Gale Decker has won a second six-year term as Lake County commissioner.
The victory came after a heated race between Decker, a Republican from Ronan, and Democrat Caroline McDonald of Polson. Decker’s margin of victory was slimmer than in his 2012 win over Libertarian John Swenson. But at 7,622 votes to McDonald’s 5,604, it was still decisive.
“I was happy with them,” Decker said of the results. “I thought again the turnout was good. It was an important race and people turned out and cast their ballot.”
He was one of three incumbents to hold his job in contested county commission races in western Montana, along with Carol Brooker of Sanders County and Republican Greg Chilcott in Ravalli County.
Republican Chuck Hinkle will replace Bart Bonney, an independent, in Granite County and another Republican, Randy Brodahl, will take a seat on the Flathead County board.
A key hospital district mill levy passed in Granite County on the second attempt, and voters approved school bond issues in Florence-Carlton and Clinton Elementary districts.
Decker and McDonald pulled in nearly ten times as much money as the 2012 commissioners’ race in Lake County, and over 1,400 more votes.
Decker focused his campaign on property tax revenue lost to tribal trust lands, funding for county law enforcement under Public Law 280 and protecting Flathead Lake from invasive zebra and quagga mussels.
Looking ahead, he said the county’s property tax base will be his No. 1 priority. Decker has previously called for state or federal funds to replace property taxes unpaid on tribal trust lands, and for the county’s Public Law 280 expenses. He said he plans to meet with the area's state legislators soon to discuss the upcoming legislative session.
McDonald stressed road maintenance, zoning regulations, substance abuse and other issues — all under the umbrella of improving Lake County’s relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and other local governments.
Those stances didn’t prevail Tuesday. But they had earned the endorsement of Montana Native Vote, campaign contributions from several tribal leaders, and even a change of address by Leslie Millar.
“I’ve been voting in Missoula for 46 years, and I was motivated to change my voting residence from Missoula to Arlee,” Millar said after casting her vote in Arlee Tuesday morning, explaining that she owned homes in both places.
Millar liked that McDonald “talks about building bridges. Her opponent is more interested in division and not embracing of the fact that the tribe is here.”
Decker is no stranger to these criticisms, but maintained, “I’ve never tried to be divisive with the tribes. I think it’s important that the two governments work together, and I would certainly work towards that and pursue it in the future.”
In an email, McDonald expressed gratitude for the backing her campaign received, noting “there was a strong showing of support from voters for a Democrat in a red county.”
“The majority have expressed their will,” she acknowledged. “We will still have to find a way to move forward together if we are going to build a community that will work for us all.”
McDonald said she does not have any definite next steps planned yet, but made clear she hopes “to find a way to bring about positive community change through other means.”
Decker was one of several local officials to fend off challengers in Lake and Sanders Counties. Both are served by Montana’s 20th Judicial District Court, where Judge Deborah “Kim” Christopher collected more than two-thirds of the vote in defeating public defender Ashley Morigeau for a fourth six-year term on the bench.
Sanders County Sheriff Tom Rummel defeated retired Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Darlene Lee for a third four-year term. Rummel took a lopsided 4,323 to 1,579 victory.
It was the only contested sheriff’s race in western Montana’s seven counties, though there’ll be new sheriffs in Flathead and Powell counties. Brian Heino and Gavin Roselles, respectively, will replace retiring longtime sheriffs Chuck Curry and Scott Howard in those counties come Jan. 1.
No countywide races west of the mountains proved particularly close.
Brooker won a fifth consecutive six-year term over Paul Fielder for Sanders County commission 3,102 to 2,768, a winning percentage of 53 percent.
In Flathead County, Brodahl collected 63 percent of the vote to easily down Democrat Tom Clark 28,515 to 16,677.
Hinkle outpolled Bonney for commissioner of Granite County, 822 to 588. The total accounted for just 83 percent of the votes. Most of the rest went to write-in candidate Wayne Hale. Election supervisor Sarah Graham said 305 people wrote in Hale's name, although 15 of those ballots were invalid.
“Either they didn’t mark in the oval or the name was spelled incorrectly,” Graham said. “Wayne had to get us a list of different variations of its spelling, so if it was not on the list it was marked invalid.”
The Granite County Hospital District levy sailed through 955 to 833 after failing by 20 votes in June. The measure requested $380,000 over two years for operational expenses at the hospital and clinics. The two precincts on the south end of the county encompassing Georgetown Lake and Philipsburg approved the levy by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. The north end precincts, including Lower Rock Creek and Drummond, voted it down.
Last month Lower Rock Creek resident/property owners presented a petition to withdraw from the hospital district. Commissioners won’t rule on the request until after the first of the year, when Hinkle takes office. He said during his campaign that he would approve the secession.
Three nonpartisan justice of the peace seats in western Montana were decided Tuesday. In Mineral County, Dale Magone retained his seat 1,036 to 875 over Jessica Schaak. Melissa Gallagher soundly defeated Paul Bean in Powell County 1,853 to 561. And Jim Bailey downed Perry Johnson in Ravalli County, 10,526 to 8,944.
Republican Lewis Cozby will be the new superintendent of schools in Powell County. He defeated Democrat Cindy Noland 1,531 to 1,083.