Liberals maintain majority on Missoula City Council; conservatives pick up 2 seats

Missoula County Democrats held a watch party at the Union Club, where they celebrated winning four of the six seats up for grabs on the City Council. Still, conservatives took two, increasing their ranks on the council. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

One of the more charged municipal races in recent memory came to a suspenseful close on Tuesday night, with two conservative candidates scoring wins in a well-funded and coordinated push to change the balance of the Missoula City Council.

Of the six seats up for grabs, candidates endorsed by Missoula County Democrats took four. Candidates endorsed by Missoula County Republicans won the other two, including Ward 6, which saw Sandra Vasecka top Nick Shontz with 52.6% of the vote.

Vasecka, who ran a campaign based on cutting taxes and services, was pleased with the results.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve and it’s been an emotional ride,” she said late Tuesday night. “All day I’ve been getting support from my family and friends – people I didn’t even think were following me. People on each side of the political aisle. Everyone, regardless, has been very supportive of me.”

The three incumbents looking to return to the City Council did so successfully. Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones scored the easiest path to victory with 81.3% of the vote over challenger Drew Iverson.

“I’m glad the numbers came in strong,” said Jones, a proponent of tax reform. “It will be nice to get done campaigning and get back to all the things that get put aside during the campaign.”

Ward 1 incumbent Heidi West also held her seat by securing 68.8% of the vote. West, one of the council’s more liberal members, ran a campaign based largely on affordable housing, including the creation of a housing trust fund.

She also advocated for affordable child care.

“It reflects my track record,” said West. “All the things that have happened in my first four years on the council reflect the values of my constituents.”

Ward 2 incumbent Mirth Becerra also held her seat, though by a lesser margin. By night’s end, she had garnered 55.8% of the vote, topping conservative challenger Brent Sperry.

In a shift, voters in Ward 5 gave their seat to conservative newcomer John Contos, a former pastor who didn’t attend several candidate forums. Contos won with 53.4% of the vote over fellow newcomer Alex Fregerio, who was endorsed by local Democrats.

Contos and Vasecka were the only members of “Team Liberty” to win, though it was enough to give conservatives two additional seats on the City Council. They currently hold one seat in Ward 4, council member Jesse Ramos.

“I know that Sandra and John will make incredible voices on the City Council,” said Ramos. “It’s discouraging when you leave some members behind, for sure. This is our first major effort. The Democrats had so much outside money.

“We had a PAC that we never had before … that was helping us. The Democrats had a lot more behind them with those outside groups. At the end of the day, we should have worked harder. It sucks that we left some behind.”

Election official hard at work counting ballets early on Election Night include, from left to right, Sarah Polumsky, Joe Thoreson, Nancy Jenter-Mininger and Gerald Mininger. Standing is Gale English, also an election official. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Still, Ramos said, two more conservative voices on the council will have an impact.

“I don’t know how long it’s been since a conservative has held Ward 5,” he said. “It’s bittersweet.”

Amber Sherrill, the former executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust, scored an easy win with 63.1% percent of the vote in Ward 4. It was the evening’s third largest margin.

“I’m really humbled by the support,” said Sherrill. “Our ward heard the message. But I recognize it’s a lot to put yourself out there. Whether these candidates won or lost, their participation makes our democracy stronger.”

Several candidates also noted a change in tone this year. A political action committee was formed to support this year’s crop of conservative candidates, which included mailers that many suggested were misleading.

Ramos also formed “Team Liberty” and took the lead in promoting his candidates, playing the role of kingmaker. The returns suggest his efforts worked.

“This was different than four years ago,” said West, noting the change in this year’s races. “The rhetoric was really charged. The money spent on this election has been unprecedented. It does the voting public a disservice.”

Here are the final, unofficial results from Tuesday’s municipal election.

Ward 1

Amber Shaffer  737, 30.66%

Heidi West  1,654, 68.8%

Ward 2

Mirtha Becerra   1,229, 55.84%

Brent Sperry   963, 43.75%

Ward 3

Gwen Jones   1,566, 81.31%

Drew Iverson   352, 18.28%

Ward 4

Alan Ault   1,027, 36.43%

Amber Sherrill   1,779, 63.11%

Ward 5

John Contos   1,553, 53.4%

Alex Fregerio   1,342, 46.15%

Ward 6

Nick Shontz    891, 47.07%

Sandra Vasecka   996, 52.61%