TJ McDermott

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott.

In a big flip from their first matchup, assistant Municipal Court Judge Alex Beal carried deep lead Wednesday morning over incumbent Justice of the Peace Marie Andersen in the initial vote counts.

Results as of 10 a.m. Wednesday showed Beal with 62 percent of the vote — 19,755 to Andersen's 12,210, with all 52 precincts partially reported.

"I feel good," Beal said after the first round of results Tuesday night. "I've been cautiously optimistic and trying to get my message out there to the people of Missoula, and I feel like it's been resonating."

In the primary contest for justice of the peace, Andersen topped Beal with relative ease, taking 60 percent of the vote. But much has happened since then: The county released the findings of an investigation into Andersen's repeated absences and an alarming turnover rate in her office. The county commission has started the process to relieve Andersen of the hands-on administrative approach that's reportedly caused the staff stress, including a fear of retaliation. 

Beal, however, said his campaign also amped up its efforts since June.

"I think it's a lot of different things," he said. "When the primary happened, I hadn't had the chance to run much of a campaign. You've got a different group of people voting; that was a trial run, frankly. At this point I think people know a whole lot more about the race, they know more about her, they know more about me."

Beal campaigned primarily on smoothing out the wrinkles between Andersen's Justice Court Department 1 and Department 2, headed up by Justice of the Peace Landee Holloway. Beal's career has not been unlike Andersen's, specifically the trajectory from the public defender's office, to a private civil law practice to assistant Municipal Court judge before he aimed for Andersen's bench at the county level. 

Tallies Wednesday morning indicated Sheriff T.J. McDermott with a wide lead over Independent challenger Travis Wafstet, a detective with the Sheriff's Office who collected more than 1,800 signatures to make it on the ballot. Wednesday's results, with all 52 precincts partially reported, showed McDermott carrying about 7,200 votes over his opponent at 10 a.m., leading by 60 percent to 40 percent of the vote.

"The preliminary results look good," McDermott said Tuesday night. "I think the results show that the Sheriff's Office is on the right track."

In the June primary, McDermott easily cleared his Democratic opponent with 64 percent of the vote, a rematch of his 2014 race against former Undersheriff Josh Clark. Since taking office, McDermott's improvements expanded beyond interdepartmental moves, such adding six deputies and six detention officers, to include a jail diversion program that addresses mental health and substance abuse issues. 

Wafstet, hired on to the Sheriff's Office in 2013, ran on something of an integrity ticket, trumpeting the need for change in light of the discrimination claims made against McDermott since he took office in 2015. Of the 25 political retaliation claims made against Montana sheriffs since 2013, eight have been leveled against McDermott, according to the Montana Human Rights Bureau. 

But McDermott contested the noise stemmed from a small rogue group within the Sheriff's Office that supported Clark's campaign, and then sought to push back on McDermott's 2014 election. McDermott's campaign also carried the support of political heavy hitters such as Missoula Mayor John Engen and County Commissioner Cola Rowley.

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"I'm proud of my campaign," McDermott said. "We stayed focused on the issues going on in our community. … Those are the things that my team stayed focused on and I think voters appreciated that."

Wafstet said Wednesday that he would move forward with a focus on his work in the detectives unit at the sheriff's office, "and see where life takes me."

"It took a great deal of courage to stand up and be the voice for change against my own boss," he said. "I'm humbled to have the support of more than 13,000 people who heard my message and voted accordingly. This isn't the end for me, just the start of a new chapter. I'll continue to be a leader in Missoula and I'll always be seeking my next opportunity to give back to the community."

In the County Commissioners race, Democrat Josh Slotnick pulled in nearly 27,500 votes by 10 a.m. Wednesday. The political newcomer dethroned Commissioner Jean Curtiss in June with 58 percent of the vote. Curtiss has served on the commission 17 years. Slotnick will take the reins over the western side of the county in District 3.

Slotnick, whose background is in agriculture, prevailed on little political experience, but a call for improved communication between city and county government, as well as a push for developers, farmers and citizens together to find solutions to growth and development plans. He also had backing from Engen, who said he was an early supporter of Slotnick’s entry into local government.

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