With three days to go before candidates can file to run in Billings municipal races, it’s already shaping up to be an unusually interesting election year.
Architect Randy Hafer became the first person to throw his hat in the ring, announcing earlier this month that he intends to run for mayor. The mayor’s race is wide open because Tom Hanel, having served two consecutive terms, can’t run again this year.
Then, last week, state Rep. Jeff Essmann, who is also chairman of the state Republican Party, announced that he would be leaving the Legislature after this session to run for mayor as well.
Attorney Bill Cole, who served on the city-county Planning Board with Essmann years ago, also confirmed that he is “leaning strongly” toward a mayoral run.
Funny thing is, this was supposed to be the year of the young candidates, the year when millennials upset with council foot-dragging and perceived insults from Mayor Hanel and members of the council stepped up to run.
But Hafer, Essmann and Cole—we’re sorry to break this to them if they don’t realize it—are not exactly young. Essmann is 64, Hafer is 62 and Cole is 53. Hanel, the man they want to succeed, is 62. The mayor is a full voting member of the 11-person council.
One bona fide millennial says he is definitely running for City Council, however, and another is considering it. A couple of other millennials, whose names come up when talk turns to the need for new blood on the council, say they are bowing out, at least for now.
There is another factor that could make this election even more interesting. Two City Council members besides Hanel are term-limited this year—Angela Cimmino in Ward 2 and Rich McFadden in Ward 3.
Two other council members who have served only one term might not run again. Al Swanson of Ward 4 said he is leaning toward not running but hasn’t made a final decision. (Correction: Swanson said he is leaning toward a run, not against it.) And in Ward 5, Shaun Brown said he is so busy that if someone else files and seems prepared to give the job the attention it deserves, he’ll probably step aside.
That leaves just one incumbent—Mike Yakawich in Ward 1—who is definitely planning to run again. So, if Brown and Swanson both bow out, there will be at least five new faces on the council next January, six if Yakawich is not re-elected.
We’ll have a clearer picture on all this starting Thursday, when election filing opens. Candidates will have until June 19 to file for the municipal election. If there are enough candidates overall or enough candidates in any one race, there will be a primary election on Sept. 12. The General Election will be on Nov. 7.
“I started thinking, what is going on and what can I do?” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought I’m really blessed”—being single with a flexible job—“to be in a position where I can run for City Council.”
Like many millennials, Smillie was offended by a comment Hanel made at a council meeting in November. In a hearing about the One Big Sky Center project in downtown Billings, some young people said Billings was falling behind places like Missoula and Bozeman. Hanel, a real estate agent, said, “If millennials want to move because Billings is boring, I’ll sell their home for them.”
Then, in March, backers of the Artspace project spoke at a City Council meeting, seeking some financial commitment from the city. Artspace is a private, not-for-profit organization that builds subsidized housing for artists, asking for some local match but rounding up most of the financing on its own.
At that meeting, McFadden, the Ward 3 councilman who is term-limited out this year, wondered aloud why the city should help provide cheap housing for “beatniks.”
Smillie was at that meeting and said “the mood in the room was not one of possibility. … I do honestly think the City Council needs more voices that believe better things are possible for the city of Billings.”
Smillie, a native of Billings who graduated from West High in 2008, said he was excited by all the energy and forward momentum in Billings when he returned home in 2015. But that energy has not been coming from the council, he said.
“If anybody wants to do anything outside the box, there’s a hostility toward possibility,” he said.
One reaction to McFadden’s jibe was the founding of Beatnik City Council, a group of young people dedicated to promoting arts and culture in Billings. Phillip Griffin, a 24-year-old musician and writer who helped start the group, said nobody affiliated with Beatnik City Council is considering a run for the real council at the moment.
“I’ve had some ideas of doing it, but I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty full schedule. … I guess somebody’s got to do it, but I’m not quite there.”
Griffin mentioned another millennial who was inspired to think about running for City Council by Hanel, and not in the negative sense.
