The bodyslam heard ’round the world
Greg Gianforte let the air out of his own congressional victory balloon on the eve of Montana’s special election by going all red-faced-angry-football-coach on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. The assault overshadowed the Bozeman tech mogul’s win over Democrat-in-a-cowboy-hat Rob Quist, and Gianforte spent the subsequent months misleading investigators, ducking Jacobs’ interview requests and trying to keep his mugshot from going public. That is, when he wasn’t voting in lockstep with the Trump agenda.
Money troubles in Helena
Legislative Republicans acted like toddlers with scalpels this spring, cutting the state budget by more than $200 million while working to block most revenue enhancement bills. But slumping tax collections and a pricey fire season prompted Gov. Steve Bullock to drag lawmakers back for a November special session, where they proceeded to bicker over a private prison contract and sex designation changes on birth certificates. The budget is now balanced, but we’re still left wondering who voted for these yahoos, and why.
Upheaval at UM
“The preacher man says it’s the end of time / And the Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry / The interest is up and the stock market’s down / And you only get mugged if you go downtown.” Preachers, not newspapers, can get carried away in their descriptions. But as you add up all the—how do we put it politely?—stuff that’s been going on under the M this year, well, you start sounding like a guy from a Hank Williams Jr. song. So rather than add it all up, we’ll put things another way. A year ago, when paid consultants were starting their journey toward replacing president Royce Engstrom, university budget czar Mike Reid suggested they find someone who can smile while he shakes your hand with one arm and “twist the knife” with the other. Interim president Sheila Stearns did a lot of hand shaking and not as much knife-twisting as she’d admittedly hoped. Now, she’s on her way out, Reid is long gone (to some tiny college in Lake Tahoe) and Commissioner of Higher Ed Clay Christian has handed the hot potato to 38-year-old incoming president Seth Bodnar. Everyone quickly realized that Bodnar is a smiler. The coming year will tell whether he knows how to handle a knife.
In the third game of the season, the Griz lost starting quarterback Reese Phillips to injury in a blowout win over Savannah State. A month later, their shiny new Champions Center training facility was revealed during Homecoming. A month after that, the team lost to Montana State for the second year in a row, and a few days later, coach Bob Stitt’s time here was done. Oh, and safety Justin Strong was arrested for assault in Washington in October. How to finish off a rollercoaster of a year like that? By hiring back Bobby Hauck, a decision that seemingly the entire world outside of Griz Nation reacted to with chagrin. There’s always a second chance for the prodigal son.
Wolves and grizzlies and Zinke—oh my!
The first three months of 2017 were tough for poor Ryan Zinke. As the Senate dithered over his confirmation as Secretary of the Interior, he found himself without much to do, opting to abandon his voting duties as Montana’s sole congressman in favor of—well, we’re still not sure what he was up to. But once he got the thumbs-up to join the ranks of Trump’s cabinet, he wasted little time trying to live up to the standards (OK, the optics) of his ostensible hero, Teddy Roosevelt. He rode a horse named Tonto to work, shoveled the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and stalked digital game with a plastic arcade shotgun in the Interior cafeteria. It’s unclear what Roosevelt would think of Zinke’s move to scale back national monuments in Utah, or his boasting about delisting Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, or his omission of any reference to climate change in his agency’s five-year strategic plan. No doubt, though, the Rough Rider would have admired Zinke’s ability to walk tall and carry a big … er, fly rod. Even if it was rigged wrong.
Lee buys the Indy. Long live the Indy!
Remember April? Boy howdy, we do. We were still trying to acclimate to the unthinkable election of Donald Trump when the even more immediately unthinkable happened: Missoulian parent company Lee Enterprises announced its acquisition of our beloved Indy, setting off a storm of uncertainty and a rash of really quite clever “Dependent” jokes. Well, we’re happy to report that so far, so good. We’re all still here, still doing the work we love, and still trying our damnedest to earn our readers’ trust with every issue. In a year that’s seen one alt-weekly effectively shuttered (Houston Press), another reduced to online-only (Village Voice), another sold off to shadowy investors (L.A. Weekly), another lose an esteemed veteran editor over budget cuts (OC Weekly) and yet another shut down entirely (Baltimore City Paper), we’re inclined to count our blessings, very much including the fact that we—and you—are still here.
Water to the people
It’s time to reconsider who gets custody of the commons, those resources that belong to everyone, but that are generally exploited for profit: lands, minerals, water. Who should control Missoula’s, oh, for the sake of argument, let’s just say water? Well, after years of trying, it’s the city. While we’re still waiting—and waiting—for the specifics of how millions in legal expenses were spent, there’s no arguing that the people who drink, cook with and bathe in Missoula water have a bigger stake in its infrastructure than a foreign conglomerate that touches it only with lawyers.
