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What does May's election mean for Washington County?

Given the re-election of Washington County Chairman Andy Duyck and Commissioner Bob Terry, despite facing two excellent opponents, one has to credit them for running very effective campaigns and enlarging their margin of victory compared to their 2010 campaigns.

But before one concludes that Duyck and Terry have a mandate, one is cautioned by the paltry low voter turnout of 31 percent of registered voters. No matter who won, the winner represents a minority of the total registered voters, let alone those eligible to vote.

Some will see this as sour grapes from one whose candidates lost. But had all my choices won, the low voter turnout would have made their victory problematic, too. I would have gladly celebrated such a victory, but as a political scientist, I’d have to qualify the “high fives.”

So what do these election results mean?

The power of incumbency played a huge role, including for Greg Malinowski, a candidate I supported. In a low turnout contest, incumbency provides officeholders momentum minus any issues that might energize voters to “throw the bums out.”

The campaign should have pivoted on the urban/rural reserves court test and the legislative “Grand Bargain” fix necessitated by a 3-2 majority of the current county board. Clearly, that had little traction because the issue is too complex to frame in a flyer or an ad.

When voters don’t see a reason to cast a “no confidence” vote, they vote for the team that is in office — assuming, as regional editorial writers did, that the incumbents are doing a good job. And since the economy in Washington County is the best in Oregon, the case for the challengers dimmed.

The opposition was marginalized as elitist environmental activists who cared more about saving farmland than building homes in the suburbs for those working in the Silicon Forest. Since suburban homeowners outnumber family farmers, this demographic advantaged Duyck and Terry.

In an ironic twist of fate, a major victory over the county board majority on urban/rural reserves gave voters less reason to be concerned about land use issues for the next 50 years and to discount the board majority bias favoring industrial and home developer interests.

Those who voted were focused on the “American dream” of a home of one’s own and a good paying job more than they were concerned about land use issues, transparency or Intel’s fluoride emissions. This was a status quo election, not a change election.

Duyck and Terry will view their re-election as a mandate to continue being big box industry friendly. But thanks to the urban/rural reserves loss, Washington County will have less land to develop in the next 50 years. So how the board manages that challenge will be a key issue.

At a debate hosted by Pacific University, Duyck and Terry said they wanted to look at mental health issues dealing with the chronically homeless. Chairman Duyck said he would also demand more of Intel when their next SIP request comes up this year.

This community activist will be watching to see if their actions match their words. The election is over, but not the campaign for a better Washington County!

Russ Dondero is a professor, blogger and citizen activist. He lives in Forest Grove.




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