Wilderness Protection, Affordable Housing and the Unethical Behavior of Political Insiders

by William Skink

I was going to write two separate posts, one about an upcoming vote decades in the making with the Norther Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, and one about the Mayor’s new push to create a more comprehensive housing policy for affordable housing.


One point of clarification, which you may want to just change in the post, NREPA isn’t scheduled for an upcoming vote.

The news was that NREPA was introduced in the U.S. Senate last week, the first time in the 20 year history of the bill. It’s been introduced in the U.S. House each session of Congress going back 20 years, but never has been introduced in the Senate.

While these two issues are mostly not connected, Greg Strandberg put up a very interesting post, titled Shady Business Surrounding Young Montana Democrats that takes a look at how one politically connected couple took ethically dubious advantage of subsidized housing built to make housing more affordable for non-politically connected poor people.  Here is some background on the couple from the link:

We know that Gabe Furshong – who’s the deputy director of the Montana Wilderness Association, meaning he’s the #2 person there – is married to Lauren Caldwell.

Lauren Caldwell is the current campaign manager for Denise Juneau’s U.S. House bid.

Before that, Caldwell was the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (MDLCC) Director.

When Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Andrea Marcoccio was fired after the dismal 2014 election results, Caldwell took over as interim director of the Montana Democratic Party.

Prior to her work at MDLCC, Caldwell was an aide to Senator Max Baucus.

While politics is often incestuous, it’s interesting to see how relationships can help one understand policy positions. For example, in the first link about the coming NREPA vote, Furshong’s organization, the Montana Wilderness Association, is refusing to comment. But Steve Kelley did comment, clearly describing one impediment to this bill getting Congressional consideration:

“The main obstacle for years was Senator Max Baucus. Now he’s in China doing trade deals, so now we don’t have that to overcome.”

Further on in the article, the divide between environmentalists is described:

Natalie Dawson is director of the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana.

“Environmentalists fall within their own spectrum of being environmentalists. They tend to fall in different places. Some people feel collaborative bills are a sellout, that they’re giving away too much of the pie. Other environmentalists feel like ‘if we don’t make compromises that nothing’s going to be done.”

Case in point – the Montana Wilderness Association.

It does not back NREPA.

MWA declined our invitation for a taped interview.

But in an emailed statement the group says it prefers locally developed, landscape-based wilderness proposals; projects such as the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition.

So an organization with “wilderness” in its name doesn’t want to talk to MPR about a bill that would protect millions of acres of wilderness. That might seem strange if the people and their political connections weren’t known, but thanks to Strandberg’s piece, we can see the incestuousness for what it is: smarmy insider politics. No wonder the idea of “collaboration” has gotten such a bad reputation.

Gabe Furshong and Lauren Caldwell went further than just pimping themselves out to politicians and the timber industry. As Strandberg explains, the housing project they took advantage of wasn’t just subsidized, it was also drowning in debt until NMCDC went hat-in-hand to the Missoula City Council for a bailout:

Gabe and Lauren bought and owned 1400 Burns Street #15.

What everyone in Missoula knows, however, is that those Burns Street apartments/condos are taxpayer-subsidized housing provided through the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC).

You might remember that back in 2012 the City of Missoula considered forgiving the $243,000 of the $400,000 taxpayer Title 1 funds loan that NMCDC was given to help build the 17 housing units after NMCDC began struggling with their $1.14 million in debt.

At the time, Gabe Furshong served as a resident board member of NMCDC and told the City Council that if NMCDC didn’t get loan forgiveness they could fail and Missoula wouldn’t get that loan money back anyways, so why not forgive it?

The whole intention of the Burns Street housing units was to “make housing permanently affordable.”

That is supposed to happen when Title 1 funds earmarked for projects benefiting low income folks are used to do just that.

That’s why I find it interesting that Gabe and Lauren actually bought and lived in a taxpayer-subsidized house until last year.

I find it even more interesting that they sold that house to Pam Walzer, who used to serve in Ward 2 for the Missoula City Council until she was defeated by Adam Hertz in 2011.

I find this interesting also. And unethical. But after watching local politics for years up close, this is what I have come to expect.

Now, with the Mayor trying to do more to solve the housing problem in Missoula, the only bright spot I see is the person the Mayor has tapped to head this effort–Eran Fowler Pehan, director of the Poverello Center:

“For the past decade or so, I’ve been talking about housing in our community – affordable housing, safe and decent housing, and housing for everyone,” Engen said. “We’ve talked about it and we’ve placed emphasis on the notion, but we’ve largely relied on our nonprofit partners in the community to figure it out.”

Engen said the current approach has led to the creation of smaller projects across the city – projects that have done little to meet the city’s growing need for safe and affordable housing. The process needs a cohesive vision and must move faster, he said.

“I’ve become increasingly frustrated that we don’t have a housing policy here in the city of Missoula,” Engen said. “Nor do we have much intentionality around the way we make public investments in housing. The way we get there is to have a team dedicated to creating a policy and executing that policy.”

As presented, Eran Fowler Pehan, executive director of the Poverello Center, would serve as director of the city’s new housing office. Engen lauded Pehan for working through the challenges of building the new homeless shelter.

