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Daniel Carlino's relentless progressivism
The first-term Missoula City Council member highlights his wins and defends his divisive record.
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Greetings, all, and welcome to Big Sky Chat House! Woo-hoo!!
I’m so happy that you’re here, and to kick off the newsletter with a chat with Missoula’s own Daniel Carlino.
Carlino joined Missoula City Council this January, after winning a close election last November. Since his induction, Carlino—now 25—has generated a healthy dose of controversy, thanks in large part to his unyielding progressive stances, and his tendency to champion them loudly.
Carlino has taken a vocal stance on a range of issues this year, including the decriminalization of psychedelic drugs, pushing city council to stop working with private security firms that aggressively patrol homeless residents, and proposing additional spending for city services. (His fellow council members have argued that money does not exist without budget cuts).
Carlino’s most dramatic public spat occurred in September, when the council convened to select a new mayor in the wake of Mayor John Engen’s passing. During a meeting that stretched into the wee hours of the morning, Carlino resisted pressure to vote for either of the two leading candidates—both of whom were serving as council members at the time. Instead, he voted for several community activists, including one who did not apply for the position.
In response to Carlino’s steadfast refusal to vote for Hess or Nugent, the latter insinuated that Carlino had made a “mockery” of the proceedings, while the Missoula Current’s Martin Kidston attacked him on Twitter with outlandish vitriol.
The event highlighted Carlino’s stubbornness and idealism. It also got at the central question of our interview: How far will those qualities carry him on his mission to enact change?
Max: Before we turned on the recorder, you mentioned you’re working on a resolution to decriminalize fentanyl testing strips. What can you tell me about that?
Daniel Carlino: Just over the past couple years, there's just been way more fentanyl overdoses, and fentanyl in the United States, in general. And since you can have a lethal dose in such a small little amount of powder, it's finding its way into all sorts of pills. One of the goals of the resolution is to ensure that people that use drugs know what's in them and that they can freely test their drugs to ensure that they don't have fentanyl or other lethal drugs in them. Right now those fentanyl testing strips are considered drug paraphernalia; we'd like to see them not be considered drug paraphernalia.
We'd like to see the city and county health department or some other department be able to hand out free fentanyl testing strips in Missoula, and we want to destigmatize the use of fentanyl testing strips to ensure that people that are gonna use drugs always use a fentanyl testing strip.
You can buy them as cheap as 50 cents if you get them in bulk. And then we’d have the city or county hand them out for free or have [a place] where people can pick them for free.
Overall the goal is just to reduce overdoses and ensure that people aren't accidentally overdosing on these things. There was a high schooler last year in Missoula who passed away from accidentally doing fentanyl.
Is there consensus among City Council on this issue?
I would think that there'd be pretty wide support on the council for this. So far everybody I've talked to supports it.
Nice. So, moving into headier waters…you’ve been on City Council for almost a year now. I’m curious, what have you learned about the limitations and possibilities that the position affords?
Basically City Council can do anything that state law hasn't denied us from doing. City Council has a lot of power in land use issues. We basically get to decide what's allowed to be built where in town, and that's where a lot of our power lies. That can be used to help with housing, help with the environment.
We also have a $270 million [annual] budget or so. The mayor creates the budget, but city council members are able to amend it. So this year I had like 20 budget amendments and then there was one other council member that had about five and then nobody else in the council had any budget amendments: they’d just take it as is. [Note: minutes from the August 22 City Council meeting indicate that Carlino brought 14 amendments for a vote. He explained in a follow-up message that he pulled a handful of amendments before they came for a vote, and that he was behind three amendments that did not have a specific sponsor.]
Council members could be helping to create the budget, but they typically don't. They just let the mayor's office handle it. I'm trying to help put more money towards housing and more money towards protecting our environment and criminal justice reform things and all sorts of positive stuff.
There's a ton of money flying around and sometimes going to the wrong places. One reason I wanted to do the Council is because we have a majority-liberal council and I'm kind of on the left of the political spectrum on there. I feel like it's a group of people that genuinely agree with the things I'm trying to help get done, but sometimes are just hesitant to do a lot, or are hesitant to change things and make things better. So I guess one of the biggest roadblocks for me feels like the other council members (laughs). There's a lot that we can do that we're not doing.
Were you surprised to enter into a work environment that felt that way to you?
Yeah. I was kind of surprised that like almost no council members are writing policies or coming up with things that they want in the budget. I kind of thought that we'd all be working on different policies like all the time—
Some real West Wing action?
Yeah. Sometimes the pace of government is painfully slow, and it could be faster.
I feel like I got elected running as somebody who has done a lot of activism and people saw me as a candidate that was like an activist running for council. Part of my job is to try and pull this all along towards justice even if I have to sit alone or sit with one or two other people on votes.
Your critics have argued that your approach makes a mockery of the process; that it’s performative. How do you respond to that criticism?
[With the budget, for instance], It’s easy to criticize me and be like, ‘Why would you do all these ones that you knew weren't gonna get passed, and are going to make people angry and keep us there until three in the morning?’ (laughs).
