Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) As the polling numbers trickled out of the elections office on Tuesday night, they quickly indicated two front-runners in Missoula's race for mayor.

Those two candidates, Andrea Davis and Mike Nugent, will advance to the November primary. But in politics, there is seldom room for third place – a position sitting Mayor Jordan Hess took when the dust settled over Tuesday's primary.

Hess remained gracious in defeat and has few regrets over the job he did in filling the shoes of former Mayor John Engen, who held the job for nearly two decades and remains the city's longest sitting mayor.

“Last year before John died, I had left my job at the university to figure out what was next. Now I'm in that boat again,” Hess told the Missoula Current. “The bottom line, I was proud to be able to step in and fill the need. I think we were able to provide some stability and direction at a time when we really needed that.”

Hess was appointed to the job as mayor by a majority of his City Council peers last September. He replaced City Council President Gwen Jones who, by city charter, served as acting mayor upon the death of Engen and prior to Hess' appointment.

Now with two other finalists vying to complete Engen's last two years as mayor, Missoula will have had four mayors in as many years. Members of City Council said that has been difficult and Hess agreed, saying continuity is important.

“Consistency and continuity, I think those things are important. I wish the next person some continuity and longevity,” Hess said.

Hess also held the job during two difficult budgeting cycles. City taxes the last two years have increased around 20%, and the cost of housing has continued to soar, standing at its current median price of around $535,000.

Inflation also has taken a toll on consumers over the past year, and local governments have felt the sting. The state's tax system remains obsolete, many local officials believe, and even the cost of fuel is inching back toward the record highs seen two years ago.

Add it up and residents are struggling to make ends meet. Hess said it likely contributed to Tuesday night's results, though the next mayor will face similar challenges.

“We're living in an incredibly challenging world,” Hess said. “There's a couple restaurants closing right now and I think it's a microcosm of inflation, labor issues, cost of housing and rent, all these things that are converging and are markers of our community changing. I think people are scared. I think they're worried and unhappy, and I think that's a big part of it.”

Hess added that this year's tax increase wasn't something he wanted to do. Rather, he said, it was based on necessity.

“Conventional wisdom says don't raise taxes in an election year. That's pretty much politics 101. But we had to do it to keep the lights on,” Hess said. “I'm more interested in keeping the lights on than winning an election, and I'm more interested in having our community thrive and doing the right thing rather than the convenient thing.”

Jordan Hess and Sen. Jon Tester. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Jordan Hess and Sen. Jon Tester. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

But Hess also achieved a number of victories in his year as mayor. Among them, the city began work to reform codes and zoning in a push to streamline the construction of housing. It also adopted the Midtown Master Plan, giving the district a vision for the future.

The city was also one of 16 accepted out of 250 applications to develop a new clean-energy program. As such, Missoula will focus on workforce development and prepare single mothers for a job in the growing clean-energy industry.

In philosophy, Hess views city government as a boat reacting to whatever the open sea throws at it. The job of city leadership, he said, was to make the boat as seaworthy as possible and improve it along the way, knowing the nature of the sea isn't likely to change.

When he decided to run for mayor – a job he has come to love – he told himself he'd stay true to his vision of creating a better, stronger city.

“If I run, I'm going to try and do a good job and show it. That's going to be my strategy,” he said of his decision. “I'm going to be honest, and I'm going to run based on how I view the city. I'm not going to pander. I'm not going to change who I am or what I think. It's been my approach all along here.”

When asked if he'd run again in two years, or if he'd return to City Council at some point, Hess said he hasn't decided what happens next. He added that he'll take time and think about it.

“I'm really proud of our team. I'm proud of our work,” Hess said. “You show up and you do the best you can.”