Lisa Triepke is distracted. She won't mention it until after the end of the interview, but one of her high school-age children totaled his car that morning and he, and she, are understandably shaken (fortunately, he's otherwise fine). Yet she keeps her appointment, because she said she'd be there.
Much of Missoula doesn't know the woman challenging John Engen as he runs for his fourth term, or why she wants to be mayor, and what she would do once there. Briefly: Triepke, raised mostly in Maryland, and with a communications degree from Ohio's University of Dayton, moved here in the early 1990s, originally thinking she would study wildlife biology at the university. She instead got a job at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and embarked on years of work in Missoula's nonprofits, serving as director of the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau and working at Five Valleys Land Trust. Then she had four children in the span of four years and spent time as a full-time homemaker before running for the Target Range School Board, where she spent seven years. She served one year on the board of Missoula County Public Schools before resigning in July 2015, when her impending divorce meant she would be moving out of the district in which she had been elected. In 2013, she ran in the Democratic primary for Missoula County Commissioner, coming in second to Jean Curtiss. For the last seven years, she has also worked at CostCare as the director of marketing and community outreach.
For Triepke, following through on commitments is paramount. She's devoted to structure and process. Doing things right. And while she's new to running for city office, her long background of community involvement has informed her ideas about how a governing body should operate. She thought Missoula's could be doing better.
"When John [Engen] came out and said he was going to raise taxes every year and then he said he was mayor for life—I picked up the phone and called a friend that I thought was running, and they couldn't run because they lived in the county and not the city," Triepke says. "That conversation led to some other conversations and people came to me and asked if I would consider running based on my past experience."
And while she had been raising her family outside the city limits for years, she says she always felt tied to the city.
"I've always had a huge passion for how Missoula works behind the scenes and what makes it tick and what makes it special to all the people that live here," Triepke says. "I was in Missoula every day that we lived in the county anyway."
The two comments she attributed to Engen, that he would raise taxes yearly and be mayor for life, have their roots in two different interviews from earlier in the year. Triepke says that the taxes part comes from a KGVO appearance, and the "mayor for life" comment from a City Club meeting. The actual quote from the former is: "As long as I am mayor, I can almost guarantee you there will be an annual tax increase," which Engen has said is simply straight talk about the fact that services have a cost. The latter, which is available on MCAT video, shows Missoulian editor Kathy Best jokingly calling Engen "mayor for life" at a City Club meeting. Engen responded, "With regard to the 'mayor for life' thing, to some of you, I'm sure it feels that way. I hope that it does not." Regardless of the actual original wording or intent, the comments were interpreted by Triepke as a sign that Engen was too comfortable in his position.
Triepke spent some time talking to community members, and what she heard indicated that it was possible to run a successful campaign against Engen. The slogan that's on her yard signs, "Enough is Enough," is the one she says resonated the most with potential voters. What have they had enough of?
"Obviously taxes. The frustration with the red tape and additional fees that nobody knows where they're coming from for building and for starting a business. And I would say lack of transparency," Triepke says.
Some of those voters who have had enough attended a September meet-and-greet for Triepke at Westside Lanes, in a private bar room that's generally used for Shriners meetings and the occasional wake. It was a crowd made up almost exclusively of women. Including Westside Lanes owner Norm Carey, who was upset with city requirements that he says stymied an expansion of his business, and the husband of the manager who showed up with a scene-stealing Saint Bernard puppy, there were four men present.
There was a Triepke logo photo backdrop and a podium at the front of the room. A good dozen round tables that seated eight each provided plenty of room for the 25 or so attendees who were welcome to help themselves to hot food from chafing dishes. The podium was never utilized, since Triepke was easily able to give everyone in the room face time.
Among the power players present were Denise Moore, who ran for the Montana House in 2006, and who is now volunteering for the Triepke campaign; CostCare co-owner Lesley von Eschen, who said she would miss having Triepke in the office; and Chris Spiker, of Spiker Communications.
