jenelle, 35, was appointed to the START Bus board last year and served on the Teton County Democratic Platform Committee this spring. “Bernie inspired a lot of young people who hadn’t previously taken much interest in politics,” she noted. “The fact that we had a record number of people vote in the primary was extremely encouraging to me. I know someone in her 30s who voted for the first time ever. Young people are starting to realize that their involvement has to start on the local level and that it’s actually easier to effect change locally.”

‘Something genuinely new’ 

Propagating messages that focus on strengthening the middle class, Muldoon hopes to appeal to millenials—the 35 and under set—as well as more seasoned locals.

“Long term residents are getting fed up with politics and realizing that town government shouldn’t just be a popularity contest,” Muldoon said.  “We actually have to do things.”

When it comes to younger voters, Muldoon says they won’t wait for change. “This whole election year is about envisioning something different and better, and refusing to be told we can’t have that.”

Stanford, who is often the lone progressive voice on the town council, credits decades of valley Democrats pushing back against hardline Republican agendas to create the environment for more liberal candidates like himself.   

“Teton County has been moving Democratic since Cheney invaded Iraq,” Stanford said.  “That’s what got me more involved in politics. I started in 2006 and 2008 helping get out the vote. Then I ran in 2012.”

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Stanford has lived in Jackson since 1992. He says long-time valley Democrats like Leslie Peterson, Joe Albright, Marcia Kunstel and Chuck Herz were particularly mobilized after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq to build the Democratic base in Jackson. According to Stanford, they spearheaded get-out-the-vote efforts to encourage more residents—especially young people—to be involved in politics. “They helped open the door to me,” he said.

Still, the sudden surge in progressive candidates signals a shift, according to Ben Read. A valley resident since 1989, Read served on the planning commission for six years. “What’s going on now is genuinely new,” he said. “There has been the growing feeling that while everyone was asked to tighten their belts during the recession, the wealthiest were surging ahead. Now the actual costs of living in general have never been higher for millennials loaded up with student debt.”

A key characteristic of the new progressives is an interest in revitalizing the way American politics work, rather than remaining disillusioned and jaded on the sidelines. This was reflected in a robust voter turnout in the primary election.

Leah Schlacter, 35, who volunteers with the Muldoon for Mayor campaign, says it’s because political issues are now personal for people in Jackson Hole.

“Politics in Jackson have become more tangible and less abstract,” she said. “Working people don’t have homes, businesses don’t have employees, traffic is congested, summers are hotter, and social services have been cut. Residents are realizing that a lot of these issues are directly related to public policy.”

Natalia Duncan Macker, artistic director for Off Square Theatre, and her husband artist Thomas Macker moved to Jackson in 2011. They are raising their two-year old son here. As county commissioner, Macker seeks to protect and extend possibilities for younger people in Jackson. “I want ladders of opportunity in Teton County,” she said. “I think opportunity starts with more options for affordable housing, but I also think it means stability in our economy and better equality in our state.”

Even at this early part of her political career, Macker is looking to inspire other young people to get involved. “So much of what progressives want to do is at a legislative or national level, but there is a lot we can do locally, including building a pipeline of leaders for the future.”

For Muldoon the road to running for office was paved with alarm over the disconnect between the haves and have-nots. “Local government for the most part hasn’t been of the average person,” he said. “That was really frustrating as an activist. People told me, ‘Well, why don’t you get involved? I said, ‘OK, fine.’”

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Muldoon doesn’t look the part of a radical, though he was a steadfast Occupy Wall Street activist. He’s more down-home than that. He sings in the alt-country band, Major Zephyr, and has a part-time gig at the airport.

Muldoon comes from a working class family. He settled in the valley in 2000, and currently runs a small business. He still rents because he doesn’t have the capital to buy.

Schlacter says Muldoon has earned his street cred with working people because he is authentic. “He is of the working class yet gets politically involved and shows understanding of complex issues,” she said. “Through his writing he deconstructs complex issues in a language that non-politicians can understand and relates it back to the people.”

Chambers is another outspoken advocate for the working class. The daughter of a union member, she says she has seen first hand how progressive values are relevant to working people.

