Roughly 16 hours before last week's June 27 deadline to file as a candidate in the upcoming citywide elections, Missoula businessman Dean McCollom called his girlfriend and asked if she thought it would be wise for him to try to unseat Missoula Mayor John Engen.
"I said to her, 'Hey, what would you think if I ran?'" he says. "There were about four beats of silence and then an, 'Okay,' and that was basically the final gate to my candidacy."
McCollom says his friends and colleagues are encouraging him to run because they feel the mayor doesn't adequately consider divergent viewpoints. "They weren't feeling that Engen was listening to them," he says.
McCollum is one of three mayoral candidates who filed on the last day to run against Missoula's two-term incumbent. In addition to McCollum and Engen, the race includes medical marijuana legalization activist Mike Hyde and Peggy Cain, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative and social progressive. It marks the first time since 2005 that Engen has faced an opponent.
McCollom is a 44-year-old Los Angeles transplant who moved to Missoula in 2010. He has 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. His professional experience includes working with startups and established businesses, along with overseeing his own Missoula consulting company, Hellgate Technologies. McCollom says he is prepared to lead the city.
"I have a history of attempting audacious things and somehow pulling it off," McCollom says. "So, I think I have a chance."
That sentiment is echoed by Cain, a retired licensed practical nurse who's lived in the same South Hills home with her husband for 34 years. Cain notes that, if elected, she would be Missoula's first woman mayor since 1947, when Juliet Gregory serve one term. "That's pathetic," Cain says. "I mean, Missoula, the liberal town in Montana."
Among Cain's greatest concerns, she says, is how an expanding city budget and corresponding increases in property taxes are impacting people like her locals living on a fixed income. "It's turning into a hardship," Cain says.
Cain chooses her words carefully when criticizing Engen, saying that she wants to keep the campaign positive.
The third challenger, Mike Hyde, isn't as reserved. He chokes up when talking about the reasons he's decided to run for office.
Hyde's son, Cash, was among the nation's youngest medical marijuana patients before he died last year. At 20 months old, doctors diagnosed Cash with brain cancer. Traditional medical treatments made Cash sicker. To help alleviate the pain and nausea associated with the disease, his parents began giving Cash, then 2, cannabis oil. Mike Hyde says the drug helped and the family continued to treat Cash with medical marijuana.
When Cash died in November, the Hydes were horrified that a call to their social worker prompted several law enforcement officers to arrive at their home. The family says police acted as if they were investigating a crime scene, taking photos and inspecting Cash's body.
Mike Hyde believes that the response constituted a significant overstep. He also maintains that his family was targeted because of their medical marijuana activism. In response to those claims, Police Chief Mark Muir has said that law enforcement was only complying with state law that mandates "unattended deaths," ones that occur without medical supervision, are investigated. As Muir told the Independent in November, "To say that there was any political side to this is really misguided."
Hyde doesn't buy it and argues that Engen allowed police to evade responsibility for intruding on his family during a time of mourning. He says that a significant driving force behind his mayoral bid is a desire to help reel in a drug war that's run amok.
"(Police) work for us," Hyde says. "They don't control us. We control them. And they've forgotten that along the way. You can see it in how heavy-handed they are. And you can really see it if you are a victim of the heavy hand."
Engen, for his part, sympathizes with the Hyde family. "I wish that we didn't live in a world where we have to investigate an unattended child (death) the way that we do," he says.
As for allegations that he doesn't listen, Engen seems genuinely taken aback. He notes that during his tenure as mayor, and his prior service on the Missoula City Council, he's listened to—and considered—hundreds of hours of public input provided during hearings, private meeting and on the street. "My calendar is packed with folks who come to see me with their issues," he says. "I make notes when I'm in the grocery store."
Engen is more accustomed to critiques of his fiscal policies. In response to those budgetary matters, he says that constituents talk about programs they'd like improved, roads that need paving and emergency response times that they'd like expedited, but it's rare for someone to point to an amenity they'd like pared back. "I think we provide a value," Engen says.
Rather than bristling at his challengers' criticisms, Engen sounds excited to discuss them. Debates help shape a dialogue that's necessary to maintaining a healthy community. He says that, nearing the end of his second term, he still enjoys serving as mayor.
"It's challenging," Engen says. "It's also very rewarding ... It's not something that I would ever take for granted."