Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

After a difficult and protracted session, a new Missoula mayor emerged from a field of applicants after seven City Council members took more than three hours to agree on one choice – but only after the other leading candidate withdrew his name to break a tireless stalemate and voted for his rival member.

It was a conflicted decision, most said, with 11 council members expressing support and respect for the two finalists, that being council members Jordan Hess and Mike Nugent. But Nugent withdrew his nomination after a recess that took more than an hour, though it was supposed to last 15 minutes.

Negotiations over the next mayor allegedly played out in the alley off Ryman Street, where Nugent conceded the process for the betterment of the city. That allowed Hess to gain the required seventh vote to become mayor.

Both candidates were qualified for the job.

“I respect (Hess) so much. He's the damned reason I ran, and here we are.” Nugent said.

On good terms, Nugent and Hess settled the race after the City Council couldn't. Hess said he would carry out the office with “purpose, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.”

“I want to call on Mike Nugent who, not just tonight, has always been the most selfless, kind and generous person I know. He is dedicated to the community in a way that's incredibly rare,” Hess said.

Of all the applicants who applied, six were nominated for interviews but only two emerged as realistic candidates. Yet Ward 3 council member Daniel Carlino voted on a third losing candidate during every voting round.

As a result, he protracted the selection and pinned the rest of the council into a corner. His lack of support for either Hess or Nugent also prompted former mayoral candidate Jacob Elder, who received no support, to call in and challenge the council on its inability to render a decision.

“This is just not okay,” Elder said. “You had a diversity candidate.”

Hess, accused by one commentator as being “too liberal” and another as being a “straight shooter,” has served on council for nine years, making him the longest serving and most tenured member of Missoula's elected government.

During his service to the city, he has advocated for public transportation and has backed the city's primary goals around housing, climate change and equity. He remains the council's most vocal advocate of climate policy and also chairs the Land Use and Planning Committee.

“Being mayor of the City of Missoula is an incredibly complicated job,” said Lucy Beighle, the partner of the late mayor John Engen, who advocated for Hess. “No other candidate comes close to understanding the complexities of the job.”

The selection process raised three potential candidate profiles – a newcomer with no executive experience, a placeholder who has no intention of running for election, or someone with deep experience who also plans to campaign for the job next year.

Three nominees were quickly eliminated in the first round of voting including Jacob Elder, Teigen Avery and Patrick Weasel Head. Those who recommended them for an interview didn't support them for consideration as mayor in the first round of voting.

For the record, council member Daniel Carlino initially nominated Avery but didn't vote for her. Council member Sandra Vasecka nominated Elder but didn't vote for him. And council member Stacie Anderson nominated Weasel Head but didn't vote in his favor.

In the second round, Hess and Nugent emerged as the leading contenders. But the vote remained locked for nearly two dozen rounds with six votes for Hess and five votes for Nugent. Seven votes are needed for the nomination.

Carlino, who represents the University District, continuously voted for a number of candidates who had no support from any other council member. At one point, Carlino went so far as to nominate Bob Giordano, the executive director of Free Cycles Missoula. He didn't apply for the job and wasn't interviewed.

But Carlino was eventually backed into a corner due to his back-and-forth votes for losing candidates. He soon blamed the other council members for not joining his side. Even his constituents grew frustrated with his antics.

“We asked him to nominate Jordan Hess,” one Ward 3 resident called in to say. “It's frustrating this conversation is going on.”

Nugent also grew emotional after conceding the race to Hess to resolve a stalemate that could have gone on for hours. While he praised most council members – even those who didn't vote for him – he did call out the games played during the process.

"I think some people tonight have made a mockery out of council, what Missoula could be, and a mockery of this process, under the guise of being beholden to other people,” Nugent said. “Sometimes you have to recognize for the betterment of the community when we move forward. We need to have a mayor. And part of that is saying, 'Now is maybe not my time.'”

Engen, the city's longest-serving mayor, died of pancreatic cancer last month. His passing set the city on a narrow timeline of selecting a new mayor under the antiquated constraints of state law. Council president Gwen Jones has served as acting mayor – the city's second female mayor – and will now pass the torch to Hess, who will be sworn in this week.

Hess must run for the office in the next municipal election, in November 2023. If he wins, he'll finish Engen's term, which expires in 2025. Hess, who hasn't committed to run, said he would look to his supporters for guidance and look to those who didn't support him as he works to win their respect.

If he ran, he said "I'd run hard and I'd run to win." In accepting Monday's vote, he vowed to be true to the city, not to any particular lobby, individual, or special interest group.

“They'll push me to be the best version of myself, which is what I hope to be for this community,” Hess said. “I'm grateful for the faith you've put into me. I also want to thank everyone who didn't support me and told me why and challenged me to think differently. I want to earn your trust in this process.”

Nugent also thanked those who participated fairly and honestly in the process. History will remember the few who didn't.

“I don't think anyone in state law intended to have two guys standing in an alley at 11 p.m. trying to figure out what to do,” said Nugent. “Politics is a blood sport, when you're going against somebody you respect, and everyone is dug in. That's not what Missoula wants or what this community wants.”

More From Missoula Current