Fire on the mountains
Missoula’s tobacco smokers found their vice essentially redundant from August to October. Smoke from three nearby wildfires, along with scores of other burns throughout the Pacific Northwest, rode the winds with unrelenting persistence, settling in the valleys and casting an eerie apocalyptic pall across the landscape. Frustrated citizens tried desperately to cope with MacGyver-esque inventiveness, affixing air filters to box fans and pedaling the sooty streets in facemasks. Missoula air quality specialist Sarah Coefield quickly became a local celebrity, injecting much-appreciated humor (#nofilter jokes, etc.) and candor into her daily air quality reports. Her department even reached out to researchers at the University of Montana to gather health data in Seeley Lake, in the hopes of figuring out what, exactly, the long-term health implications of such a smoky summer might be.
Crime gone wild
This year’s Missoula-area crime blotter was unusually grisly and disturbing. January: A man and a woman are shot and killed in a Lolo cabin during a gun sale gone bad. The surviving witness says they shot each other. August: The FBI and local law enforcement find the bodies of two men killed in 2013 buried at a Frenchtown property and arrest a suspect. Weeks later, police find two partially dissolved bodies in the basement of a Montana home and arrest a couple. December: Cleaners find a box of bones in a shed, and a university anthropologist identifies the bones as belonging to three children, prompting Michigan investigators to explore a possible connection with the seven-year-old abduction of three young brothers.
Bridging the divide
The lavish, industrial-chic, $4.2 million pedestrian bridge over South Reserve opened in April. OK, maybe “lavish” isn’t fair—it’s just a bridge (a very nice bridge)—but by October, the mayor’s political opposition—Lisa Triepke and her campaign messengers at Spiker Communications—were already deriding it as a symbol of wasteful government spending, literally impaling the span on campaign posters with a Godzilla-size screw. The metaphorical messaging was too subtle to bring down the literal bridge, leaving the region stuck with a trail system stretching all the way from Hamilton to East Missoula, save for a four-block gap in midtown. But even that last gap will soon be closed, thanks to a deal between the city and Montana Rail Link to create a new—and undoubtedly lavish—park.
Race to the bottom
John Engen, Missoula’s longest-serving mayor even before this year’s election, finally got some spirited competition in the form of challenger Lisa Triepke, who polled at 40.93 percent, holding Engen under 60 percent for the first time in his political career, even as he won comfortable re-election to his fourth term. But the race was notable less for its outcome, which never seemed in serious doubt, than for its tactics, which relied heavily and not entirely transparently on a full-frontal social media attack on Engen’s character and the Trumpish disgruntlement of a vocal coterie of Triepke surrogates and supporters. Counter-attacks centered on the financial aftermath of Triepke’s divorce and apparently innocent overstay on the state welfare rolls ensured that the ugliness flowed both ways. We may come to remember 2016 as the year that Missoula’s mayoral politics left small-town campaigning behind in favor of a more cut-throat variety. It was bound to happen sooner or later. How soon is now?
Downtown’s changing face
It’s been a year of “out with the old, in with the new” in downtown Missoula, with Mayor John Engen painting a target on surface parking lots like a sniper on an ISIS fighter (Hooyah! America!). The Battle of Missoula has been waged most fiercely on Front Street, where the framing of new Marriott hotel rooms is rising from the rubble of the Merc. But compared to the rest of Front Street, the Merc is practically old news. Earlier this year, Engen tallied more than $500 million in planned or ongoing development along Front Street, stretching from the massive Riverfront Triangle development on downtown’s western edge (greenlighted this year) to the new Missoula College building on the east (which opened in the fall). Between the two, student housing, land-trust housing, a new library and more hotel renovations are already in progress or scheduled to take place over the next couple of years. We’ll remember 2017 as the year downtown broke new ground.
The year in Missoula activism belonged to Missoula Rises, a group founded by Erin Erickson after the 2016 presidential election. From erecting billboards calling out Steve Daines to calling out Steve Daines in person and showing up to rally, protest and educate on progressive causes, Missoula Rises members consistently made themselves heard. They’ve learned to prepare for backlash, like that engendered by member Lisa Davey’s petition protesting the re-hiring of Bobby Hauck. Their work opposing repeal of the Affordable Care Act won the William M. Geary Advocate Award from Open Aid Alliance. And Missoula Rises will see one of its own—Ward 6’s Julie Merritt—seated on City Council next year.