December 2006

GOP bucks trend in Montezuma County

By David Grant Long

The election's over, the dust has settled and now it's time to live with the results.

Nationally a mood of “throw the rascals out,” exacerbated by ongoing Congressional scandals and outrageous pork-barrelling deficits, resulted in Democratic takeovers of the House and Senate, although by slim enough margins that no mandates were obvious except one: a commanding majority of voters want American troops out of Iraq. Exit polls showed well over 60 percent of politically active citizens do not support the war.

Several Republican congressional candidates who ran on a rabidly anti-immigration stance, such as J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, were defeated by opponents who adopted a more moderate position, even though Hayworth's position was widely thought to be politically popular.

Going against the state and national grain, however, a solid majority of Montezuma County voters elected Republicans to all contested local offices, and voted for the GOP’s congressional and gubernatorial candidates, even though they lost.

In the race for U.S. representative in Colorado’s sprawling 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of the Western Slope and the Pueblo area, Democratic incumbent John Salazar trounced challenger Scott Tipton by a 24-percent spread, but Tipton prevailed in a few of the more conservative counties, including Montrose and Montezuma. Salazar won by nearly 2 to 1 in Dolores and La Plata counties.

Tipton, who owns a pottery business in Cortez, was endorsed by former Congressman Scott McInnis and campaigned hard throughout the district, but was hamstrung by having to rely on a war chest only about a third the size of Salazar's.

The Congressman raised nearly $2 million for the campaign and spent most of it.

Tipton, who received no financial help from the national Republican party, raised only about $744,000, two-thirds from individual contributions.

Half of Salazar's money came from Political Action Committees, while Tipton received only 16 percent of his funds from PACs, with the remainder coming from his own pocket.

Colorado elected Democrat Bill Ritter as governor, and Democrats retained control of the state legislature; however, Republican Ellen Roberts won a narrow victory over Democrat Joe Colgan in the 59th District (representing Archuleta, La Plata and much of Montezuma counties) and GOP incumbent Ray Rose retained his seat in the 58th, which includes the rest of Montezuma County, part of Delta County, and all of Dolores, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

Roberts’ campaign was marred by negative advertising sponsored by an independent statewide group of builders and developers. She claimed she had no control over the ads, which depicted Colgan as a tax-loving control freak and included an unflattering doctored picture.

Incumbent Sixth District Senator Jim Isgar, a major player in water legislation, easily won re-election over his far-right GOP opponent Ron Tate, who campaigned on family-values issues.

On some key statewide ballot questions, Montezuma County voters sided with the majority of the state, rejecting domestic partnerships while endorsing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, and extinguishing pot-smokers' dreams of legalizing the weed, all by wider margins than the state totals.

An amendment to raise the state's minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.85 passed by a wider margin in the county (57 percent) than statewide (53 percent), perhaps a reflection of this area’s anemic economy.

Montezuma County

Republican Commissioner-elect Steve Chappell handily beat Galen Larson, a Democrat who had received little help from his party's central committee and basically ran a one-man campaign. Chappell, who won the GOP nomination in an August primary against outgoing commission chair Dewayne Findley, joins Republican incumbents Larrie Rule and Gerald Koppenhafer.

Larson said later that he was glad the election was over and he could get back to being what Mother Nature intended him to be — a policital gadfly. Despite his outspoken advocacy of liberal causes (Larson is a regular columnist for the Free Press) he attracted roughly as many votes as his party's commissioner candidates in the past two recent elections, gaining about 39 percent of the total. Former Cortez Mayor Cheryl Baker drew 46 percent of the vote in 2004 against incumbent Larrie Rule and Chuck McAfee garnered 40 percent in 2002 in his race against Findley.

For the most part, county voters said no to anything to do with taxes.

School District Re-1, serving Cortez, the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and rural areas of the county, was denied a modest hike in the mill levy, with 54 percent voting against the increase, which was targeted at standardizing textbooks, raising teachers' pay and a few other select areas, while the Mancos School District voters approved by more than 2-1 a measure to keep its mill levy the same, since a past increase would have sunsetted otherwise.

Todd Starr, the father of two Re-1 students who was head of a group that promoted the benefits of the proposed Re-1 tax increase, said the defeat would have far-reaching consequences.

“I think it's going to have a tremendous effect on the school system,” Starr said. “The community should gather around our teachers and student and give them all the support they can, because they're going to need it.

“I think we're going to see the school board make some very difficult decisions that will have to include some pretty substantials cuts to expenditures.”

Starr said he had no clear idea why the measure failed.

“Obviously I'm disappointed it lost [but] I thought we ran a pretty good campaign,” he said. “I'm proud of the material that group produced.

“If I had it to do again, short of negative campaigning, I would focus more on what are the consequences going to be, because they're going to be severe.” Starr said he would be willing to make another attempt at passing a mill-levy hike in two years.

Nationally, Colorado consistently ranks at or near the bottom in surveys of state spending on K-12 education, and the state's flagship of higher education — the University of Colorado — always ranks at or near the top in rankings of party schools. (Perhaps a study could be done to see of there is any correlation.)

A proposal to increase the county’s sales tax by 0.5 cents to raise money for chip-sealing roads went down to defeat by a 60-40 margin, the third time a sales tax for roads had been nixed by voters.

A proposal to add a 0.05-cent sales tax to improve the county fairgrounds, home of the county fair, Ag Expo and numerous other events, failed by an even bigger margin, 70-30.

And a non-binding question that asked whether a mandatory residential building code should be adopted county-wide failed by a 57-43 margin.

