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No sea change in county politics, but some hints of future battles

November 12, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

All you need to know about today's modern, 21st century Washington County electorate is that voters went to the polls Tuesday and elected a school board member who ran on the platform that public schools need to teach more welding.

Who knows? At any moment, the Fairchild and Mack of 1960 may return and we need to be prepared.

For all the talk of growth and change in Washington County, things are still much as they were. We long for the days when families were strong, we worked hard for a good, honest wage, paid few taxes and didn't need or want any outside help or influence from anyone.

Certainly this is a noble imagination, but nobility cannot make dreams any more real.

Today's politics is not a proactive profession. Elected officials will not lead the county toward progressive change, they will need to have change thrust upon them. Which will happen, although not anytime soon.

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And it is unlikely to be a clean process. Perhaps the first signs of the upcoming struggle are right before us.

The welding anecdote above may be a bit melodramatic (and in truth, the viability of a trades education should not be made light of), considering that trades-advocate William Staley basically had one constituency - the old-world economy set - all to himself, while the other five competed for the remainder.

In any multi-candidate race, that's a pretty strong advantage to have.

The second breeze of change came with the sound defeat of County Commissioner John Munson, the cell-phone-chucking arch-conservative who hung his hat on the quintessential Washington County message of low taxes and low spending with a healthy dollop of constituent service.

How many local politicians have successfully served for decades saying nothing more than this?

Yet while Washington County voters clearly said they favored conservatism, they also said they will not tolerate conservatism with nonsense.

In light of his political message, public musings over the necessity of public schools might have been forgiven only a decade ago. Not in the new millennium.

But the more telling results came right in the middle of the pack. Despite its best efforts, the pro-growth-control Citizens for the Preservation of Washington County couldn't get Donna Brightman in. And despite its best efforts, the pro-property-rights Citizens to Protect Rights couldn't get Commissioner Jim Kercheval out.

But both came reasonably close.

Here is where future battles will be fought. Brightman ran a marvelous campaign and worked tirelessly to get out her managed-growth, government-restructuring message. And a sizable - surprisingly sizable, really - number of people bought into that message.

Consider where she came from and the odds she was up against. Last Thanksgiving, no one outside of South County had heard of Donna Brightman. She had no local name, like Baker or Barr. She had no traditional Washington County platform, as did Bill Wivell. And she was, well, a she.

In Washington "A Woman's Place is in the School Board" County, only pro-establishment, non-boat-rockers need apply. Aside from Dori Nipps and Linda Irvin-Craig, what woman can you remember who was elected to county office or higher? And we saw what happened to them when they had the nerve to think for themselves.

Kercheval had his own obstacles, most notably his distaste for politicking and the fact that the core of his own party abandoned him for his vote for a tougher new zoning law.

So here is where we stand. In Washington County, being a Republican is enough, even if one is a progressive, independent-minded Republican. Being a solid Democrat with a message that there are some significant, nontax issues we face, is not.

Not coincidentally, separating the two - and winning a seat - was Kristin Aleshire, a Democrat who happens to be both a growth and spending hawk.

Top vote-getters John Barr and Terry Baker have yet to write their public records on a county level, although both ran rational, well-reasoned campaigns. As they say about the Supreme Court, who will be the swing vote, and in which direction will he swing?

Time will tell. This current commission was known for its 3-2 votes, and there's a good possibility those days may not be over, which is likely an adequate reflection of the county itself.

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