Chris and her husband, Wes Spiker, were early Triepke supporters, and their business has received half of the funds that Triepke had raised by the end of September. The services purchased with those funds are listed simply as "advertising" in campaign finance reports, and the alleged vagueness of that itemization is among the grounds listed for a campaign finance complaint filed in September by Missoula attorney and state Rep. Ellie Hill Smith.
In a Sept. 13 guest column in the Missoulian, Wes Spiker provided a prime example of "enough is enough" messaging, writing "I'm tired of being told that bicyclists have more rights than me on Missoula's streets. ... I'm tired of seeing the transients who come to town year-round for free handouts ... I'm tired of being told that my property taxes will go up every year." He mentions the high cost of air travel to Missoula, residents who question the environmental impacts of rail shipments and university salaries as other things he's tired of, before endorsing Triepke for mayor.
The Missoulian piece did not mention that Spiker was in the employ of the campaign, as reported by the Independent's Derek Brouwer. The day after his Missoulian column was published, Spiker sent an email to the Independent's editor: "Sir, I'm reaching out to you to schedule a meeting with you and the Lisa Tripeke [sic] campaign team on a confidential basis." The email continued, in part: "... we would like to have the Independent be the surprise media to bring John Engen down by exposing him and his administration for their illegal activities, the way he treats people, his vindictive style of management."
We replied that we would be happy to meet with Triepke's campaign team and hear what they had to say, but that they would be treated like any other source. Spiker declined. Triepke later said she was unaware of the email, and that Spiker speaks for himself. She repeatedly states that her campaign focuses on the issues, not on personal attacks. Asked to clarify his role, Spiker re-affirmed that he is "not the campaign manager" and that his email "was not sent by the candidate."
Triepke says it's time to step back and re-evaluate how Missoula is handling its problems, and it's not hard to get the sense that she literally means to begin with "how," as in procedure, not tactics or desired outcome. Is it done in a City Council meeting? With input from public outreach? Behind closed doors?
This becomes most apparent when she references the workings of the school board. Asked about her biggest policy passion in that role, she replied, "The part that I enjoyed the most was the policy and procedures of getting through the process. It was a fascinating experience, because there's a system set in place to make a process easier, and so in my position on the school board, everything wasn't always transparent. That's kind of what I'm finding similar here, is it's a push to follow the policies that are in place and have the balance of being transparent at the same time."
Asked what public works project she would most want to see accomplished in Missoula, she answers with the one she'd like to stop: "It's basically not doing the streets plan that's in place," she says. "I think limiting and taking down the lanes and substituting bike lanes in the double-lane areas that they're talking about, every one of them, I think it's a mistake."
Not that she has anything against biking at all. She emphasizes that she thinks Missoula is a great bicycling town. Triepke is a lover of all sorts of active recreation and says she loves the outdoors. She looks the part—clear-eyed and fresh faced with unfussy but neat hair and little if any makeup.
Triepke says that she gets a peaceful calm from being near the water, by herself or with her children or her dog, Kinzie, a mutt adopted from the Humane Society. It's easy to see why she took to Missoula County, and she's at her most effortlessly eloquent talking about why its residents feel so passionately about its well being.
"I think the majority of the people live here for their connection to the land and the people, and I think it doesn't vary much from that. I think if you ask anybody, they love what the outdoors has to offer, the uniqueness of Missoula and the people here," she says. "People are friendly here, and you can tell people are happy and [it's] a relaxed way of life."
Most Missoulians will agree that they love the city, but not on what the solutions to its problems are. Is there a housing crisis because property taxes are too high and therefore ripple through the housing economy from homeowners and landlords to renters, or because there's just not enough housing? Should increased traffic be combated by promoting more bus and bicycle usage, or are bicycle lanes eating up too much room on the streets? Why is it so hard to hustle a decent living in the town on just one job? Is it because the town isn't business-friendly, or because employers aren't worker-friendly?
Triepke's website bio mentions her own two jobs. When she announced her campaign, she was picking up waitressing shifts at Desperado Sports Tavern, and last year she briefly drove for Uber when the service came to Missoula. As her campaign kicked in, itself almost a full-time job, she dropped the waitressing shifts. Her website also mentions a time during her divorce when she applied for SNAP and energy assistance benefits. It's safe to say Triepke had a pretty comfortable life in Target Range before her divorce, and that the change in circumstances was significant.
