Election not the end of process

Kai Hagen

November 15, 2002

Analyzing the results of any election is a tricky business. There are so many factors to consider, including issues and ideas, qualifications and track records, personal qualities and character, campaign spending and strategies, endorsements, political coattails and party loyalty, and much more.

Why bother, anyway? The election results are final. What is it other than a bit of pointless political punditry? Well, one reason is that some people want to know what to do next time. What worked? What didn't? Why? What were the voters saying?

Another reason, however, is that the election is not the end of the process. It is the beginning. Our government doesn't work so well if only half of us vote, then walk away until the next election. It doesn't work so well if we forget about participating for now, and leave it to the top vote-getters and the special interests who never walk away.

The recent race for the five positions on the Frederick County Board of County Commissioners is an interesting and curious example. The race was commonly touted in the press as a choice between candidates supporting a cautious approach to growth and those wanting to encourage or unleash more rapid growth.

In spite of rapid growth in the county, the current board has often been described as slow-growth or anti-growth. The real estate and building industries, who were unhappy with the board, bankrolled a group of challengers they considered growth-oriented and friendlier to their industries, and targeted the two incumbents running for re-election.

Articles since the election have reported the election as a victory for developers, because John Lovell, Mike Cady and Bruce Reeder, who now comprise a majority on the board, were generally considered pro-development candidates. Final financial reports are not available yet, but it appears the three new members of the board raised and spent more money than all of the other challengers, except for Charles Jenkins, an employee of Ausherman Homes who narrowly missed capturing the fifth spot.

Some are interpreting that result as a sign of support for more rapid growth in the county. But it could also be viewed as further evidence of the value of having more money, more and bigger signs, more mailings, more radio spots and more ads in the local newspapers. As cynical as that sounds, it is illuminating that more than 95 percent of U.S. House races and 75 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money.

There is a reason developers spend so much money in local campaigns. It's an investment, and they often get a good return.

But there is another way to interpret the results.

There can be no doubt that the voters knew more about the two incumbents in the race than the other candidates. And, in spite of being targeted, they both won re-election. What does it say that Jan Gardner, a familiar candidate labeled slow growth by her opponents, won re-election?

Even more to the point, what does it say that incumbent John "Lennie" Thompson, a very familiar, high profile, sometimes controversial candidate labeled anti-growth, also won? In fact, Thompson didn't just win re-election, he was the top vote getter, and is slated to be the next president of the board.

Thompson received more votes than anyone else in spite of spending less money than any of the winning candidates, and in spite of, or rather, because of ads that proclaimed simply "If Developers Win, You Lose."

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to get the message.

The re-elected incumbents, Jan Gardner and Lennie Thompson, are from different parties. They are different genders. They have different styles. They have difference priorities. It is noteworthy that their support of certain restraints on growth is one of the only things they have in common.

That would seem to say something about our priorities.

It gets even more complicated when you look at the other winning candidates solely through their campaign materials.

The only growth-related content in John Lovell's campaign material was a call for "measured growth." That is a creative new term, that he defined as "measuring the the effects of proposed change against the overall benefit to the county residents; their costs versus benefits."

Mike Cady's campaign brochure had a section, entitled "Growth Rate Goals," which said only, "Our future is impacted by our growth. Too much and our streets become clogged. Too little and our schools go without. A balance needs to be sought." That's it.

About growth, Bruce Reeder's handout said he will "Work to manage growth and provide the right balance for homes, jobs and infrastructure." Nothing more

Reading those materials quickly, you might almost get the impression the developers made a bad investment. On the other hand, you might think the three new commissioners knew better than to advertise themselves as favoring more rapid growth.

I took note of some other things the new commissioners have been saying. In the final days before the election, John Lovell's ads proclaimed him "The People's Candidate." Many of Mike Cady's ads said simply that "Cady Can...LISTEN." And Bruce Reeder's ads described him as "A candidate who will LISTEN and work for YOU!"

Those sound like promises to me.

The real question is who are they going to listen to.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at