Pehan, who will start this July, will establish the new housing office and bring several grant programs into the municipal operation. Currently, the city contracts with Missoula County to manager the grants.

Pehan would also take over the city’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, Engen said.

Eran is the exact opposite of a shady politician. She didn’t use the homeless shelter as a stepping stone to launch a political career like the previous director did. No, she stepped in and saved the shelter when that previous director nearly destroyed the organization with her ineptitude, something I know from painful first-hand experience.

If politics wasn’t dominated by self-serving insiders taking full advantage of their connections, the world would be a much better place. The grossness of just one political couple’s shady behavior provides a little glimpse into how politically incestuous entitlement operates. From the Queen of Corruption Clinton on down, political insiders take what they can for themselves, and fuck everyone else.

While this can make one quite cynical, part of me still believes another world is possible.  So good luck Eran, those without shady political connections need a true advocate like you to advocate for them, not more self-serving, lip-service-giving politicians who too often act in direct opposition to their lofty rhetoric.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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6 Responses to Wilderness Protection, Affordable Housing and the Unethical Behavior of Political Insiders

  1. steve kelly says:

    Interesting post. There is a broader incentive for political insiders relating to state pensions and the formula used to calculate benefit amounts. Serving as a legislator doesn’t pay that well, but it counts toward the number of years needed to collect a state pension. The revolving door connecting the legislature, NGO’s, and state agency employment never stops spinning. For those inclined toward a life of “politically incestuous entitlement” there is no bigger prize than a state pension. As always, there is an exception to the rule. The next level is, of course, a federal pension to top it all off. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

    • thanks for your work on this, Steve. I know resisting powerful forces is too often a thankless task.

      • steve kelly says:

        It’s hard to quantify resistance. I think TPTB is sufficiently worried that maintaining GSE’s (government-sponsored enterprise), fake environmental groups, and fake social activists are necessary to tip the scales in favor of the bipartisan, neoliberal/neocon agenda. With all the skulking around by political apparatchiks these days, how confident are they, really? I find most have limited marketable skills, and few-to-none other real prospects of making an honest living in Montana. One commenter on another blog describes this group as: “fifth quartile.”

  2. Greg Strandberg says:

    Ethics and taking advantage of the system – did our two Democrats do that?

    Perhaps their income was low enough to qualify when they bought that house. For some reason, I just don’t think so.

    So in that case, do we have fraud with the housing application or with those working in the NMCDC? Or is it routine to give people that have too-high income levels subsidized housing meant for poor people?

    It stinks, but what will be done? I’m betting nothing. Who’d even look into this…the very agency responsible for signing off on it or some other agency?

    Again, I doubt anything will happen. Time will go by, people will forget, and our two Democrats will continue to rise in the ranks of the Montana Democratic Party.

    It makes me sick.

  3. Matthew Koehler says:

    “The Montana Wilderness Association declined our invitation for a taped interview.” – Montana Public Radio

    That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? I mean, with a staff of 24 people, including a beefy communications/PR team, the Montana WILDERNESS Association can’t even get on air with Montana PUBLIC Radio to let the people of Montana know their opinions about the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, a bill that would essentially protect the remaining roadless wildlands in our region and also protect important wildlife corridors?!?

    What’s ironic is that while MWA opposes NREPA, but won’t even extend the courtesy to Montana citizens of being interviewed by Montana Public Radio, you can go to MWA’s Facebook page and right now they are promoting new research that reveals key wildlife corridors in the U.S. See: http://bit.ly/1Wrhsg0

    MWA claims the wildlife corridors in Montana are “places were working to protect” but the truth is that MWA has worked together with the timber industry to try and dramatically increase public lands logging, including more logging with some of these wildlife corridors on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Lolo National Forest and Kootenai National Forest. 

    Furthermore, if you look at the wildlife corridor map resulting from the new research (http://bit.ly/1Wrhsg0) you’ll see that the map essentially goes hand-in-glove with the roadless areas and wildlife corridors that the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would, in fact, protect.

    Regarding the timber industry’s Julia Altemus, who did have the guts at least to grant MT Public Radio an interview, I’d challenge her to come up with one shred of science that found or advocates for NOT protecting the remaining roadless wildlands in our region or protecting important wildlife corridors. 

    Oh, and speaking of the Montana Wilderness Association’s ‘timber partners’….anyone notice that Julia Altemus’ Montana Wood Products Association has endorsed Greg Gianforte for governor?

    Or that Ed Regan, who is a manager of RY Timber (which is owned by a billionaire Boise, ID family, and also happens another one of MWA’s ‘timber partners’) has a letter in all the Montana newspapers saying “we need to elect Greg Gianforte as governor.”

    Fact is, the Montana Wilderness Association decided to hop in bed with the Montana timber industry. However, seems to me that the Montana timber industry has gotten what they wanted from MWA and Senator Tester so now the timber industry is fully behind Gianforte, Ryan Zinke and Steve Daines. I know, I know…Shocking right? I mean, who possibly could have seen this coming?

    Anyway, the public can get more detailed information about the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (including detailed maps) here: http://bit.ly/1YuyXeR. 

  4. Montana Wilderness Association is an industry front group. Once you know that, you can easily predict their behavior. If only somehow we could use their corruption to our advantage.

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