You said you'd applied for public assistance during [the divorce] as well. Did that connect you with a different part of the city at all?
I don't understand your question.
Did that connect you with a part of Missoula that you hadn't seen before, going into a public assistance office?
No, I applied for public assistance before the divorce was settled, and so for me, it was the unknown of rising energy costs, etcetera, and so I applied for energy assistance and it was just something that I knew I needed to—I don't know. I don't really understand your question.
Did the process give you some insight into what people go through in Missoula in that situation? In the long term?
Sure, they're very, so—why long term?
People who are dealing with this, who don't know if they're going to have a professional job—obviously you have a professional background and education, and there's a lot of people who don't necessarily have a degree or a background in nonprofit work, people who've been working service industry—
I'm still not sure what your question's asking me.
Did that give you empathy for people like that?
Oh sure, absolutely.
So what would you want to do to help those people out?
Economically disadvantaged people?
I'm confused by your line of questioning, is what I'll say.
What would you want to do as mayor to help economically disadvantaged citizens of Missoula?
Well, I think those services are available for people to help them get through, and in my mind it's short term to help them get over the hurdles that they're facing.
As mayor, is there anything that you know that you would want to do to help them get over those hurdles? Like you say in your campaign materials, that families facing homelessness, you want to help. What would you want to do?
So that's why I was confused, because that's kind of two separate issues. So are you asking about public services or homelessness?
I'm asking you—well, we can divide them up into separate issues. So not necessarily public services, but what Missoula as a city can do to help people—
So I think it's interesting, because I have a friend that just yesterday we went to, there was a family that somebody ran into at Albertson's and they had a 3-month-old baby and they were actually not having a place to stay, their car broke down, and, I know this doesn't solve it citywide, but there was a group of people that got together and through a united effort got the people a car, offered them a job and temporary housing, so if people put their heads together to come up with a solution, then that can work.
Triepke's tenacity and eye for fiscal responsibility are mentioned repeatedly by her campaign supporters and parents who knew her at Target Range.
"I think she's a bulldog and will get the job done," says Kathy Armstrong, a fellow Target Range parent who has known Triepke for more than a decade. "Being a mom herself, I think she understands cost—the cost to play this game of lacrosse is four- or five-hundred dollars. You're just trying to take care of your kids, and that's not a cheap sport."
Another parent and family friend, Kathleen Harvey, echoed those sentiments. "She never, from what I saw on the school board, she never stopped until it was the right way, the way she thought it would be right," Harvey says.
But not everyone from the school was so positive. Former Target Range board member Robert Carter wrote to the Independent to register his belief that Triepke shouldn't be mayor, based on his experience working with her for several years as a fellow board member. Carter, like Triepke, was a full-time parent who took on a lot of volunteer commitments, including assisting the wrestling team at Target Range. He says that during one parent meeting to introduce a new wrestling coach, Triepke accused him of trying to take on the coaching job himself (it would have been a conflict of interest for Carter, as a board member, to also be in the school's employ). He remembers that she said, "You're a fucking liar," and left the meeting. One former Target Range staff member reached out at Carter's behest to corroborate his account.
Triepke responded, "That never happened, I never used profanity in a meeting and I never left a meeting early."
Carter also says that he repeatedly tried to open a personal dialogue with Triepke when there was conflict on the school board, only to hear nothing back.
"I'd say that he tried to do business behind the scenes, and I didn't want to do that," Triepke says.
Heather Harp, who is running for City Council in Ward 3, is president of the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association board, on which Triepke serves. "I would imagine we're probably on different sides of this race, but what I admire about Heather is she and I have done some great work together," Triepke says when asked about her fellow candidate. "I love the way she thinks about things and she's a true leader, so I totally am glad she is running."
Asked about working with Triepke, Harp replied that she'd need to get back to the Independent. A few days later she said, "Lisa contributes in a meaningful way at our board meetings with probing questions. She has a great heart and supports ice expansion." Harp has endorsed Engen.
