Missoula County’s newest commissioner held on to a narrow lead late Tuesday night and pledged to bring fresh energy and ideas to the job when she takes office in January.

As of press time, Democrat Cola Rowley garnered 18,802 votes to 17,289 votes for Republican Vicky Gordon. The race ran close for much of the night, never separated by more than 5 percentage points.

Running in one of Missoula’s few contested races, Rowley watched the returns from a downtown hotel where she was joined by Democratic legislators and commissioners.

If the lead holds into Wednesday, creating a new growth policy will rank high on Rowley’s agenda.

“We need to protect our agricultural heritage and still identify a plan for housing and industry,” Rowley said. “It’s really an important and timely issue for our county.”

Over the past few years, Missoula County has been mired in lawsuits and trouble with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations that the County Attorney’s Office practiced gender bias when handling reports of sexual assault.

Commissioners funded the county attorney’s request to use $50,000 to hire outside attorneys to represent the office in the ongoing dispute with the DOJ and whether or not the agency has jurisdiction over the office.

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More recently, the county was ordered to pay $57,000 in attorney fees to the owners of the Dunrovin Ranch over a costly land dispute.

“People were upset with the county – I was upset with the county,” Rowley said. “There was a perceived lack of proactive leadership. The ice rink, all the issues at the fairgrounds, the DOJ, the lawsuits – the county was in the news a lot and, fair or not, people were upset.”

But with the general election comes a changing of the guard, and Rowley sees an opportunity to start with a fresh slate. She was urged to run for office while contending for a seat on the Lolo Community Council.

“I look forward to working with the new sheriff and the new county attorney to keep Missoula safe for women and children, create a healthy business climate and growing the economy and fostering that,” said Rowley. “I think the county was ready for a change, and I think I can bring that.”

The Democratic Party has held all three seats on the county commission since 2008, and Gordon saw her strong showing as a growing desire to have more than one party represent the larger county.

While Gordon ran behind much of the night, she held out hope that rural precincts had not been counted.

“I think I play better in Seeley Lake and Lolo – the people outside the city center are more favorable to me,” Gordon said just before 11 p.m. “I’m pleased with the results. I think the message is that people feel they’ve been overpowered by having only one party in charge here.”

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