That would be Julius Ostby, 23, whose mother, Maggie Beeson, was recently among recipients of Salute Awards from the Billings YWCA. Ostby was featured in a video tribute to his mother, and Hanel, who was also honored that night, told Ostby he was impressed with his demeanor and speaking ability.
“Afterward, the mayor and I were talking and he just seemed to really want me to get involved somehow,” Ostby said. Ostby said he is still considering the possibility of running for council, but he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be in Billings, and he wants to find out more about what service on the council entails.
Patrick Olp, 33, who had been ready to file in Ward 3 election, is now reluctantly going to postpone his political plans. Olp said he recently changed jobs and is working for a regional IT company that does a lot of work with municipalities and would like to do business with the city of Billings.
That presents a big conflict of interest, Olp said.
“I would love to be part of that body at some point,” Olp said. “But I want to make sure when I’m at that point that I don’t have any conflicts of interest and I can give it 100 percent. Which kills me, because I know how important this election is.”
Olp first thought of getting politically active in 2014, when the council—with Hanel casting the deciding “no” vote—rejected a proposed ordinance that would have prohibited discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification or expression.
Mostly, Olp said, he wanted to run to counter that view that millennials are whiners, not do-ers, that they are “slacktivists” who think “liking” something on Facebook fulfills their duty as citizens.
Hanel, meanwhile, said he regrets his crack about selling the houses of migrating millennials.
“Had they stayed to the end of the meeting,” he said, “they would have heard very clearly that I don’t want them to leave. That’s the last thing I want to happen. We need their innovative thinking.”
Generally speaking, he said, the city is financially strong and “there’s a lot of exciting things happening.” Sometimes people run for office because they’re upset with something, he said, but he believes the interest in the mayor’s seat is high because people want to be part of the city’s upward momentum.
“I firmly believe that because Billings is doing well, it’s attracting interest,” he said. “I predict you’re going to see the same thing when it comes to the city administrator’s position.”
He was referring to the retirement of longtime City Administrator Tina Volek, who plans to leave her position when her contract expires on Sept. 30.
Hafer, the architect who was the first person to announce his candidacy in the city election, joked that he’s already accustomed to being called “mayor.”
After graduating from West High in 1972, he studied at Stanford University, during which he spent a year in Germany. He said he was passionate about his hometown and rarely missed a chance to talk it up with his fellow students.
“I was always talking about Billings, Montana,” he said. “It became kind of a joke. They started calling me the ‘mayor of Montana.’”
Then, when he came back to Billings after having been gone for 20 years, he found himself constantly thinking about how to apply lessons learned in other cities and countries to what he saw in his newly rediscovered hometown.
“For me, travel was always about architecture or Billings, because the two were always intertwined,” he said. And whenever he drove around town with Janna, who would later become his wife, he was fond of pointing to something out the window and saying, “When I’m mayor…”
He and Janna went on to start High Plains Architects in 1999, focusing on sustainable building practices. More recently, they moved into an off-the-grid house in the heart of the city.
Hafer wants to make Billings a “center of excellence in sustainability,” and he wants to make it a place that locals can’t wait to talk about with visitors or friends in other cities. You see that kind of pride and knowledge of local history in places like Chicago and Portland, he said, and there’s no reason we can’t see that here.
He talks excitedly about overhauling the city’s zoning ordinances, of educating citizens on the value of downtown, high-density development, as opposed to subsidizing costly sprawl on virgin ground. He would also like to reform how the city handles solid waste, to reward people for diverting trash from the landfill.
“The problem is, there’s no direction,” he said. “There’s no commitment.”
He thinks he’s ready to provide both.
“I’m at a point in my life when I figure it’s time,” he said. “I’ve got the energy. I’ve got the interest.”
Essmann, the state legislator who wants to be mayor, did not respond to an interview request, but he laid out four priorities in a press release. He said he wants to complete the so-called Inner Belt Loop; establish a special unit to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases; revitalize Montana State University Billings; and get the City Council back to playing its core role of setting policy for the city.