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City election

Election judge Gene Heinz puts out "I Voted" stickers for voters at the Yellowstone County Courthouse for the city's primary election Tuesday.

Billings voters will decide between Bill Cole and Jeff Essmann on the Nov. 7 mayoral ballot, according to final unofficial results from the Yellowstone County Elections Office.

Cole garnered 7,826 votes, or 32.6 percent, while Essmann garnered 6,502 votes, or 27 percent.

Randy Hafer finished third, with 4,545 votes, or 18.9 percent.

Danielle Egnew was fourth, with 2,032 votes, or 8.5 percent.

With 1,999 votes, or 8.3 percent, Angela Cimmino finished fifth.

Danny Sandefur finished sixth. He garnered 754 votes, or 3.1 percent.

Paul Bledsoe, who dropped out of the race, received 309 votes, or 1.3 percent.

A voter deposits their ballot

A voter deposits a ballot at the Yellowstone County Courthouse during the city's primary election in September 2017.

Cole is an attorney and the former chair of the Billings Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Essmann is the former chair of the Republican party for Montana and a former state representative. 

"This has been quite a night," Cole said minutes after election results had been posted. "The whole campaign has been a great adventure, and I'm honored and humbled to have received the overwhelming support I did tonight."

"I'm happy the people of Billings engaged in the election process with a record turnout," Essmann said.

The elections office reported 43.4 percent voter turnout, with 24,228 of the city's 55,840 registered voters casting a ballot. Before Tuesday, the record voter turnout for a city primary election was 20,966, in 2009 — the last time there was an open mayor's seat.

"Obviously we've got two strong competitive candidates going forward," Essmann said. "I think the primary election served its purpose bringing forth new ideas."

City election

An election worker stacks ballots at the Yellowstone County Courthouse for the city's primary election Tuesday.

Cole said the primary results "show that our friends and neighbors want a city they can be proud of, and they want to have a conversation about what Billings will look like. I don't have all the answers, but the results show that a large percentage of Billings is not afraid to dream big."

Essmann said particular credit should be given to the two women in the mayor's race — Cimmino, for her eight years of work on the city council, and Egnew, for her ideas about communicating to constituents via informational videos. Hafer and Sandefur also contributed ideas that can help the city move along, he said.

"I think whoever wins should be implementing some of these ideas," Essmann said. "The work begins (Wednesday)."

City election

An election worker opens and unfolds ballots at the Yellowstone County Courthouse for the city's primary election Tuesday.

Cole said the main message he took away from the primary campaign is that "Billings wants to build a unique identity and quality of life to attract young people and allow us to compete with Denver, Seattle, Boise and Bozeman."

"This campaign has brought out the best in all the candidates," Cole said. "All the candidates were very positive — including Jeff."

City election

Election judges Ann and Gene Heinz talk with voters at the Yellowstone County Courthouse during the city's primary election Tuesday.

The Billings mayor is a nonpartisan office. The job pays $9,600 annually.

Voters pared down the list of remaining Billings City Council candidates from 15 to 10. Two candidates from each of the city’s five wards will square off on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Ward 1

Incumbent Mike Yakawich and challenger Charlie Smillie both advanced after Josh Kostelecky dropped out of the race.

“I am grateful for the trust and support I have received at the doors, in emails, texts, phone calls and even post mail,” Yakawich said in an emailed statement. “I look forward to continuing this trust and support to Nov. 7 and beyond.”

“We are really excited to move on,” Smillie said. “We know we have a hill to climb, because Mike is really established in the community and is well known. We are going to talk to folks as much as we can about keeping our promises and finding out what needs to be done.

“We’re excited for the next phase, because we think this is winnable,” Smillie said.

Ward 2

In the race to succeed Cimmino, who’s term limited on the council, Frank Ewalt and Roger Gravgaard advanced, turning back a challenge by Ta’jin Perez.

Gravgaard said he was celebrating “by lying in bed with a sinus infection.”

“The celebration here is pretty tame,” he said. “I’m happy to be moving on, but I can see that I need to get my message out a little more clearly to people. That’s what I plan to do in the coming weeks.”

Ewalt said he’ll spend the next few weeks “knocking on doors. I have to get down to the grassroots, meet the people and find out where they are coming from. I guess I’ll wear out another pair of shoes. I’m just happy I’ve got that many people who have faith in me.”

Ward 3

Two-term councilman Rich McFadden will be succeeded by one of two women, Nadja Brown or Denise Joy. Former council member Michael Larson and a fourth challenger, Tyler Starkweather, did not reach the November ballot. Russell Rowland dropped out of the race.

Brown said she was “pleased, surprised, humbled and honored by the constituents of Ward 3.” She plans “on doing a lot more door-to-door knocking to see what we can change to keep Billings moving forward. I’m happy and proud to be still standing tonight.”

Joy said she knocked on so many doors during the primary “that I felt like my message was being received by the voters. I felt like people heard me, and I sure heard them. At first I didn’t want to knock on doors, because it was difficult to walk up to total strangers. But I got past that, because it’s the best way to get feedback on what people feel like is important.”

Ward 4

Penny Ronning and George Blackard advanced in the race to succeed Councilman Al Swanson, who decided not to seek a second term. Rick McIntyre dropped out of the race earlier.

“I’m grateful for the numbers I’m seeing tonight,” Ronning said, “and I really congratulate everyone else that made it through to the general election.”

She said she was grateful to Blackard, “who took the lead on keeping this campaign season positive and respectful. That’s my goal moving forward, that we continue to maintain respect and continue respectful conversations.”

Blackard called upcoming face-to-face contact with voters “important and that’s the way to go.” Among the issues he plans to focus on is “the limits of the city council — what they can and can’t do, and what I think our government should be involved in.”

“The city is here to provide services,” he added. “It’s not here to legislate social issues. That’s not what their job is.”

Ward 5

Incumbent Shaun Brown received 244 fewer votes than challenger Dennis Ulvestad. The primary eliminated Rhonda Whiteman and Alex Clark.

“I’m feeling really good,” said Ulvestad, a member of the Zoning Commission making his fourth try at a seat on the council. “I think the reason I took the majority of votes is because of my experience of over 11 years in local government, which helped me get one step closer to the city council.”

He credited the work of his campaign manager, Lori Johnson. Without her efforts, “I wouldn’t be where I’m at today,” he said.

Brown said his second-place showing delivered this message: “Now I know I have to get out there and start working.”

Ulvestad “certainly knows how to campaign,” Brown said. “I am going to have to get out there and start campaigning hard. I will have to hit the road and get it done.”

Municipal Court judge

Judge Sheila Kolar, the only candidate, received 18,987 votes, or 97.6 percent. 

Reporter Susan Olp contributed to this report.



City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.