On a recent afternoon, Nicole "Cola" Rowley sips coffee, speaks quickly and fidgets with several pages of typed notes detailing her stance on key issues facing Missoula County. "I'm sorry if I seem uncomfortable and awkward," she says. "I am not a politician. I'm a regular person."
Rowley, 30, is one of three candidates working to unseat Michele Landquist from the Missoula Board of County Commissioners. Like Landquist, Rowley lives in Lolo. She holds a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Utah and works as an environmental health specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department. While Rowley's scientific expertise is extensive, she admits to just now learning the political ropes.
"I was naïve as to what all was involved with a campaign," Rowley says.
In what's shaping up to be a hotly contested race, Rowley will have plenty of opportunity to hone her chops. She faces fellow Democrats Donald Davies and Landquist in June's primary election. That race's winner will challenge Vicky Gordon, who, as the lone Republican in the contest, is guaranteed a spot on November's general election ballot.
Rowley stands out in the crowded field because of her substantial support. So far, eight of 12 Missoula City Council members and Mayor John Engen have all endorsed her. Engen says he backs Rowley because of her pledge to improve collaboration between the city and county. He cites the city's desire to create a 2-cent-per-gallon gas tax as one arena in which the two bodies could better collaborate.
In 2012, Missoula officials asked county commissioners to approve placing the gas tax on the ballot. The city aimed to use the funds to expand the urban sidewalk system. The county, meanwhile, would have received 40 percent of the proceeds. Commissioners, unlike council, are authorized to put such a question before voters, but they unanimously shot down the city's request. That didn't sit well with Engen.
"Had Missoula County brought that to the voters and had the voters approved it, it would have made a significant difference in the lives of Missoula County residents," Engen says. "That opportunity wasn't there."
Landquist says if she's reelected, she'll be open to revisiting the gas tax. Rowley, however, is the only candidate to declare unequivocal support for putting the question before voters.
The gas tax is only one of many issues confronting the commission in coming years. County commissioners shape rural growth policies and also control the sheriff's office, detention center and attorney's office budgets.
Among the most controversial moves made by the current commission involves its January decision to fund Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg's lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice. Two years ago, the DOJ announced an investigation into how Van Valkenburg's office handled sexual assault investigations. The county attorney maintains his office engaged in no legal wrongdoing and he says the DOJ has no authority to scrutinize his operation.
All three incumbent Missoula County Commissioners voted in favor of Van Valkenburg's request for $50,000 to cover the anticipated costs associated with the lawsuit. Davies and Gordon have a tough time answering either "yes" or "no" when asked whether they would have supported Van Valkenburg's request. Rowley, however, says she would have voted against it. "I think that was a poor decision," she says.
Another recent debate stemmed from the county's long-running lawsuit against the Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. During the well-publicized case, Dunrovin owners Sterling and SuzAnne Miller alleged that Missoula County was effectively killing their business with an array of unfair and misapplied laws. Last month, District Court Judge Ed McLean sided with the Millers after finding the county "harassed this business." McLean ordered the county to cease legal action against the Millers and pay the couple's legal fees, which amounted to $75,000.
Each of Landquist's challengers maintain they would have handled Dunrovin differently. Davies, who has two decades of experience working as a certified public accountant, specifically auditing state and local governments, says the controversy illustrates the county's burdensome regulatory environment. "We definitely have one of the more difficult climates to do business," says Davies, 58. "And I think we can improve that. That would be one of my goals."
In response to the election year jabs, Landquist acknowledges there's room to improve county operations. But she's proud of her overall track record, especially with the county budget.
"I think we are doing a really good job there and trying to keep taxes as low as possible for everybody," she says. "... I know where we need to go with adding more government transparency to our operations, and what segments of our policies and interagency cooperation needs to be improved on."
Landquist notes that she's garnered her own support from Councilmen Mike O'Herron, Jon Wilkins and Ed Childers, and believes Rowley's council endorsements reflect a partisan divide. She says city governance is largely conducted by progressives, such as those who have endorsed Rowley. The commissioner's job involves a trickier balancing act between urban and rural constituents, and the incumbent says she's the best fit to help lead the county into the future. "It's kind of like Donny and Marie," she says, "a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll."