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John Engen (incumbent),
Peggy Ann Cain
In the months before this year’s deadline to file as a mayoral candidate, it looked like incumbent John Engen’s popularity would once again scare away any challengers. Citywide elections are nonpartisan, but Engen’s a Democrat in a progressive city. And local Republicans during the weeks leading up to the deadline publicly predicted that, despite Engen’s enthusiasm for expanding government, he’d likely run unopposed, as was the case in 2009.
It didn’t play out that way. On the last possible day to file for candidacy, three challengers emerged, each bringing a distinctly different voice to the race.
Dean McCollom is a 44-year-old California transplant who moved to Missoula in 2010. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz and a master’s in business administration from San Jose State University, and has professional experience that includes working with startups and established businesses in fields like environmental protection, construction and manufacturing. McCollom now oversees his own Missoula consulting company, Hellgate Technologies, and touts his varied business credentials as one of the driving forces of his campaign.
“I can’t tell you how surprised I was that Mayor Engen didn’t attend the Montana Economic Summit,” says McCollom, who did go to the event. “As the CEO of the city I would think that’s somewhere he needs to be.”
In addition to job creation and attracting new businesses to Missoula, McCollom talks a lot about his commitment to process. That commitment, however, makes it difficult to know where he stands on certain issues. When asked about the increase of the city’s general fund during Engen’s tenure and where he would make cuts, McCollom said he’d apply a structured, data-driven approach to the issue, but didn’t offer specifics. When asked if he would pursue the purchase of Mountain Water, he was similarly noncommittal. He says he wants more information and can only hope Engen’s decision to negotiate with Carlyle Group is “based on facts” and that “the mayor’s rationale is sound.”
Mike Hyde is not nearly as evasive when discussing his goals. The outspoken medical marijuana activist is running to “protect the will of the people” when it comes to local cannabis laws, as well as fight for the city’s local food, water and sustainable industry. He believes hemp should play a major role in all three.
Hyde’s message comes with a compelling backstory. His son, Cash, was among the nation’s youngest medical marijuana patients before he died last year from brain cancer. The Hydes used cannabis oil to help alleviate Cash’s pain and nausea associated with the disease. They were stunned that the city ignored a voter initiative to make marijuana crimes the lowest priority and the state allowed federal agents to raid caregiver operations and essentially repeal the use of medical cannabis.
“We went from fighting for Cashy to fighting for his medicine,” says Hyde.
Some may be quick to dismiss Hyde’s platform, but he’s dealing with his grief and channeling his passion by contributing to the democratic process and engaging in civic life. If nothing else, his campaign has helped keep this issue in the spotlight and question glaring inconsistencies at both the state and local levels. We can’t help but commend his efforts.
Peggy Cain is a self-proclaimed “old-fashioned labor Democrat” who doesn’t understand the priorities of local progressives. She offers colorful critiques of the current leadership’s obsession with “grants, loans, rules and more rules and more rules,” and says they’ve forgotten how to listen to constituents.
“Taxes are going up, traffic is a mess, two mills shut down and they’re telling me I can’t light a sparkler on the Fourth of July? Really?” she says in regards to the city enforcing its ban on fireworks.
Cain is a retired licensed practical nurse who says her greatest concerns are how an expanding city budget and corresponding increases in property taxes are impacting people like her—locals living on a fixed income. That fiscal responsibility is part of the reason she believes the city should not purchase Mountain Water because the cost would be “ginormous.”
Cain continued her criticisms by questioning Engen’s relationship with UM President Royce Engstrom, the handling of the Union Gospel Mission, the “unrealistic” 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and how the city “shut out the public” when addressing ADUs. She offered some of the most entertaining sound bites with each barb, but the substance of her policy solutions doesn’t match her wit or charm, which are considerable.
Engen has heard all of these criticisms—and more—during the campaign and we were interested to see his reaction. He stands by his decision, for example, to increase the city’s budget by 22 percent since first elected, especially in light of waning state funding. “When I increase taxes, it’s about retaining high-quality employees, and high-quality service needs,” he says, before adding a good line that even Cain would appreciate. “Fundamentally, there is no better value than your city tax dollars ... I pay more for TV than police, fire, sewer, parks and recreation, and all of that other good stuff that we provide.”
It’s striking that even after two terms, Engen seems genuinely excited about leading the city for another four years. He says he has a “fire in the belly for what I think is a cool recovery time for Missoula,” and notes there has been more interest in local business development over the past six months than in the past seven and a half years.
He talks specifically about promising activity at the long overdue Riverfront Triangle site. He boldly proposes a public safety special district to purchase necessary new equipment like fire engines. He wants voters to help create a Fort Missoula Regional Park that could be “something for the ages.” And then there’s that thing about buying a water company.
Engen has guided the city through some trying times, weathering both an economic downturn and entanglement in the university sex assault imbroglio. His challengers have used this election to criticize some clear errors, like the city’s retroactive soup kitchen ordinance, and that’s made the mayoral race more interesting. But we feel they’re largely nipping at Engen’s heels. His steady leadership through crisis and promising outlook for the future have Missoula heading in the right direction. We’re lucky to have him.
Endorsement: John Engen