Miscelle Allison of Pleasant View, a vocal property-rights advocate and government critic, said the tax questions were all defeated because there are many poor people in the county.

“People don't have the income to spare,” she said. “They don't have health insurance. They don't have dental insurance — there are ranchers losing their teeth because they can't afford to go to a dentist.

“Some old-timers here are making [only] $400 from Social Security — that's why the taxes failed.”

Outgoing Commissioner Dewayne Findley, who had supported the road and fairground tax hikes and the adoption of a basic building code, said he was “extremely disappointed in the decision the voters made” on those issues.

“We need to move into the future and I think those were small steps we could have taken,” he said. “The community is sort of judged by its infrastructure.”

He said the rejection of the minuscule salestax increase for maintenance of the county fairground was indicative of the county's changing demographics, a reflection of its diminishing rural character.

“That's what I took away from that 70-30 vote — that 70 percent of the people didn't think the fairgrounds was important, or didn't have an ag background — weren't ag-oriented — and didn't think that was a legitimate use of public revenue.”

Opposition to rampant residential growth could be partially responsible for the defeat of the road tax and the building-code question, but wasn't the only reason, he said.

“I think there's an anti-growth sentiment out there, and it very well could have translated into that vote, but I really feel like the vote against the roads was more a division between the municipalities and the rural unincorporated areas.

“I think a lot of people who live in Cortez and Mancos and Dolores feel like they don't receive any value for their tax dollars going into county roads. “I think they're dead wrong, but we evidently didn't do a good job of making the connection.”

Findley said one bright spot was the recent offer by the Department of Local Affairs of a pre-approved $1.5 million enery-impact grant to pave roads in the western part of the county heavily used by the oil and gas industry, similar to the grant that was used to pave the road to Hovenweep National Monument.

“That'll be 14-15 miles more that we've chip-sealed,” he said, “and that lowers our maintaenance cost and does away with the washboarding and [use of] mag chloride.”

Findley predicted the new commission would adopt a permitting system for new construction that would be self-sustaining through the permit fees charged to builders who would have to have site plans approved.

“In order to convince some of the reluctant voters in Montezuma County that we can make a building department work, you'll have to show them a success story with building permits and some minimal inspection site plans so that setbacks and septic regulations are complied with.

“I've heard from my fellow commissioners that they've instructed the administrator to move forward with implementing a building-permit system, a fee structure to fund that, and a site inspector.”

Findley also predicted the commissioners would soon consider a major increase in impact fees for new development to make it pay its own way.

“Instead of a $1,250 impact fee, we should be looking at a $2,500 or $3,500 impact fee,” he said, noting that had been the recommendation 10 years ago when the issue was first discussed.

The county's non-binding question on a rudimentary building code — presently there is no mandatory code in unincorporated areas for non-commercial buildings — was rejected by a solid majority, with only the Cortez and Towaoc precincts favoring it. Allison, who had argued against the building-code question at a pre-election public forum, was jubilant over the outcome, pointing out that the measure was defeated by more than 1,000 votes.

“I'm reveling in it,” she said. “It was a concerted effort by a lot of us.”

She said she saw the measure as unnecessary government intrusion, pushed by people who moved in from other areas with more regulations.

“Why do people have to move in here and say we need this and that from where they came from?” she asked. “I moved here because I love the culture, the traditions and the customs of the area.”

Dolores County

It was an historic election in Dolores County, as voters seleccted their first female county commissioner ever. Voter turnout reached a remarkable 69 percent, according to the Dove Creek Press, with two local incumbents getting the boot. Democratic Commissioner Cliff Bankston will be replaced next month by Republican Julie Kibel, and Democratic assessor candidate Berna Ernst won a squeaker over outgoing Christy Vinger.

San Juan County, Utah

Voters elected Kenneth Maryboy, a Democrat, over one-term incumbent Manual Morgan, also a Democrat who lost badly to Maryboy in the primary and then began a write-in campaign, which he also lost by a wide margin.

Navajo Nation

Navajos re-elected Joe Shirley as president over Linda Lovejoy, the first female candidate for that office, by a margin of 34,813 votes (54 percent) to Lovejoy's 30,214 (46 percent).

Voting irregularities

Although there were no major problems reported with the voting process in the Four Corners area, fuel was added to the growing mistrust of electronic voting machines during the election, particularly of those that don't give electors a paper record of their votes.

In one small but seemingly incontrovertible example, the mayoral race in Waldenburg, Arkansas, produced an 18-18 tie, according to touch-screen voting machines using software supplied by Electronic Systems and Software. Only trouble was a third candidate, Randy Wooten, received no votes in the computerized tally, even though Wooten and his wife swore they'd voted for him. An ES&S spokesperson stoutly maintained there was “no problem with the equipment, period,” thereby challenging the veracity of the Wootens and undoubtedly raising the level of skepticism about the accuracy of the newfangled machines several notches in the tiny community.

In Florida in the 13th Congressional district (currently represented by Katherine Harris, the former Secretary of State who validated George Bush's 2000 victory over Al Gore in that state) allegedly had 18,000 voters who cast ballots for candidates for other offices, according to the touch-screen balloting, but not for either the Democrat or Republican in the Congressional race. Even though Congressional approval is at an all-time low, this result is unlikely, especially since all the alleged abstainers were from one county. The Republican candidate is claiming victory, while the Democrat has taken her challenge to court.

Whoever prevails, it certainly looks like a lot of votes went uncounted, thanks to software that is considered proprietary and can't be independently examined.