Tensions running high in Yacolt races

Mayoral candidates report vandalism, escalating stress in countdown to election




Yacolt mayoral candidate Jeff Carothers describes his opponent, Skip Benge, as “an honest man, a hardworking man.” The two men want the best for Yacolt, Carothers adds, and are civil toward one another.

The candidates’ civility is in stark contrast to the overall mood in the town just days before residents elect a new mayor and cast votes on four council races, according to Carothers and other candidates. Political signs inundate residents’ yards in a fashion locals say they have never seen before.

Election-related consternation escalated last weekend after four vehicles belonging to Carothers’ family were keyed and Benge’s house was egged. Carothers reported his vehicle damage to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 29. No leads have materialized in the case, authorities said.

“I know he doesn’t condone the actions that happened,” Carothers said of Benge. “Neither do I.”

It is unclear whether there is any connection between the incident involving Carothers’ vehicles and the mayoral race, said Sgt. Scott Shanaker, spokesman for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. Benge did not call police after his house was egged, Shanaker said, citing his department’s records.

Regardless of whether the perpetrators were adults or teens or whether the acts were election-related or not does not diminish their impact, Mayor James Weldon said. Weldon lost to top vote-getter Carothers and runner-up Benge in the primary election in August.

“This is upsetting to all of us here,” Weldon said. “It’s just getting out of hand.”

Benge, who is a town councilman, did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Social and economic issues, in general, shape and structure political races, said Mark Stephan, a political science professor at Washington State University-Vancouver.

With people “a bit on edge” because of the economy, it would not be a surprise if some are taking Yacolt’s political races personally, he added. The number of races being contested also heightens emotions.

“The ability to step back, be reasonable and have cooler heads is harder when the community is under stress,” Stephan said.

Carothers decided to run for mayor after the council chose not to appoint him for an open seat earlier this year. Four of Yacolt’s five council members came via appointment. Three of the four are seeking a four-year term Tuesday.

“Even though there was a process it wasn’t a very democratic,” Carothers said. “There’s a lot of tension, a lot of animosity going on.”

There seems to be a line drawn between people who have held office and those who haven’t, people who are lifers and those who are transplants, Carothers said. He stopped short of calling the clusters of candidates “camps.”

Councilman Dave Hancock declared the town’s interest in Yacolt’s political elections this fall a welcome change to a few years ago. The number of signs are “kind of fun” because “it shows the enthusiasm,” said Hancock, who will relinquish his seat following Tuesday’s election.

Fellow councilman Jimmy Robertson observed, “I’ve never seen so many signs in such a small municipality.”

Robertson’s opponent, Jeff Hall, said he did not feel like anyone had tried to ascribe him to a certain group. He has lived in Yacolt for “quite some time,” but said the town should support people who are going to contribute to its well-being regardless of their tenure in the town.

Animosity between political opponents in Yacolt does not exist, he opined.

“I don’t believe it exists between candidates,” Hall said. “I believe it’s more of the people supporting the candidates who have created these lines.”

Come Wednesday, Yacolt’s political landscape could look dramatically different.

It would be advantageous for the town’s leaders to meet one another soon after the election is over, Stephan said.

“What they have to agree on is the process for figuring out their differences,” he said. “They don’t have to stop having differences.”

Hancock agreed that the tension could be overcome.

“There’s some hard feelings but it’s like anything else … it’s not insurmountable,” he said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend; www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; ray.legendre@columbian.com.