Former Missoula County prosecutor Kirsten Pabst took over the top job as Missoula County attorney Tuesday night, defeating challenger Josh Van de Wetering.
Pabst started the evening with a 3-to-2 lead when absentee ballots were counted shortly after 8 p.m. By 11 p.m., with all 52 precincts reporting, her lead was 7,146 to Van de Wetering's 4,111 votes. As both candidates filed as Democrats, the primary settles the race to replace retiring Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg.
Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks also filed to run as a Democrat, but announced he was exiting the race shortly after the ballots were printed. While his name appeared on the ballot, he did not campaign. He nevertheless received 958 votes.
“Right now what the community wants and needs is consistency,” Pabst said shortly after hearing the news of her lead. “We need to have policies and procedures in place to assure accountability in the office. I plan to enter into those discussions with the idea of cooperation. I want it to be an open conversation. I also want to make sure we show compassion for people going through the system. I think those are some of the things that have been lacking.”
Celebrating with friends at her Front Street law office, Pabst said her first project would be to visit many other Montana county attorney offices and meet fellow prosecutors.
“I want to take a close look at these other offices and see what works and what doesn’t, and see how they might apply here,” Pabst said. “But first I just want to get through tonight.”
Election rival Van de Wetering gathered with friends at the Union Club to hear the results. He said getting to know the county’s voters and their concerns for the office was a novel experience.
“The DOJ stuff, the sexual assault matters – those are still difficult issues,” Van de Wetering said, referring to Missoula County’s difficult negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice over the handling of sex crimes. “And how people are getting treated by the civil side (of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office) – those were the two biggest issues. Everybody’s questions were about how are you going to solve it?”
According to the last campaign finance reports filed before the election, Pabst outspent Van de Wetering by $19,438.93 to $8,997.01. A political action committee also raised about $6,500 to campaign in favor of Pabst. Another round of finance reports will be filed in coming weeks, showing last-minute election spending.