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Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton roundly defeated Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson in the race for the new sheriff/coroner position Tuesday.

With 37 of 37 precincts partially reporting as of 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dutton had 22,159 votes (68 percent) and Nelson had 10,190 (32 percent). 

Dutton will take over the newly combined sheriff/coroner position in January 2019.

Dutton, a Democrat, was appointed to fulfill a partial term as sheriff in 2008 and was elected to the position in 2010 and 2014. Nelson, a Republican, has been with the Montana Highway Patrol for 20 years and is the son of Mickey Nelson, who was the county coroner for 42 years before his death in 2016. 

Reached by phone Tuesday night, Dutton thanked Lewis and Clark County voters who "took time to go to the polls and exercise their rights."

"I'm thankful for another chance for another term," Dutton said.

The race was marred by a variety of accusations leveled against both candidates. Nelson paid someone to research a 2015 misdemeanor charge against one of Dutton's officers, and Dutton and others have accused Nelson of spreading misinformation about the sheriff's office.

Dutton tipped his cap to Nelson for his "courage to file and run."

"I will pray for him and his family," Dutton said. 

According to an Independent Record candidate survey, Dutton's top priorities are to combat a growing crime rate caused by drug use, to ensure deputies have up-to-date training to address mental health issues, domestic violence and sexual assault, to ensure the transition to the new law enforcement center goes smoothly, which will involve hiring 33 new detention centers; and to carry out the coroner's duties in an "expert, compassionate manner."

He is now tasked with completing the detention center renovations approved by voters. As part of the project, the county will renovate all three floors of the detention center into jail space and move the city and county law enforcement offices into a different building. Dutton said there is no way to predict whether the project will be completed within the county's budget.

"There's lots of work ahead of us," Dutton said about the new jail project.

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Dutton previously said he would offer deputy coroner positions to the county's current elected coroner Bryan Backeberg and deputy coroner Tim Wong. They will not have law enforcement duties, Dutton said.

As for the transition itself, Dutton said, "You won't really see it."

"The budget has been worked out, the operation of who's on-call has been worked out; we have a plan for it," he said, adding that he would like to have deputy coroners based in Lincoln and Augusta to decrease what could otherwise be wait times of up to two hours.

Dutton said he would take a few days off in the coming weeks after the race.

"I've got to help my wife get caught up around the house," Dutton said with a laugh.

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Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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