May 29 2010

Four votes

Published by at 4:27 pm under Oregon


Mary Stern


Mary Starrett

Until this weekend, there seemed no right time to weigh into this year’s Yamhill County Commission races, or especially, race – one of which has turned stunningly close and won’t be resolved for months yet. But given that it won’t now (almost certainly) be settled until November, some thoughts about the unexpectedly razor close Mary Stern-Mary Starrett contest seem in order. It can be and sometimes has been easily misunderstood, so considering that this was a situation we’ve watched closely, living (and voting) in Yamhill County.

From the beginning, then.

Yamhill County is historically quite Republican; it will vote for Democrats winning big for major offices (a Ron Wyden, say) but in closer races tends Republican, and elects mostly Republicans locally. some of the base here is rural and resource-industry oriented, meaning that there’s some reaction to the social and economic liberalism close in to Portland. But Yamhill also has been changing. The largest city and seat, McMinnville, leans Democratic, partly because of college influence (at Linfield College) and partly other factors, including some labor union activity. There is also this: McMinnville particularly is a very community oriented city, where local civic activism is simply more active than it is in a lot of places.

And there’s the underground subject d’controversy which only seldom dares be mentioned in polite company: The wine industry, which is rapidly becoming the economic Big Deal of the county; a good many of the people involved with it lean left. (Democratic legislative candidate Susan Sokol Blosser would be a good personal exemplar.) Probably most people in the county are delighted it’s here, but not everyone is. In our small town of Carlton, for example, where wine is a dominant matter, there are some people overjoyed with it (partly for business reasons), and others furious with the changes it is bringing to what they always thought of as a timber town. Wine has been a real catalyst on several levels in Yamhill County, which is less Republican overall than it was four or eight years ago, still leans toward the red, but isn’t terrible far from being centrist.

Mary Stern is a McMinnville attorney who became active in all kinds of civic organizations over a period of years, and that is – for many local politicians – a prerequisite for election, something that’s often been expected before people are willing to vote for you: you do your civic pushups. Stern did. She was widely assumed to be a Democrat or Democratic-supportive, but she had some advantage in running for the Yamhill County Commission in 2002: The commission seats are non-partisan. She won with relative ease, and in 2006 as well.

The other two commissioners, Leslie Lewis and Kathy George, were also elected as nonpartisans but were clearly Republicans – Lewis had been elected to the Idaho House as such, and George’s husband was a Republican state Senator, her son is current a Republican state senator, and much of the support for both of them heavily overlaps with that of Republican candidates. Both have also been the civic-activist types, known for years before their elections in many circles around the county. They too have won office by substantial margins.

Stern’s position has seemed fairly solid, though, and one reason probably has been this: The county may not have been entirely happy with a three-member commission that moves too closely in lockstep. If you averaged the views of Yamhill’s voters, they might have come up with a preference for a commission led by Republicans but with Democratic representation. Stern was barely challenged in 2006, while George that year was held to a win so close that the primary then was decided in a recount (though no runoff was needed). Stern, who was only lightly challenged, wound up looking like the strongest political figure in the county.

So to this year, when Stern and George were up again. Stern was challenged by Mary Starrett, a veteran Portland broadcaster best known around the state as the conservative Constitution Party nominee for governor in 2006. A resident of the northeast edge of the county about as close to Portland as to McMinnville, she hasn’t been much active in local civic activities; and she irritated some locals with a campaign that focused on either ideology (on some occasions) or fierce shots at Stern (on others). Starrett was associated with the Tea Party group, and put a little Tea Party image on her campaign signs; but that group didn’t seem particularly large or effective in Yamhill.

George was opposed by Kris Bledsoe, a relative newcomer to the county who lost a race for the commission in 2008 but has become highly active in several civic issues, notably a hot one having to do with a waste storage center. Bledsoe ran probably the most energetic and determined primary campaign of the four candidates.

She also made some people nervous. In public appearances you could see the activist more than the likable pol, and some concern started to develop in relatively centrist quarters: What if she and Stern became the commission majority? What might she try to ram through? Behind the scenes, Lewis became active as well, putting a point on these questions. Meantime, the county was packed with campaign signs in very specific pairs: Starrett signs next to George signs, Bledsoe signs next to Stern’s. Among local political observers, a common prediction emerged: The most likely outcome was re-election of the incumbent, but that Bledsoe, because of her stronger campaign, had a better chance of winning than Starrett.

A bunch of factors weigh into any campaign, and there’s no easy mind-reading. But one line of thought a number of local observers suggest is that Bledsoe may have been seen as a more likely winner than Starrett, and a number of voters may have reacted to that, denying in some cases Stern votes she might have gotten had the other candidate seemed to be gaining no traction. Another factor: Stern won so easily in 2006 that her campaign seemed relatively quiet and smooth, not presumptive of winning but not exactly running scared either.

With the end result of a decisive George win over Bledsoe, and a razor-close contest between Stern and Starrett, close enough for both recount and (almost certainly) a runoff in November.

What then? With a stronger campaign effort, and running simply on her own merits, and with common knowledge that the other two commissioners will be Republicans, Stern’s odds in November look good.

Then again, of course, they looked even better for May six months ago . . .

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