By Tim Eberly
Whenever Bob Rice felt he needed strength during his campaign for mayor, he drove to Pizza Pro.
Sustenance was not what the retired naval officer sought, but rather prayer. So, as he had before a recent radio interview and before public forums with Democratic candidate Mike Shortell, Rice went to his favorite pizza shop Tuesday afternoon for a private prayer with his close friend, Pizza Pro owner Russ Luke.
At 11:25 p.m. Tuesday, when Rice found out he won the election for mayor, he paid tribute to Luke, his friend and confidant.
"We're close friends. Russ has a strong faith," said Rice, the first Republican mayor since Norris J. Hyatt won in 1977. He added that each time he stopped at the restaurant, "it always came through OK."
Camped out at the former Tempo Electric, Rice and his supporters received word of victory from Hill County Republican chair Brad Lotton, who made repeated runs to the Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office for ballot updates.
In his final announcement, Lotton reported to about 35 supporters that Rice defeated Shortell, the former police chief, by 322 votes 1,361 to 1,039 or with 56 percent of the vote. Loud applause engulfed the room.
Toasting champagne to the new mayor at 11:45 p.m., Lotton said, "This is to the best mayor the town could have and the first Republican mayor in 24 years. He's a good friend and he's going to be a great mayor."
Rice hugged a procession of friends and family as the crowd thinned. He held up an adolescent boy the son of a family friend and said, "I've been waiting for this hug all night. ... This is what it's all about right here: kids."
Rice will be sworn in Jan. 7, at the first City Council meeting of the year, to the $19,000-a-year job.
Much of his campaign was focused on the youth of the community, like the construction of a skateboard park and a mentor program. With the results in, someone in Rice's crowd of supporters jokingly posed the question: "What are you going to do now that you have the job?"
Later in an interview, Rice said: "Now I have the ability to do some things for the kids of Havre and I have the opportunity to serve the people of Havre."
In one of the first orders of business, citizens should expect city council meetings to be moved from their normal Monday schedule to another day, and Rice said one family will receive a special invitation to each meeting to increase interest in the community. Also, Rice said he intends to have a different student from Havre High School's government class sitting next to him at each meeting.
"I feel the city of Havre did itself a justice by electing a mayor that will be proactive in the community," said Terry Schend, campaign treasurer for Rice and his employer at Syntech.
Shortly after midnight, Rice drove to the VFW, where he hoped to find some of his friends. But it was at the VFW that Rice ran into Shortell, as the Democratic Party had set up its headquarters. Not expecting to see him in person, Shortell had called his opponent at home and left a message of congratulations on Rice's answering machine. Then when he saw Rice, Shortell echoed those sentiments.
He congratulated me," Rice said of Shortell. "He said he thought we could be friends. I said, I think so too.' I told him I'd like to use him as a resource. He was compassionate and said, Hey, you did a nice job.' "
Though many of his backers were visibly disappointed, Shortell kept his emotions in check. "I don't define myself by whether or not I win or lose, or by one event in my life. If I lose, I stay retired and ride my Harley Davidson," he said just before midnight.
Last election, Rice lost by the slim margin of 36 votes to Mayor Phyllis Leonard. He did it without the endorsement of the Republican Central Committee. This year, Lotton and his fellow committee members backed Rice.
The election had its highest voter turnout since 1977, the year Republican Hyatt took office.
A total of 2,414 voters participated in the election 57 percent of all registered voters in Havre. In 1997, 2,159 citizens cast ballots. In fact, Shortell garnered more votes (1,039) than the total number of voters who participated in the 1989 mayoral election (934).
"I'm pleased to see the public participation coming back up like it did," said Diane Mellem, Hill County clerk and recorder. "It's been so many years that we haven't had good turnouts, so to see that kind of public interest is very encouraging."
The flow of foot traffic to the four voting locations was steady Tuesday. Retirees Edna and Walter Hess cast their ballots for Rice at Lincoln-McKinley School, a difficult decision according to Edna Hess, 82. "I think they're both probably well-qualified. (Rice) just seemed to be involved in everything," she said.
At Montana State University-Northern's Student Union Building, Greg Hester, 53, said he cast his vote with a larger perspective in mind.
"I voted for Shortell because I think he has the most experience and because I'm concerned that if I voted Republican, (Rice) would cooperate too much with the governor (Judy Martz)," said Hester, a science professor at MSU-Northern.
Newpaper advertisements attracted 43-year-old Donna Small to Rice because "I thought he might better serve the community."