Bill Cole won a decisive victory in his campaign to be Billings’ next mayor on Tuesday, winning 17,588 votes to Jeff Essmann’s 9,905.
In final, unofficial results Tuesday night, Mike Yakawich and Shaun Brown held onto their City Council seats in Wards 1 and 5, respectively, while Frank Ewalt won in Ward 2, Denise Joy in Ward 3 and Penny Ronning in Ward 4, all by wide margins.
By a smaller but still impressive margin, Yellowstone County voters, including those in Billings, approved a public safety mill levy, intended to bolster the county attorney’s office, by a vote of 20,619 to 19,540.
Cole, a lawyer in private practice who has been active on various community boards, said the magnitude of his win — by a margin of more than 63 percent to Essmann’s 35.7 percent (with a few votes going to write-in candidates), “gives me the confidence that voters were listening and want to go in the direction I was describing.”
He spoke often about the city’s lackluster progress in recent decades, saying there hadn’t been a major building, built by the private sector, in downtown Billings in 37 years, and no major parks since Castle Rock was completed 35 years ago. He has also been a strong supporter of giving people in Billings the chance to vote on a local option tax to support public projects.
“Those problems won’t solve themselves, and yes, they take public participation,” Cole said. He thought his support of “public participation,” in the form of local option taxes or other new revenues, might sink his campaign, especially since Essmann, former chairman of the Montana Republican Party, repeatedly criticized him for those stands.
“I was very glad to have Jeff in the race, because he gave the voters a choice,” Cole said.
Cole said he’ll spend the next couple of months meeting new members of the City Council and city department heads, so he can “hit the ground running” in January. He will replace Mayor Tom Hanel, who is finishing his second four-year term and couldn’t run again because of term limits in the City Charter.
Cole and his supporters celebrated his victory at the Hilands Golf Club Tuesday. In attendance was Randy Hafer, an architect who came in third in the six-way mayoral primary in September. Hafer later came out in support of Cole, and Tuesday night he seemed, if anything, more enthusiastic than Cole.
Some fraction of his enthusiasm might have been attributable to the glass of red wine in his hand, but Hafer said Billings is experiencing “one of those moments when we’re really at a turning point.” He thinks Cole is up to the challenge of the moment.
“I’m ecstatic,” he said. “I really am.”
At a function at the Northern Hotel last spring, before any mayoral candidates had come forward, Hafer said, he told Cole he was probably going to run for the job. Cole’s eyes “just bugged out,” Hafer said, and he confessed that he was thinking of running, too.
Hafer said he tried to talk Cole out of it, then and later, but said he also told him, “If you want to run, I can’t stop you. And if you win, I’m OK with that.”
Also on hand at Cole’s victory party were former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, City Councilmen Ryan Sullivan and Al Swanson, Chamber of Commerce President John Brewer, Democratic U.S. House candidate John Heenan and developer Steve Corning, who could be heard marveling, more than once, at the margin of Cole’s win.
Two newly elected council members, Ronning and Joy, were celebrating together at Bin 119 in downtown Billings, at a gathering thick with Democratic Party stalwarts. Heenan also stopped there, as did another U.S. House candidate, Grant Kier.
Ronning, in Ward 4, where Swanson decided not to seek a second term, defeated George Blackard by 4,101 votes to 3,608. She had nothing but good to say about Blackard Tuesday, saying that both of them attended virtually every forum and debate there was, and got to know each other well.
Ronning said she called Blackard Monday and told him, “whatever happens tomorrow, let’s keep working together.” Though their views may have differed in detail, she said, “I think it was really a goal for both of us to present a forward face.”
She also lauded Cole, saying that she admired his “open mind, his open heart,” and that he seemed to be much more interested in community than in partisan politics.
Joy, who beat Nadja Brown in Ward 3, where Rich McFadden was term-limited out, by a margin of 3,015 votes to 2,156, said she was “just really excited that my message resonated with the voters.” She called Brown a “nice young woman” and said she hopes she stays involved in community affairs.
Joy also said she was pleased to have been elected with Ronning. “This is so exciting to have more women on the council,” she said. “We bring a different point of view, a whole new dynamic.”
Another mayoral candidate who didn’t make it out of the primary, Danielle Egnew, was also at Bin 119, and she, too, had high hopes for the new mayor, calling Cole “a very forward-thinking person.”
Over the course of the primary campaign, she said, she and Hafer and Cole all became “kind of pals,” all with the same basic vision for Billings, however divided they may have been regarding means.
In Ward 5, incumbent Shaun Brown beat Dennis Ulvestad 2,558 votes to 2,053, and he was pleasantly surprised by the comfortable margin.
“I thought it was going to be pretty close,” Brown said. “You know Dennis has been doing this for a long time.”
This was Ulvestad’s fourth run for the Ward 5 seat, and in 2013, when Brown was first elected, he beat Ulvestad by only 63 votes.
Yakawich could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but he issued a statement saying, “It is a privilege to serve Ward 1 and an honor to be elected to serve 4 more years. The campaign was a long and good run which allowed me to meet great candidates who also worked very hard.”
Yakawich easily defended his Ward 1 seat, beating political newcomer Charlie Smillie by a margin of 2,222 votes to 1,318. In Ward 2, Ewalt, a retired firefighter who said early on that he didn’t plan to raise any money for his campaign, beat Roger Gravgaard by 2,559 votes to 2,140. Ewalt could not be reached for comment.
Ewalt and Gravgaard were vying to replace Angela Cimmino, who was term-limited out and also lost in the mayoral primary.
The mill levy request approved by voters will raise the county’s public safety levy from 4 mills to 12 mills to support the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office. The increase would raise an additional $2.75 million a year in perpetuity.