Daniel Kemmis

Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Daniel Kemmis in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
by Staff, Utne Reader
January/February 1995
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“A lot of people are working in good faith to improve the world,” says Daniel Kemmis, the 50-year-old mayor of Missoula, Montana. “In fact, they may be working too hard at it.” 

Its not the sort of thing a responsible American politician, particularly a progressive one, is supposed to say. But then Kemmis has a subtly different understanding of political power and an unapologetic faith in nature. “I believe that the world is working on improving itself,” he says. “Good cities have a kind of wholeness and life force of their own, and it behooves us not to believe that the whole motive force for improvement comes from us.” 

Its a political philosophy hostile to the centralized schemes for civic development that swell the egos of urban planners but often render cities sterile. Kemmis likes localized, incremental improvements that, as he puts it, “tend to complete themselves.” A case in point is the development of trails and greenways along Missoulas Clark Fork River. Rather than push a grand plan, Kemmis and his allies built a park here, a trail there. “Then, the more complete it became, the more people used it,” he recalls. “The more they used it, the more frustrated they became at the gaps in it, and a very natural kind of political pressure came into being. Landowners who were holding out came to see that it was inevitable.” 

Projects that unfold “naturally” within a community, of course, require a type of consensus building that's sharply different from political infighting. Kemmis learned a lot about the old politics when, seven years out of Harvard, he entered the Montana legislature in 1975. “I came in as a fighter, an advocate,” he recalls. “But the further I went, the more I began to feel that simply forging a majority and pushing an agenda along wasnt the answer.” 

In 1984 he took a four-year break from the political whirl, worked on a book called Community and the Politics of Place (1990), and did a lot of thinking. When he was elected mayor in 1990, he was an unabashed consensus builder. “At one point I supported a bridge across the Clark Fork that the business community wanted and my natural constituency, the environmentalists, saw as clutter. But I believe the long-term, sustainable protection of the environment is best served by building a broad consensusso no group goes off nursing a grudge.” 

Kemmis sees his new politics as just one part of a broad movement across the country and the world. “Even in the face of violence and decay, I believe a powerful healing is going on,” he says. “You can see it in the movement toward mediation rather than litigation, in neighborhood organizing, and even in a new willingness here in the West to work out disputes over water rights. Its nothing less than a reclaiming of the human capacity for cooperation. 

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