Bill Cole and Jeff Essmann will square off in the general election after topping a field of seven candidates running for Billings mayor in the Tuesday primary.
“I think the results say that Billings does not want to be Everywhere, U.S.A.,” Cole said after the polls closed at 8 p.m. and results were posted on the website of the Yellowstone County Elections office.
“Billings wants to be a place that welcomes young people and that can compete with Boise, Seattle, Denver, to retain our own youth and attract people from all the United States.”
According to final but unofficial returns Tuesday night, Cole received 7,826 votes to Essmann’s 6,502, followed by Randy Hafer with 4,545, Danielle Egnew with 2,032, Angela Cimmino with 1,999 and Danny Sandefur with 754. Paul Bledsoe, who withdrew from the race too late to have his name removed from the ballot, won 309 votes.
In all, 24,228 votes were cast, a record for a Billings city primary, and amounting to 43.39 percent of all registered voters.
In City Council elections, both incumbents on the ballot will advance to the general election on Nov. 7.
Mike Yakawich, the councilman from Ward 1, received 1,724 votes, just under 57 percent of those cast. His challenger, Charlie Smillie, who reported raising more money than any other council candidate, got 918 votes.
Joshua Kostelecky, whose name was on the ballot though he withdrew from the race, got 364 votes.
The other incumbent, D. Shaun Brown, won 1,378 votes in Ward 5, coming in second to challenger Dennis Ulvestad, who had 1,622 votes. Other candidates in the ward were Rhonda Whiteman, 971 votes, and Alexander Clark, 765.
In Ward 2, where mayoral candidate Cimmino was term-limited out, the top vote-getter was Frank Ewalt, with 1,891 votes. He’ll advance to the general election against Roger Gravgaard, with 1,430 votes. Ta’jin Perez won 620 votes.
In Ward 3, an open seat, the winner was Nadja Brown, with 1,495 votes, and in second was Denise Joy, with 1,041. Former councilman Mike Larson came in third with 826 votes, followed by Tyler Starkweather with 657 and Russell Rowland, who had withdrawn from the race, with 198.
In Ward 4, another open seat, Penny Ronning captured 2,489 votes, slightly more than George Blackard, with 2,435. Rick McIntyre, who had announced his withdrawal from the race, got 1,245.
Cole, a lawyer in private practice, said he talked a lot in his campaign about how Billings has not constructed a major building in the downtown for 35 years, and has not developed a new, large general public park in 37 years.
“We need to talk about how to solve these problems, and I want to start that conversation,” he said. “These results show that many other people in Billings would like to have that same conversation.”
Essmann, a business owner, former state legislator and former chairman of the Montana Republican Party, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. He and Cole served on the Yellowstone County Planning Board together in the late 1990s and worked together on several initiatives.
Cole acknowledged that he and Essmann have many of the same goals. One of the “great things” about the primary, Cole said, was that all the mayoral candidates were forward-looking and had the best interests of the city in mind.
“I think, however, that Jeff is going to find it more difficult to communicate this vision of a proactive Billings to the electorate,” Cole said. “I think I can do better. But I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation.”
If Last Best News hears back from Essmann, this story will be updated.