In a Missoula City Council race posed by some as a referendum on the city's political status quo, leaders on both sides claimed victory one day after the election. One of the six races is still unsettled, and it’s equally unclear exactly how the newly elected members will seek to sway the council’s work.
While only two of the six blue seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s City Council election appeared set to turn red, a third race was close — and depending on whom you ask — signals the beginning of an incremental change to the consistently liberal council.
Outcry over rising property taxes has drawn more and more attention in Missoula elections and was the focus for this year's race. Councilor Jesse Ramos, who won his seat as the lone fiscal conservative on the council in 2017, worked to form a team of candidates this time to run largely on the property tax issue in each ward.
Mayor John Engen, whose tenure Ramos specifically targeted as the subject of the election’s “referendum,” said he saw the night as a win for his policies despite losing two liberal seats.
“If I were to buy the premise that this were a referendum on me, then I’d go to the number of incumbents who were elected,” said Engen, who took the helm of Missoula in 2006 and is the city's longest serving mayor. “Those are the folks who have served with me and have generally voted in favor of policies and budgets and strategies that we’re promoting in this office. And in all cases, those incumbents were successful.”
Voters sent three incumbents back to the council: Ward 1's Heidi West, Ward 2's Mirtha Becerra (who was appointed in 2017), and Ward 3's Gwen Jones.
But Ramos shot back, saying he didn’t see how the mayor could claim victory.
“I certainly think everyone knows who the underdogs were in this race,” Ramos said. “But despite that, he’s lost ground, and we’ve gained ground, so it’s clear who the victor is. We’re still at a deficit, but I’m not sure how you can call losing ground a victory.”
While the race in Ward 6 is still too close to call, and may be close enough for a recount early next week, conservative Sandra Vasecka stands to be one of two candidates to pick up seats, bringing the council to a 9 to 3 split.
John Contos, Ramos' pick for Ward 5, won by a 5% margin over newcomer Alex Fregerio.
Ramos said despite still being at a significant deficit, he is happy that there will be more opportunities for discussion, and he was particularly hopeful that tax-increment financing — one of his primary issues — would get increased bipartisan support for analyzing the pros and cons of the program he is strongly against. TIF is a program that reinvests a portion of property taxes in a designated area back into that area for urban renewal, but it has drawn scrutiny for keeping large amounts of money out of the general fund.
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Council president Bryan von Lossberg said he was happy with the election results, and strongly believed having more opposing viewpoints on council would be a good thing. But he said he doesn’t buy into defining the council into two clear ideological factions.
“Opposing views are fantastic, but the merits of the views need to work their way to the top,” von Lossberg said. “I’ve found the ‘11-to-1’ rhetoric and narrative to be a free pass to a large extent, because it takes away from the merits of a particular idea.
"One example I’ve brought up before is that I didn’t vote against an amendment to strip funding from the Mountain Line’s zero-fare initiative because of groupthink. I voted against it because I thought it was a terrible idea on the merits.”
Vasecka, Ramos’ pick who leads the unsettled Ward 6 race by 12 votes, said she was still surprised by her lead, saying she generally always loses at games and sports, and that the race always felt as tight as it has turned out to be.
When asked which of her policy ideas she thought had the best chance of gaining support from the majority of council, she said she wasn’t sure yet, but was open to working with others.
“This is my first stab at a local government thing, so I still need to do orientation and all that, so I think it’s sort of silly to come up with something right now,” Vasecka said Wednesday.
The Ward 6 race is still too close to call, and six ballots that were rejected still have a small window of opportunity to be resolved by the voters who submitted them. While the six ballots wouldn’t be enough to flip the current lead, they could bring the race close enough to trigger a recount.
Vasecka’s opponent, Nick Shontz, said he was grateful for everyone who helped in his campaign, and just hoped that all of the six ballots rejected in the ward could be resolved, regardless of who those votes end up going to.
Mayor Engen, who on Wednesday declined to say whether he planned to run again for mayor in 2021, said he would continue to advocate for policies and services he believes Missoulians want, regardless of political divisions.
“New council members inevitably bring new ideas, and they give us an opportunity for different dialogue and different conversations,” Engen said. “As mayor, I get to be a skeptic, but I never get to be a cynic. I’ll take everybody at face value, and if they want to figure out ways to work together, giddy up.”