Fifteen or so [amendments] got shot down, but we had three get passed. One was to make a bunch of more traffic circles around town to help stop car crashes. One was to hire some AmeriCorps members to work on our zero waste goals. And then one was to fund a study to have the city look at taking over our ambulance service. Right now it's through a private company, MESI. I'm trying to make it go through the fire department so people don't have to be slammed with a big medical bill [if they need ambulance services].
I just don't believe that there should be any profit-making involved in healthcare. So that's kind of how the city can look at healthcare as a human right, to take over the ambulance service and make it accessible.
These amendments make a big difference in people's everyday lives. We could’ve stay there all night if we needed to. We gotta keep trying for things and I don't feel like it's a mockery of the process at all. It's really upsetting to me that some council members have not introduced any motions, any amendments, any policies or anything. I think that’s a real disappointment.
Which brings us to the drama around the mayoral selection process…
I’d prefer that everybody in town would get to pick the mayor, but instead state law says that the city council has to pick a new mayor within a month.
I think we should have tried to interview as many people as possible. But, essentially, there were two council members who were running and they were the front runners. They're hanging out with all the other council members all the time, being buddies and stuff. So they had a clear advantage. I just disagree on so many policies and votes with both of the council members that were running to where I definitely knew I would not want to vote for either of them for mayor.
But it became a gridlock because you need seven votes. Jordan Hess had six votes, Mike Nugent had five and I was voting for Fred Rice for almost all of the [rounds of voting] and then also Bob Giordano and also Teigan Avery to try and help break the gridlock, and to see if we could get people excited about somebody else.
But they all wanted to stick with their council member vote. And they wanted me to cave and vote for Jordan to be the seventh vote. And I just couldn't vote for him because he voted against so many good budget amendments and didn't propose any budget amendments himself. And that's the main thing that the mayor does, is create the budget. That was disappointing.
Now that he is mayor, he decided to close the authorized campsite [for homeless individuals] with five weeks’ notice, which is gonna displace some of those people. So, you know, I have no regrets on not voting for him. [Jordan] and Mike are good on many things, but we could always do better and ask for better. My number one pick would've been Bob Giordano from Free Cycles. We agree on so many good policies and he's been doing work in the community for decades: giving out free bikes—what an anti-capitalist message—and throwing concerts for the community. Every council member, including myself, was kind of being stubborn for 22 rounds of voting and not wanting to change our vote (laughs). And since I was only vote voting for somebody that only had one vote, they were all looking toward to me to change my vote because Jordan needed seven.
So if I wanted to end it, I basically had to vote for Jordan. And then everybody was just mad at me for not voting for one of them. And I just feel like, you know, it's a really important decision that's gonna last for at least a year and a half. I was totally fine with staying there all night if we needed to. I felt like my one vote was leverage in a way to be like, okay, let's have a conversation about why we're voting for these people or, or let's try and pick a completely different person that we can all agree on and get seven votes together.
One of the reasons that I think it was totally reasonable to pick Bob was because he's been a community leader. Everybody on the council already knows him. And actually, this happened before in the Eighties, when Mayor Cregg, at the time, died and then the Council had to pick a new mayor and there was the same gridlock where nobody could get seven votes and then they appointed John Toole to mayor who was somebody who hadn't even applied (laughs).
So it's happened before. I just didn't wanna give up on voting for somebody that I know I'm not gonna agree with as somebody that I know was not gonna, you know, fight for some of the same causes tooth and nail as me for mayor.
You mentioned a minute ago that you agree with Mayor Hess and Mr. Nugent about some things. What's at the top of that list?
Me and Mike Nugent, for example, agree that you should allow everybody to also be able to build a duplex, triplex, town home, or fourplex on their land because that'll help us not destroy land [outside of town]. We agree on doing that basically everywhere in town.
And then with Jordan, he voted for all of my climate amendments to help stop climate change and sidewalk amendments and so we typically agree on putting money towards sidewalks and transportation things.
But then when it comes to actually funding something or actually passing a policy, then [City Council] will back off. They all agree in theory on some of these things, but then we don't actually get there.
You have to put money towards it. You gotta stand out on an edge and take a chance on putting more money towards [something like] the mobile support team, getting them running 24/7 and sometimes that means not funding something else. They're just unwilling to find somewhere that we can cut money or unwilling to just make changes to fund the more important things that have are underfunded.
So there's a lot of things we disagree on, but I try to work with all the council members that I can to find what we can agree on to get things done. But I'm still gonna probably put up a fight over everything that seems like a big deal. Which, you know, sometimes feels like a waste of time or performative, but it just feels like it would just be a real injustice to people that voted for me to just not put up a fight or just go with the flow.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. Thanks again for being here. We’ll be back next Thursday with an utterly non-political interview to ease your election-addled mind.
In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on my dazzlingly robust Twitter presence, @SavageLevenson.
Be safe out there,