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Out with the old, in with the old? At least give new voices a listen

September 24, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

There are two ways to get into the pool. The slow and excruciating one inch at a time method, or a running dive off the board.

For the past two decades, Washington County has been dipping one toe at a time in the waters of change, more often than not finding them to be overly bracing.

Now comes the chance for a plunge.

County Commissioners President Greg Snook is retiring. So is County Administrator Rod Shoop. And the county has appointed a task force to draw up a proposal for home rule.

For better or worse however, the primary elections didn't offer up much in the way of new blood - only two of the 10 finalists have not held public office in Washington County. This is one of the problems with primaries locally, which tend to be "friends and family" affairs that narrow the field to the well-knowns only, before most of the general public has started to focus in on the "real" race.

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The results of the primaries are also give limited clues about November, because so many more votes will be cast in the general - consider that four years ago, Commissioner Greg Snook tallied 3,794 votes in the primary and then went on to roll in the general with 21,580. With that many "new" votes at stake, anything can happen.

Two things we know. All five Republicans will get a proportional boost in the fall, because they have greater voter-registration numbers. In effect, a Democrat will have to win something like 1.5 independent or undecided votes for a Republican's one.

Second, we know that order of finish does matter. The five top Republicans in the 2002 primary finished in the same order in the general. This is excellent news for John Barr and Bill Wivell respectively, who will only continue to distance themselves from the pack in November, if history holds.

The order-of-finish paradigm isn't is hard-and-fast on the Democrats side, and there's a reason: A few prominent Republicans have the rather quaint strategy of engaging in an all-out smear campaign against the top Democrat vote-getter.

It's effective, because realistically, only the top one or two Democrats have a decent chance of election, again because of the Republicans' numerical advantage. This explains why Democrat front-runners such as Jim Brown and Sue Tuckwell have fallen off the table in recent general elections.

It might be different if any of the lower three Democrats had strong conservative credentials and could attract serious crossover, but that does not appear to be the case this year.

If Democrats are looking for reasons to be optimistic this year - and optimistic means two seats tops - there are some straws which may be grasped.

Top Democrat Kristin Aleshire has demonstrated some degree in crossover appeal as a popular member of City Hall. Perhaps his best-known credential is as a budget hawk, and enemy of excessive government spending - a popular trait for conservative voters.

And he will be a tough chap to smear. He quietly gives his City Council salary to charity, and his honesty and integrity is unchallenged. This does not mean people won't make stuff up; they almost certainly will. But against Aleshire, the mud will have a hard time sticking.

Second on the list is Paul Swartz, who is an active church member and has a clear education and tax-relief agenda - all traits that will attract Republican crossover votes.

If a Democrat should elbow his or her way onto the board, which Republican is most vulnerable? Commissioner John Munson is certainly the leading candidate. Even though he has been a more reasonable John Munson of late - it's been a couple of years now since he was accused of hurling a cell phone at a store clerk and called for the abolition of public schools - he may find it difficult to attract crossover votes.

You can't rule him out, though. He's made something of a turnaround on public education, and his hard-line tax stand will resonate with what I suspect are more than a few yellow-dog Democrats hanging around, who are conservative but still haven't forgiven Lincoln for winning the war.

So despite some structural shakeups of late, is Washington County doomed to four more years of head-in-the-sand government that doesn't even dream of action until it has been thoroughly blindsided by a problem? And then, will only go so far as to appoint a task force to study the problem?

Maybe not. Commissioner Jim Kercheval has proactively tackled issues such as growth and farmland preservation/compensation, hindered only by lack of support of the commission as a whole. Linn Hendershot will be dogged by concerns about his health, but even if unsuccessful, he has helped move the debate into areas it needs to go, such as finding adequate public water supplies.

But if nothing else, the voters of Washington County owe it to themselves to at least get to know the ideas of the three candidates who have never served on one of the Big Three county governments - Terry Baker, John Barr and Donna Brightman.

At the very least, they have not been subjected to the culture of inaction that has permeated county government over the last decade. To be certain, there are some political vets who deserve to stay. But at this time in Washington County's history, I believe it is critical to listen to some fresh voices and hear what they have to say about our future.

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