“When you have seen what people exist on and operate with, a lot of people are struggling and it’s not fair,” she said. “It’s common sense to value everybody. Everybody should have a decent life and have enough.”

Working across the aisle

The idealism and hope younger generations possess does not overshadow their pragmatism. Jackson’s local progressive candidates say they are ready to roll up their sleeves and go to work alongside others who may not share their politics. Plus they have a forerunner in Stanford who can remind them to keep any radical expectations in check.

“Even if the new people get elected, they are going to have to work with all the councilors and commissioners,” Stanford said. “Any one person can’t change things too much.”

Stanford says communication is key. “I’ve been able to work well with Republicans like commissioners Barbara Allen and Paul Vogelheim. You find areas of commonality,” Stanford said. “You don’t know how the political process will work out until you get in there.”

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Just as Stanford has been willing to be the one dissenting vote on town council numerous times, newcomers like Chambers and Muldoon say they won’t back down from the positions they have now.

“People can expect to know where I stand on things,” Chambers said. “I will not say one thing and do another. They can also expect that they are not going to like every decision that I make.”

Macker advocates listening and collaboration, but also says there comes a time to be decisive. “We cant all agree all the time, we can’t all be liked all the time,” she said. “There’s a point at which we move forward. It’s not always in the best interest of the public to try to get to unanimity all the time.”

For people like Schlacter, being able to trust a candidate is important. “Pete takes stands on issues, which to me as a voter is refreshing,” she said. “The ‘trying to please everybody’ rhetoric of most politicians is tiring.”

Apparently voters agree that sticking to their lefty guns is a good quality in a candidate. Muldoon won the primary with 34 percent of total votes. Epstein also won his race, with 39 percent of the Democrat votes for commissioner, with Macker coming in at 33 percent. Chambers, however, was almost edged out garnering just 12 percent of councilor votes while Stanford got 25 percent, the highest percentage of any council candidate.

The new wave of political candidates brings with them an embrace of new ways of thinking, with a focus on innovation and possibility. “There isn’t a big blanket solution,” Muldoon said. “We need to use all solutions at our disposal. We are not trying to burden one sector of people. Everyone needs to chip in.”

One issue Epstein wants to focus on is transportation. Increasing traffic is not just a hassle, he says, it erodes other core aspects of the valley. “When you talk about wildlife and conservation, and quality of water, land and air, probably the worst impact is by single occupancy vehicle traffic,” he said. “We need to curb those trips.”

He realizes not everyone is going to ride the bus, but he’d like to make changes so that the incentive to do so is greater. He wants to look at what is working in other communities and start trying to implement those solutions here. “It’s all about innovation, he said. “We need to use innovative thought processes, make bold decisions and live by them.”

Ultimately, no matter how visionary or mundane, any innovative plans are still vulnerable to the hard reality of funding. Macker, for one, is concerned about cuts in state funding and how that will impact towns. “I think the place where we will see greater strain on county resources is when community organizations come to us after state budget cuts go into effect. We will have to make difficult decisions.”

Muldoon, too, says he is aware that funding is the crucial make-or-break factor for the town and county’s ability to be effective. “A lot depends on the penny sales tax,” he said. “We need to get that one cent passed and people can see that the sky won’t fall.”

Indeed, a new generation of voters are watching to see what happens with town projects like the Redmond Street rentals, which stalled after the town pulled its promised funding. “We have to show people there’s a political cost to saying no to things,” he said.

On the flip side, there is a community benefit to saying yes to things, as Jessica and Reed Chambers are learning. According to Chambers, their neighbors are ready to welcome the Perez family with open arms. “My neighbors called and said they love what we’re doing,” she said. “They want to help. A previous resident of the house, Jenny Karns, says she wants to help. She grew up in this house.”

Though she did get a call from the town building and permitting department, Chambers says they are set for a September 1 move in date for the Perezes. The dwelling arrangement does not require special permitting, nor does it violate the town’s multiple resident regulations. Not that Chambers was going to let anything stop her. “I’m getting this family in here,” she said. “They are going to have a home.”

Chambers champions creative ways of thinking in order to solve Jackson’s complex problems. “People have been relying on impossible mindsets instead of focusing on possibilities,” she said. “If you’re always saying why you can’t do something, you’re not going to find any solution.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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