Missoula Mayor John Engen has reversed his earlier decision to support both candidates in the June 5 Democratic primary for Missoula County commissioner, now saying he is backing the newcomer.
Incumbent Jean Curtiss is in her third term representing the western side of the county in District 3. She is being challenged by University of Montana lecturer and farmer Josh Slotnick.
Engen emailed the Missoulian and Missoula Independent on Tuesday to say he is now endorsing Slotnick.
"I'd intended to sit on the sidelines in this race, which is the easy thing to do in my position," Engen wrote. "Unfortunately, the easy thing and the right thing aren't always aligned."
Engen said he first talked to Slotnick years ago about Slotnick's interest in local government and pursuing elected office.
"During that conversation, I encouraged Josh to find the right time to throw his hat in the ring," Engen wrote.
Engen told the Missoulian on the morning of April 6 that he would support both candidates, despite appearing at a fundraiser for Slotnick later that night. However, Engen said he changed his mind after hearing Slotnick offer a "compelling and passionate case for a fresh perspective" on the Board of Commissioners.
"Josh stood in front of a small crowd at the Roxy and spoke about community values and constituent service in a way that inspired me and, more and more, I'm looking for inspiration in local government, whether you're running for council, mayor, county commissioner or a seat in the Legislature," Engen wrote.
Engen said Slotnick brings "energy and enthusiasm and compassion" that he believes the county needs.
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"I think (Slotnick) is ready to tackle controversial issues, willing to make mistakes and learn from them and work with his colleagues to craft a vision for the future of the county," Engen wrote.
Engen said he's worked with Curtiss for the entirety of her time as commissioner, both while he was a member of the Missoula City Council and as mayor.
"She is hard-working, intelligent and has served well and with distinction," Engen wrote. "For obvious reasons, I generally believe that experience is an asset in local government. But that experience needs to be combined with a willingness to consider new ideas, take risks and collaborate on a grander vision for our place.
"I think Jean and I have done our best to support each other despite some disagreements and I appreciate her hard work. But at this point, I want more from county government. For me, the status quo isn't enough."
Engen said he's not arrogant enough to think that his endorsement "moves the needle" in any meaningful way.
"In fact, one of Commissioner Curtiss' friends once described my endorsement as the kiss of death, so I may be doing Jean a favor here," Engen said. "At the end of the day, these two candidates have to present a case for why she or he is the right person at the right time to help lead Missoula County. I've made my decision based on experience and hope, and I trust that voters in Missoula County will do the same, regardless of the decision I've made.
"The beauty of local government is that the system still works and the people who are served will ultimately decide whom they trust to serve them best."
Curtiss did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An Independent candidate named Jeffrey James Halvorson has also filed to run, but has not yet collected enough signatures to get his name on the November general election ballot.