MISSOULA - Fresh off a successful run for reelection, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier plans to pick up where his first term ended — moving the county forward and facing its challenges.
Strohmaier, who was first elected in 2016, secured nearly 60% of the vote in last week's election. He remains the most tenured member of the Board of Commissioners.
“It's affirmation to me that we're on the right track — that the initiatives we've spearheaded, most want to see continued on into the future,” he said. “We've been through a lot over the last six years and for me, the team we've pulled together here in Missoula County is second to none across the state.”
Strohmaier, who formerly served as a member of the Missoula City Council, led the county's restored partnership with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, as well as the formation of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, during his first term as commissioner.
In 2019, he detailed his vision around passenger rail over coffee with the Missoula Current and agreed then that it might be a heavy lift. Jump forward three years and the rail authority has gained member counties stretching more than 600 miles across Montana's politically diverse landscape.
It's there where Strohmaier plans to continue working to restore the North Coast Hiawatha.
“My goal is that within the next six years, we'll see passenger rail service in Missoula, and I think we're well poised to do so,” he said. “One year from now, there will be recommendations to Congress by the U.S. Department of Transportation. We'll do everything in our power to ensure the restored North Coast Hiawatha route is in the top route restoration recommendations.”
Strohmaier said the effort to restore passenger rail punctuates how Missoula County has distinguished itself in recent years. He believes it has been too easy and too common for counties across the state to focus inward, addressing only what they feel they can control.
The only way to achieve transformative change within a county's jurisdictions is to work across jurisdictional lines, Strohmaier said.
“That's exactly what we've done with the rail authority. We really were the catalyst for this, but as a result, we've formed a coalition that stretches 600 miles across the state and are now national leaders on the issue,” he said. “When passenger rail services is restored to Missoula County and other counties across the state, it truly will be an economic and environmental achievement on so many levels. That's why we've invested the energy we have.”
But Strohmaier said other issues need to be addressed within the county's borders as well. The failure of the crisis services levy and fairgrounds bond last week will force the county to find a new direction.
Strohmaier said the work will get done one way or another. How that plays out remains to be seen, but when it comes to the crisis services, the work already implemented in Missoula has demonstrated success. But keeping it going may be the challenge.
“Failure is not an option,” Strohmaier said. “While clearly, the voters have spoken in terms of the levy itself, we've got to come together as a city and county and community and figure out how we're going to maintain some of these critical services, and what a path forward looks like. Anything short of that, in my estimation, is not tenable.”
Strohmaier believes misleading information was published before the election, leading many to believe the levy was simply funding to support the homeless. Rather, he said, the funding would have aided residents of all income classes and living situations by providing support during a mental health issue.
“From that standpoint alone, mental health challenges in this community are acute,” he said. “It's not an option to say the levy failed and throw up your hands. I don't know at this point in time – mere hours since the election – what that path forward looks like.”
The same may be true for the Missoula County Fairgrounds. While voters said no to the $19 million bond, finding a solution to the facility's shortcomings is still needed, Strohmaier said.
“That path was not chosen by voters, but that doesn't mean there will never be an additional sheet of ice or a livestock center,” he said. “A different path forward will need to be figured out by the advocates of those particular aspects of the fairgrounds. There's enough passion in the community about these things that I suspect we'll figure a path forward.”
The 2020 General Election was projected to be devastating for sitting Democrats and result in a “red wave,” one that was expected to bring Republicans back into power, at least nationally.
That red wave never materialized, though Montana looks to have given the GOP a supermajority in the Legislature. In Missoula, however, Strohmaier fended off a far-right challenger and did so by nearly 10,000 votes.
He's glad to have the election over.
“This period of rancorous politics at the national stage and even local, my own race included, was not a particularly smooth road,” Strohmaier said. “My hope is that my campaign demonstrated that offering a positive vision for the future still resonates with folks and that anything, we can all take a deep breath, give each other the benefit of the doubt and recognize that regardless of parties, to make this a better place requires all of us.”