Christopher Coburn with his sister, Hannah (Photo by Leanna Joy, courtesy of Christopher Coburn).
Bozeman City Commissioner Christopher Coburn shattered the rainbow ceiling, so to speak.
But really, he couldn’t have done it any other way.
Coburn, a public health specialist at Bozeman Health and a Missoula native who happens to be Black and queer, said, “I really can’t be something other who I am.”
Though Coburn’s election marks the first time a Black LGBTQ person was elected in the state of Montana, he’s proud of the achievement, but more worried about other issues facing one of the most rapidly growing cities in America, Bozeman.
At first, it may be easy to note the unique event – a queer person of color getting elected in a state whose politics are increasingly identified as conservative. However, that’s just one way of looking it, Coburn points out. Another way is understanding that he grew up in Montana and understands the political dynamics, and that makes it a lot less surprising.
“I’m from Montana – my whole life,” Coburn said. “I am a person of color and people view me as a leader, and it’s different because I am the first out queer leader, but it’s not new for me. It means a lot to me that I can show up as my full self and be successful. I want people to see themselves represented at the highest levels of decision making in Bozeman.
“This is my home, but I know how to navigate in Montana politics. Even if we have differences, we also have shared values like stewardship, community and respect. I am not going to lie to you and say it’s easy campaigning as queer, but it’s the only thing available to me, because this is who I am.”
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who was one of the first openly gay leaders in a large city, congratulated Coburn as part of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Coburn was highlighted as one of the candidates with national interest.
“Montana and the nation continue to grapple with systemic racism, police brutality and health and economic disparities – and Christopher is involved in efforts to tackle all of these pressing issues,” Parker said. “Christopher shattered a rainbow ceiling in Montana, and his victory will encourage even more LGBTQ people to step up and run.”
Coburn also received praise from Wilmot Collins, the first Black mayor elected in Montana. As Collins was winning his second term as mayor of Helena, Coburn was winning in Bozeman.
“I want to extend my warmest congratulations to Christopher Coburn of Bozeman for becoming the first Black, LGBTQ elected official in the state of Montana,” Collins wrote in a tweet. “You are an inspiration to many, and I can’t wait to see all of the amazing things you make happen for the city of Bozeman!”
Coburn grew up in Missoula. When his partner, Micah, decided to start a course in engineering, they moved to Bozeman.
“I told people (in Missoula), ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back,’” Coburn said. “But I fell in love with this place, and the people who live here make this an inspiring place.”
His first foray into politics was through the board of public health, a natural fit for a person working in public health. But he found that even during the tumultuous times of the pandemic and the public backlash that health boards received, he loved the engagement and the challenge of trying to bring opposite sides together.
“As we started to navigate the pandemic, it opened my eyes for population-level decision making,” Coburn said.
When an opening on the city commission came up in October 2020, he jumped at the chance for appointment. He put his name in the mix, only to be rejected.
Yet another opening and another chance for appointment opened up in February, and this time, Coburn was selected. Still, that meant he’d have to run for re-election during the pandemic. He campaigned, using more social media and virtual video meetings with constituents.
“It’s incredibly meaningful that I have the trust and support from the people,” Coburn said.
Now that the election is over, the celebration is in the past, and he’s continuing to engage on Bozeman’s most pressing issues, including the most obvious: “Unsurprisingly, it’s affordable housing.”
With rents escalating and property prices soaring, Coburn said he’s worried about people leaving the community because they simply can’t afford it.
“That’s our most pressing need – housing that is experiencing inadequate or inaccessible supply,” Coburn said.
He said his goal is to make sure the budgeting and priorities align. For example, if housing is the No.1 concern that everyone talks about, is it the top priority in the city’s budget?
Yet he also sees evidence of the housing shortage in other ways beyond rent and mortgage costs.
“Our favorite businesses have restricted hours because they can’t find employees or our parents on fixed income have to leave because of rising costs,” Coburn said.
He said that affects the entire community in a number of ways, and without a solution, the problem will make Bozeman less desirable instead of more attractive.
The problem is more complex than simply declaring by order from the city commission that Bozeman should have affordable housing.
“We can’t mandate it, but we need to think about our land use decisions, and what will give us higher density,” he asked.
He’s also interested in how Bozeman can become more responsive to climate change. Already, he’s looking at landscaping options, incentives for drought-tolerant landscape, water usage, energy-efficient building and looking at the city’s car fleet.
“I guess coming from public health, I’ve always sort of understood the impacts of decisions and how those systems can change things for the better and make them more fair,” Coburn said.
He admits during the acrimonious and polarizing political times of COVID-19, that’s easier said than done.
“It’s a tall order, but I happen to be someone who is willing to be collaborative,” he said. “You need to partner with people and bring coalitions together.”
While making sure that garbage is picked up or roads are plowed is important, Coburn said that other ideas are also essential to making Bozeman a desirable place.
“We have to have great healthcare, affordable housing, childcare and be the kind of inclusive community where people can bring their full identities and feel safe, included and wanted in the community,” Coburn said.
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