Primary voters lean toward the middle

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Victors in Montezuma County commission races are viewed as moderate

Montezuma County voters stuck to the middle of the Republican road in the June 26 primary, choosing two county-commissioner candidates who were widely viewed as more moderate than some of their competitors and favoring a former Democrat in the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s race.

Keenan Ertel glided to victory in the three-way race for the commission seat from District 2 (Cortez). The owner and president of Ertel Funeral Home garnered more votes than his two opponents, Creston “Bud” Garner and Pat DeGagne-Rule, combined. No Democratic or unaffiliated candidates have come forth to challenge him in the general election.

In the commission race in District 3 (Mancos), former Commissioner Dewayne Findley had a solid win over builder Casey McClellan with a 60-40 percent margin. He will face two unaffiliated opponents, Larry Don Suckla and Greg Kemp, in the general election.

And in the DA’s race, Will Furse was clinging to a 9-vote lead over incumbent DA Russell Wasley as voters waited to see whether some 60 outstanding ballots in Montezuma and Dolores counties – some awaiting signatures, others from military members – would affect the outcome.

Furse, a former public defender, had been backed by an unusual coalition including many 9-12 supporters, members of the lawenforcement community, and some Democrats. He had sharply criticized Wasley for numerous violations of discovery (the legal requirement that the prosecution reveal its evidence to the defense) during his two years in office. Wasley and his supporters lambasted

Furse for his recent switch to the Republican Party and for a misdemeanor drug conviction in his record. Their contest sparked a barrage of angry letters to the editor in the Cortez Journal.

For longtime political observer Kevin Cook, former chair of the Montezuma County Democrats, the results came as a relief – particularly because the two most vocal supporters of the local 9-12 Project/Tea Party, McClellan and Garner, were defeated.

“I’m not one of those people that believes the voters always get it right, but I believe they did this time, and overwhelmingly, too,” he said.

“I think the voters really chose ideologically anchored, thoughtful men of good temperament.”

That was the general view from the left. “I thought the results were surprising and kind of encouraging,” agreed Curtis Heeter, co-chair of the Southwest Colorado Greens.

The voting in the commission races appeared to show that citizens wanted the board to continue along the same path followed by the current board. Incumbents Gerald Koppenhafer and Larrie Rule (who are both term-limited) and current Chair Steve Chappell have, particularly in the past few years, followed policies that are conservative but also measured and thoughtful. On the hot-button topic of public-lands access and relations with the local Forest Service and BLM, they have chosen to press for changes through negotiations with the agencies rather than antagonism and litigation.

Garner and McClellan had been vocal in urging a more confrontational approach toward the federal agencies and had additionally been very critical of the county’s landuse regulations, saying they needed to be trimmed back.

Dismayed by the absence of Democratic contenders in the November election, many Dems and Greens changed their party affiliation in order to vote, although County Clerk Carol Tullis said it was not an unusually high number this year.

The candidates themselves were cautious about drawing conclusions about the election.

Ertel said he is not enough of a political pundit to see a particular trend.

“What the numbers told me, at least on the Republican-primary side of things, is that people were looking for some leadership, some stability of thought, people that were fairly stable in their careers and professions and lifestyles,” he said. “Dewayne and I were kind of symbolic of that. We’re not youngsters and we’re not ancient – call us well-matured.

“But I don’t know how to read the tea leaves. I hope people voted for people they thought had values and principles and conscience and a desire to do the right thing for our communities.”

Ertel said he’s looking forward to serving, and he plans to go into the job with an open mind. He will be “diligent” about attending commission meetings now so he can get current on what the board is doing.

He said there are a couple of issues he wants to focus on initially, one of which is public lands.

“We have some tremendous people, Casey McClellan included, who have been watching this for many years,” he said. “He and [planning-commission member] Dennis Atwater – they are just an encyclopedia of what I believe to be the history of the wrong turns the BLM and Forest Service have taken. I plan to use those people.”

The other issue is economic growth and development, he said, “whether oil and gas or business promotion and recruiting. Whatever we can do to better our economic situation. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do but I’ll keep my eyes open,” he said.

Findley said he was struck by the contrast between the civil tone in the commission races and the vitriol in the DA’s race.

“There was so much animosity in that one,” he said. “I was around all the commissioner candidates, obviously, and we all got along well. We visited with each other; we all wanted the same things. The races were more about issues, while the other one seemed to deteriorate into name-calling, especially among some of the supporters.”

