Citing core personal values of accountability, transparency and honesty, Jacob Elder is looking to unseat incumbent John Engen in Missoula’s upcoming mayoral election.
Elder, 28, a University of Montana law student and Marine Corps veteran, said the city needs change in the mayoral office. Engen has served since 2006 and announced his intention to seek another term on Wednesday.
Elder officially filed for candidacy on Thursday.
“I believe a fifth term is too long,” Elder said on Friday. “Missoula isn’t the same as (Engen) remembers it being when he first became mayor. I think it’s a great disservice to our community to run for another (term in) office when we have so many issues unique to our time and that need new leadership and fresh blood to attack.
“I’m the guy for that position.”
Born in Liberia, Elder is a refugee who came to Helena and went to high school at Helena Capital. A talented athlete, he came to Missoula in 2011 and joined the Grizzly football team.
After two years, however, he felt a different calling and joined the armed forces, spending four years in the Marine Corps, rising to the rank of sergeant.
While he has never served in public office, he said he feels he has the requisite leadership skills and lived experience for the position.
“My life experience, coupled with my educational background, and my time in the military and traveling to different places around the world has enabled me to be in a position to adequately serve our community as mayor,” said Elder, who launched his campaign last year.
Now, his involvement in the community spans across multiple local nonprofits, including the YWCA and Big Brother Big Sister programs.
“I try to volunteer as much as I can,” Elder said.
Elder’s focus spans a variety of issues facing Missoula, but one thing he stressed as a universal concern in the community is housing. For example, the median house price in Missoula was $110,000 more in February than it was a year ago.
A January Annual Point in Time Count put the homeless population in Missoula at approximately 380.
“I can’t zone in on one issue. I think a lot of things are interrelated,” he said. “The housing crisis is one issue I care about, and that’s interrelated with our homeless crisis.”
Missoula has young families who can barely afford to pay rent, homeowners struggling with increasing property taxes and builders who are lacking the incentive to build, Elder said.
He plans to tackle the housing supply problem by easing some current restrictions on zoning, and he's interested in working with private partners, he said.
Potentially building high-rise apartment buildings in strategic places that don’t hinder other types of housing and compromise the availability of single-family homes is another approach Elder wants to take to the Missoula housing market.
“I don’t believe in government oversight on everything, but a lot of what we’re going to do is going to be driven by community partners and nonprofits to ensure that our community is functioning adequately,” Elder said. “We also have to keep in mind there are people that would rather have the single family households.”
He also touted himself as a fiscally responsible candidate. If elected, he would provide a weekly report detailing how city money was spent, he said.
Elder emphasized the importance of looking at the complexity of Missoula’s homelessness crisis. Individuals who are experiencing homelessness aren’t universally struggling with the same barriers, he said. While some people are unable to find affordable housing, others are experiencing mental health crises that prevent them from being able to find a reliable place to live.
When asked about police accountability and use of force, Elder said crisis response is something that needs to be handled in a collaborative way across multiple community agencies. He plans on growing agency partnerships to build a community-wide effort that responds to crisis situations. Specifically, he envisions a hybrid method where mental health professionals would accompany law enforcement when responding to certain calls.
“When we think about the recent trend of Black Lives Matter and police brutality, those are the things that are of great concern,” he said. “As a person of color I care about those things, but we have to focus on our community.”
Elder plans on working with Missoula Police Chief Jaeson White to gauge the most effective way to administer de-escalation and crisis intervention training programs, he said.
“The police are given this huge responsibility with less training,” he said. “I want to take some of that responsibility from the police officers and put it in the hands of health professionals.”
As Missoula’s population and culture shifts and grows, its law enforcement and emergency response teams need to keep up with those changes, he said.
“We have to focus on our community," he said. "We’ve seen more people coming from a variety of backgrounds to Missoula, and what we can do to keep up with those changes is to ensure our police are trained adequately to interact with different cultures and interact with different people.”
He is also an advocate for supporting the science around climate change, he said. One proposal he plans on putting forward is installing solar panels on homes, apartment buildings and businesses.
“I will be accepting of solutions that are well-vetted to attack this issue,” Elder said.
In 2019, the Missoula County Commissioners and the Missoula City Council jointly agreed to a goal of 100% clean energy for the city’s urban area by 2030. Missoula is also working toward a new transportation plan, called Missoula Connect, which in part seeks to encourage citizens to consider alternatives to driving.
“I'm a proponent for more green space, more park space, places to create more recreational activities for our community,” Elder said. “I believe that we owe it to the next generation of Missoulians that we preserve our climate so that they can live in a healthy and prosperous community and world.”
Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Contact him on Twitter @jordyhansen or via email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com