One member of City Council has endorsed Triepke, Ward 5 councilmember Julie Armstrong, who counts herself among Missoula's small business owners. Triepke says the city does too much to stymie business development. "I just think we need to make Missoula more business-friendly. I think we put roadblocks in place," she says.
While the city is coming off of two years of record-setting issuance of construction permits—indicating that someone is managing to navigate the paperwork—Triepke says there could be so much more development and new business coming to Missoula if the city was less fettered by regulations. "So many people I talk to [about] building or businesses [who] go through the permitting process [say] it's not streamlined and it's not consistent."
Asked if she's seen any housing development approaches in other cities that she'd like to try here, Triepke brings up our neighbor to the southeast.
"I have looked a lot at Bozeman, at what they're doing. A lot of the things they're doing, not only in the housing but also in new businesses, they're doing some things that work, so I would like to explore more deeply into that."
What are some of the things that Bozeman has done?
I think they've been able to work with the university to keep their students in town. And keep their students in higher-paying jobs. I think they've approached their economic industry with keeping jobs in town ... and so those higher-paying jobs are coming to Bozeman and so people stay there. I think the disparity between home prices and wages is less than in Missoula. Our [home] prices have gone up $50,000 to $60,000 in the last five to six years, and wages haven't kept up pace with that.
When you go into Bozeman you can feel the relationship between the city and the university. And here, we have a lot of people that love the Griz, we have a lot of people that love the university and wear it with pride, but I don't—and people I've talked to don't—feel the connection necessarily between the city and the university.
Do you think that's a recent development?
From my own perspective, I think that people don't really, sometimes don't realize the disconnect's there till they see what Bozeman has actually accomplished. And don't get me wrong, there's a huge pride for the university within Missoula, I just don't know if the city's doing everything they can to promote that relationship to use it to its best advantage.
On the city's end, what can they do?
I think the city is responsible for public policy and the safety of its citizens, and I think the university produces top-notch students and can utilize research opportunities that they have, and I think that if we put those combinations together we can tackle issues and move forward with some of those.
Triepke, alone among the candidates running for city office this fall, declined to participate in an endorsement interview with the Independent's editorial staff. The Missoulian similarly was rebuffed, reporting: "The Missoulian asked to interview each candidate in person on the issues. Triepke declined and sent her answers (much of which match the 'Let's Talk About the Issues' section on her campaign website) in writing." Instead, she appears to be focusing on in-person appearances before voters.
At a mayoral forum held by the League of Women Voters at C.S. Porter Middle School in the first week of October, Triepke was nervous. She said so in her introduction to the crowd, which probably looked more imposing than it was, because about 20 of the 50 or so attendees were up in the bleachers of the middle-school gym looking down on the candidates, and there were three cameras trained on the table where she sat next to Engen.
The crowd was young in spirit if not in age. Moderator Nancy Leifer wore a purple turtleneck to match the purple streaks in her gray hair and carried a red tote bag with a cat print.
It was clear that Triepke doesn't like to sit still. She fidgeted at the table, literally tapping her fingers during one of Engen's answers. The seating arrangement was awkward—Engen and Triepke were directly next to each other and shared a single microphone with the moderator, passing it back and forth. During one handoff, she accidentally turned the mic off, muting Engen, who said, "I'd turn me off, too." It got a genuine laugh.
But a policy question just before had stumped her. It was a question about what major infrastructure project she'd most like to see happen in Missoula. Her answer didn't mention a project, but she did say, "We need to prioritize projects." In response to a question about which city-county partnerships are successful and which ones should be considered in the future, she again didn't mention a specific partnership, but repeated her belief that they should be examined closely, saying, "I think it's imperative we look deeply at all the factors." It's a vague yet seemingly detail-oriented answer that resonates with Missoula voters who, like Triepke, may not have the health department or the library on the tip of their tongue, but who don't want the city and county rushing into anything.
In closing, she said, "This is an interesting and fascinating process, for sure."