Findley said he appreciated McClellan “not turning our race into sign wars” and taking a low-key approach to advertising. “Keenan Ertel had so many signs, it was mind-boggling,” Findley laughed. “He doesn’t do anything halfway.”

Findley said he was not surprised by Ertel’s landslide win because of his standing in the community and the fact that he knows so many people through his family’s funeral home. “Everyone in the community has had some dealings with them and has seen how they grieve with you and care for the bereaved,” Findley said. “They’re very well thought-of. I’m just glad I didn’t have to run against Keenan. He was a juggernaut and I think he will make a very good commissioner.”

Unlike Ertel, Findley isn’t yet assured of his seat, but he in a comfortable position going into the general election. Most observers view him as the centrist candidate of the three that will be on the ballot, and he agreed. “I would place myself probably midway between Greg on my left and Larry Don on my extreme right,” Findley said.

Garner – the former emcee of the local 9-12 Project, who had campaigned on a platform of liberty and limited regulations – said nothing really surprised him about the results, adding, “The Lord raises up the rulers according to his will and his purposes and I dare not argue with it.”

He did say he thought the heated race between the DA candidates drew attention from the commissioners’ races. “Nobody was really interested in anything else.”

McClellan likewise said the election held no big surprises. “I couldn’t really tell where it was going to go between Dewayne and me,” he said. “I knew there was a lot of support out there for me and hoped it was enough to win the primary.”

He said he wasn’t able to get out and meet as many people as he would have liked because his job kept him busy. “I don’t think I slapped as many backs and kissed as many babies as Dewayne. I just didn’t have time for it. My whole hope was that my message got out.”

He said he wished there had been more candidate forums, because there were just two major ones, with about 175 attendees all told. “That’s not a lot of people,” he said.

“I felt like Bud Garner was gaining some momentum toward the end. He could have benefited from some more forums, if he could have gotten his message out of liberty and freedom and following the Constitution.”

McClellan said he will stay involved with the Public Lands Coordination Commission and Southwest Public Lands Commission. “Running really was a last-minute decision for me,” he said. “I’m passionate about the issues and I’ll stick with those things.”

He also said he might like to serve on a group to suggest changes to the county land-use code to benefit business and industry. “There are some things in the code that aren’t conducive to business development,” he said. “I’ve been a victim of some of those.”

McClellan said he is glad to have run. “It gave me an opportunity to get those issues out that I feel are important, and I still feel they’re important. I wouldn’t change my message at all, of economic growth and public-lands issues. I certainly have no shortage of things to do. When it was all over I felt like the next day I could just kick back and relax.”

But, he said, the experience was fun. “I really enjoyed it. I also recognized that I’m really not much of a politician.”

One of the issues raised by the results is the question of why more women do not hold major political offices in Montezuma County. Only Helen McClellan, a Democrat, has ever served on the county commission (1993 to 1997), and she lost her bid for reelection. Cheryl Baker, also a Democrat, ran and lost in 2004. DeGagne-Rule, the longtime chair of the local Republican Party until she launched her campaign, initially appeared to be a strong candidate for the commission, but got just 515 votes.

Findley said he believes her weak showing was more attributable to a feeling among some voters that she shouldn’t be elected just as her husband was coming off the board. Local voters have consistently turned down measures that would eliminate the two-term limit for commissioners.

“I just heard it stated by some people that, ‘We’re tired of Rule rule,’” Findley said. “Pat has done a good job for the Republican party and I hope she goes back and does that.” M.B. McAfee, chair of the board of directors

of the Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez, said the absence of female commissioners is probably attributable both to societal sexism and the fact that few women are choosing to run.

“I think it would be a steeper hill to climb for a woman to get elected in this county than other counties,” she said. “It may have something to do with traditional values. And it might be hard to find women to run.”

She said she hasn’t spoken to any local women who said they were thinking of running but decided not to, so the interest may not be there. McAfee said she herself has toyed with the idea, but decided not to. “If I were 10 years younger, maybe,” she said.

Regarding DeGagne-Rule’s failed bid, she agreed with Findley that there might have been a perception on the part of the public that there was too much of a “family dynasty” issue.

McAfee said she sees a crop of young leaders – “by that I mean people in their 40s” – who are active in the community in different non-profits and agencies, and some of them might produce female leaders who could run for the commission.

“Young women that are mothers – they’re probably working, too, and if they’ve got two young kids, they’re just busy. But in 10 years they’re not going to be so busy, and maybe they could run.”

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From July 2012.