The race for Missoula City Council is on, with head-to-head match-ups decided for each ward. Looking at the last few elections, there are some clues as to how each race could play out.
Despite the race being technically nonpartisan, each ward match is between candidates endorsed by the local Democratic committee and Republican committees. In the primary races Tuesday, the three unendorsed candidates were eliminated.
The primary marked a relative success for incumbent conservative council member Jesse Ramos’ hand-selected team of candidates, with both primary candidates he endorsed advancing to the general election.
Ramos, the only conservative on the current council, sought out a lineup of candidates dedicated to cutting city spending to run in each ward this year, calling the five candidates he is supporting “Team Liberty,” named after his own libertarian ideology.
All five members of “Team Liberty” are now set to run in the general election. But the two who were forced to run primary races saw only half the votes as the Missoula Democratic Central Committee-endorsed candidates they challenged — incumbent Heidi West in Ward 1 and newcomer Amber Sherrill in Ward 4.
The one race without a member of Ramos’ team, Ward 3, advanced incumbent Gwen Jones and newcomer Drew Iverson, who initially was endorsed by Ramos, but the two parted ways before the election.
The large leads held by the Democrat-endorsed candidates in the primary may spell a rocky road ahead for Ramos’ team. But looking back at the results from the last City Council election in 2017, there may be some wards where the conservative team has better odds at making inroads to the liberal-dominated council.
Ward 1 saw a primary race between three self-identified Democrats, however only incumbent Heidi West secured the local party’s endorsement. She went on to lead the ward in the primary, shutting out the unendorsed Elizabeth Weaver, and setting up a face-off with Amber Shaffer, the only Democrat on Ramos’ “Team Liberty.”
Liberal candidates have traditionally won Ward 1 seats, which encompasses the Rattlesnake, Downtown and the Northside. This would point to an easy victory for West, where she and Engen both sailed to victory in 2017 by wide margins, but Shaffer’s self-identification as a Democrat, despite gaining Ramos’ endorsement, could add some spice to that mix.
One ward that Engen lost in 2017, and another he barely won, may involve the seats most likely to flip from the liberal-leaning incumbents to a conservative challenger.
Engen eked out a win in Ward 2 by just 42 votes, or 1.4%, in 2017. Ward 2, which encompasses the Westside, Grant Creek and recently annexed areas around the airport, had no challenger for liberal incumbent council member Jordan Hess that year. In the upcoming general election, Ramos-endorsed Brent Sperry is taking on Mirtha Becerra, who was appointed to the council after two consecutive incumbents left to take other jobs outside Missoula.
The narrow win by Engen points to the potential for a conservative to win the seat. Additionally, Becerra and her predecessor, Ruth Swaney, were both appointed by the sitting left-leaning council. The last person to win the seat through general election was Harlan Wells, who ran in 2015 on a platform similar to that of Becerra’s competitor, Brent Sperry. Sperry is running on the Ramos team’s fiscally conservative, property-tax-cutting agenda, similar to what carried Wells to victory.
Becerra said the issue of rising property taxes is what she hears the most often from constituents in her ward while campaigning. And with her competitor also focusing on property taxes, she said she's using facts to differentiate herself.
“The thing I encounter quite a bit is people really don’t understand some of the issues they’re most angry about, so there’s quite a bit of education that happens when campaigning,” Becerra said. “The amount of misinformation is really pretty eye-opening.”
She said that people often don’t realize that only about a third of their property tax bill comes from the city. She said she explains to people that making opportunistic cuts to city services would likely make very minor differences in resident’s overall tax bill, while potentially creating unintended negative consequences.
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Gwen Jones, the Ward 3 incumbent, is expected to easily maintain her seat after crushing both challengers in the primary with 70% of the vote. In the past three municipal general elections, the candidates endorsed by the local Democratic committees won at least 60% of the vote in the ward, with three of the four races breaking 70% for the liberal-leaning candidates.
The 2017 election, which included a mayoral race that saw incumbent Mayor John Engen handily defeat his conservative challenger Lisa Triepke, also saw a decisive victory for Ramos, in Ward 4. The race for that council seat, a four-way general election, included conservative-leaning incumbent Jon Wilkins. Interestingly, Engen won the ward at the same time Ramos did, despite Ramos and Triepke running on very similar conservative and openly anti-Engen talking points.
The other Ward 4 seat is open in this election. Incumbent left-leaning John DiBari decided not to run for reelection, leaving two newcomers to battle for it in the general.
Amber Sherrill, the Democratic-endorsed candidate who has served as both the president and interim executive director at the Five Valleys Land Trust, led the primary by a considerable amount, bringing in almost 60% of the vote in the three-way race. She will square off with Ramos’ pick, Alan Ault, who picked up 32% of the vote in Tuesday’s primary.
Ault said he saw himself as an underdog considering Sherrill’s past roles in one of the most influential nonprofits in Missoula, but that he would keep addressing the issue he heard most while knocking doors — property taxes — and hope that is what ultimately brings a majority to the polls.
Ward 5, where Engen actually lost to Triepke by nearly 600 votes, or 14.5%, will be one to watch. Incumbent Julie Armstrong decided at the last moment not to run for reelection after the council voted to hold a primary, citing the extra costs she would incur.
John Contos, a carpet-cleaning business owner and Ramos’ pick, will square off with Alex Fregario, who owns a local process-serving business and is endorsed by the Missoula Democratic Central Committee.
Contos would appear to have a solid chance of winning, given that Engen lost the ward to Triepke by a wide margin. But in that same election, the liberal council candidate, Stacie Anderson, won the seat by an even wider margin than Triepke. The council race Anderson won did not have an incumbent running.
Nick Shontz and Sandra Vasecka are facing off for the Ward 6 seat being vacated by Michelle Cares, whose left-leaning campaign in 2015 won 57.5% of the vote in a three-way race, easily defeating the two other candidates, both conservatives. Engen won the ward in 2017 by a smaller margin than his city-wide results, beating Triepke in the ward by less than 200 votes, or about 6.5%. Julie Merritt ran unopposed for her council seat that year.
Based on the past three municipal elections, the odds appear to be against Vasecka, who is part of Ramos’ “Team Liberty.” The race is the first head-to-head council race in the ward since 2013, when the liberal incumbent Marilyn Marler won 74% of the vote.
However, since that vote, the share of Ward 6 votes going to the liberal candidates in municipal elections has steadily decreased, and if the trend continues on pace, the seat could flip from liberal to conservative this election. With both Shontz, who won the Democratic endorsement, and Vasecka running without the benefit of incumbency, it’s anyone’s race.
Both Shontz and Vasecka said property taxes were the No. 1 issue they hear about in their ward, but offered different solutions. Shontz advocated for finding ways to diversify the tax base away from property taxes, while Vasecka advocated cutting city spending.
While Missoula is characterized as Montana’s biggest blue dot, widespread concern over rising property taxes and the annexation of more rural voters into city limits may mean the council turns a little more purple come Nov. 5.