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Primary may not mean much, but could be interesting to misinterpret

September 10, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Primary elections seldom give any real clues about the mood of the electorate beyond what is already known.

True, Democrats in Connecticut made it clear recently that they are strongly against the war in Iraq. But then, we already knew that. And in Florida, Republicans went with Katherine Harris, even after she raised a ruckus by proclaiming that electing nonChristains was basically an endorsement of sin. So Florida Republicans are religious. Stop the presses.

Likewise, Tuesday's Washington County Commissioner election isn't likely to offer us much insight beyond the basic winners and losers. Too many candidates and, probably, too few voters will muddy the tea leaves to the point of unreadability.

There will, however, be results within the results that may prove to be of interest. One very important question a number of people want to know the answer to is this: How serious are Washington County residents about growth? Are we really worried about it, or is it just a knee-jerk issue de jour that is paid lip service, but still takes a back seat to the pocketbook issues of taxes and jobs?

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Here are four candidates who may give us a clue, not so much in whether they win or lose, but how they do against each other. On the Republican side, let's take Wally McClure and John Munson, and for the Democrats, Donna Brightman and Hampton Wedlock.

I've chosen them based on their contrasting emphasis on growth and because they otherwise have some pretty strong common threads. All four are legitimate candidates and, depending on your political views, worthy of consideration.

To be clear, no one here has advocated unlimited sprawl. Of the four, Munson alone has spoken against tighter controls, and he voted against stricter county land-use policy. But in his public comments, Munson still acknowledges that growth is an issue.

Munson and McClure are both strong conservatives. Both have held public office and are known to the public. Both caused some controversy when they served. Both abhor higher taxes.

But Munson has emphasized taxes and emergency services in his public comments, while McClure has emphasized growth. McClure, in fact, listed runaway growth as the issue that inspired him to run. McClure, on a questionnaire from the Citizens to Protect Washington County, supports home rule, which gives the county more power to control its own destiny.

Munson, by contrast, is not a fan of home rule. And he was the only survey respondent to suggest that a nonrestrictive one house per acre was a good development benchmark for the county.

So here are two similar candidates with similar positions - except on growth. If you are a conservative Republican who believes in growth control you go with McClure. If you are a conservative Republican who believe in strict property rights, you go Munson.

The two Democrats as well share some similarities. Both are political newcomers, both have an identifiable constituent base - Wedlock at Mack, Brightman in South County, and although I long for the day when this word is reduced to the social oblivion it deserves, both are what we would call minorities.

Their differences are more subtle, but still observable. Wedlock's public comments have emphasized the need for more quality jobs in the county. Brightman, meanwhile, has called growth the county's number one issue, and is involved in council of governments and home rule task forces as tools for better county coordination and control.

All else being equal, a Democrat concerned about growth will choose Brightman, while those more concerned with their own economic situation will be likely to prefer Wedlock.

Given, this is a terribly imperfect analysis. One, it assumes voters are keeping tuned to the election and paying close attention to differences that on the surface may not appear obvious. Two, since voters of each party can choose five candidates, it's possible if not probably that the same voter could pick both.

Finally, and most important, the wild card that most comes into play in local elections is work. Candidates who get out, bang on doors and wear out a couple of pairs of shoes have a huge advantage over those who sit back and count on voters to visit their Web sites.

Considering that it's hard to know who is out there breaking a sweat and who's not, the study becomes even more imperfect.

But over a large voter sampling, the differences will show up, if only in terms of expectations. If an apparently strong candidate who is a growth hawk turns in a relatively poor showing, it may be a sign. So too, a political nobody who makes a surprisingly strong showing.

In a large field, there are bound to be some surprises on Tuesday. To interpret the results, see who surprises you one way or the other, then go back and see what issues he or she championed.

It's an inexact science to be sure, but it will offer hints into which way the county is leaning, and into which direction it will ultimately move.

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