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County unkind to incumbents

November 08, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

With a surging economy and falling crime, incumbents coasted to victory throughout the United States on Tuesday in what national commentators dubbed "The Year of the Incumbent."

Everywhere, that is, except Washington County, where a number of incumbents lost and others struggled to hold on.

The victims included County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers, who was ousted after two decades in office, and Commissioner John S. Shank, who finished dead last in the 11-candidate field.

Washington County Board of Education President Robert L. Kline also lost his re-election bid. The other two incumbent school board members, B. Marie Byers and Doris J. Nipps, also would have been defeated if the school board had not been expanded by two spots this year.

Three-term Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, also lost after 12 years in office. He joined in defeat Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick/Washington, who was upset in the primary after serving in the Maryland State Senate since 1983.

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Two incumbents also lost in West Virginia. Gregory Lance lost his re-election bid to the Jefferson County Commission and state Sen. Harry Dugan was defeated.

Political observers rejected the notion that the defeats signify a larger anti-incumbent sentiment throughout the region. The races boiled down to specific issues in individual campaigns, they generally agreed.

"I don't think you can draw any broad conclusions," said Rick L. Hemphill, chairman of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee.

Hemphill and others pointed to the county's water and sewer debt as a reason that motivated voters to bounce Bowers and Shank.

Bowers, who lost his bid for an unprecedented sixth term, discounted the effect of water and sewer. He said he thinks voters simply decided he had been in office too long.

"The feeling was, you've been here long enough. It's time to move on," he said. "I never got a sense of dissatisfaction with me."

The voters did not take an indiscriminate shot at all incumbents. Hemphill pointed to the seven local officials who did not face opposition in the general election.

And incumbent County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, a Republican, cruised to easy re-election as the top vote-getter despite the water and sewer debt.

"Greg is a hometown favorite," said Vincent Dellaposta, first vice chairman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee. "He can override that type of controversy."

What surprises local political observers about the results is the margin by which some incumbents lost. Take Shank, who finished more than 3,000 votes out of fifth place and more than 7,500 votes behind Snook.

"That was a very shocking thing," Dellaposta said.

Kline finished ninth out of 10, almost 2,000 votes out of the money.

"It's always the el presidente, the guy at the top, that takes the slugs," Kline said.

Kline said he may have been hurt by The Herald-Mail's failure to endorse him and by public perception of problems uncovered by a curriculum audit. But Kline said the board had fixed about 75 percent of the problems and was on its way to fixing the other 25 percent.

"That's what I can't answer. We were doing such a good job up there," he said.

Byers and Nipps also struggled. Byers attributed it to unfair criticism of some of the candidates - not just the incumbents - received from outside groups that targeted them for defeat.

Byers said she doesn't sense a broad anti-incumbent mood. But she said she believes many people misread the results of the curriculum audit. The process was meant to focus on weaknesses, not strengths.

"In that process, they're not writing down all the things that are good. They're looking at ways to improve," she said.

In Poole's case, political observers said the race came down to political newcomer Republican Christopher B. Shank running a more aggressive campaign.

"I really just honestly think that Chris Shank outworked him," Dellaposta said.

Hemphill pointed to a Halloween flyer attacking Poole's record that Shank sent to voters days before the election.

"Chris was able to get a few more of his voters to the polls than Bruce," Hemphill said.

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