David Madore's game change

Commissioner-elect David Madore has ambitious ideas, but will he change the system, or will it change him?

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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photo"They say that (I) will learn real quick about the nature of government and how it works. I say that they don't yet know how I work," said David Madore, newly elected Clark County commissioner.

Clark County Commissioner-elect David Madore isn't the outsider anymore.

It's a role that Madore, 61 and owner of Vancouver-based electronics company U.S. Digital, has played in the game of Clark County politics for the past two years. He's been critical of the Columbia River Crossing project. He's challenged what he sees as a rigmarole of bureaucracy. He's told county residents they should expect better.

In turn, they elected him to replace Marc Boldt.

Now, Madore will have a chance to deliver on what he's promised voters, and have greater power to pursue everything he's led the charge in favor of for nearly two years. He will be an inside voice.

What does he think about that transition?

"I'm excited about that," Madore says with what is quickly becoming a trademark-sized smile.

Madore made some big promises in his campaign. He promised to "open the floodgates" for jobs, re-examine how the county negotiates with unions and broaden the government bid process to engender competition. And, as one of the community's most vocal critics of the Columbia River Crossing project, he'll do what he can to stop tolls and light rail from coming to Clark County via the Interstate 5 Bridge.

He is raring to get started. He's been at every meeting of the Clark County commissioners since his Nov. 6 election victory. He's confident in what he will accomplish when he takes office in January and in the promise that he won't become another cog in the machine he's spoken against.

"They say that (I) will learn real quick about the nature of government and how it works," Madore said. "I say that they don't yet know how I work."

Things change

Agents of change, once rising to power, sometimes discover that the thing that changes is them. They realize that what they promised during a campaign may not -- or cannot -- come to fruition.

County Clerk Scott Weber was elected in 2010 on the platform that he would abolish the office. That requires a home rule charter be undertaken. It's a process outside of Weber's control, and the process was halted by commissioners last year. Weber is still hopeful to see that accomplished, but says what you discuss in a campaign is often far different from the day-to-day job you get elected to.

"The hard part is getting the job," Weber said. "The even harder part is to keep it. You have the public's trust that you have to keep, and the things you thought (the office) operated prior to being there, and what you realize after you get there, they aren't the same. The hardest thing for me going from private to public is the infrastructure is so different, and getting things done is much harder. There is a layer of bureaucracy you have to get through, and hopefully David will be successful in showing us how to navigate that."

Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick was elected in 2010 with the goal of assessing properties at 100 percent of market value. He's currently assessing them at 96 percent, and he says that's about as close as one can hope to reasonably get to 100 percent. Van Nortwick also campaigned with the plan to support a law that shifted the burden of proof to the county during the appeal of assessed property values. After taking office, he found that the reality is most appeals come in with no supporting information.

"My job is that I have to protect the taxpayers and the taxpayer money," Van Nortwick said. "You get in there and then realize that 99.5 percent of people never appeal. You need to protect them. It's not that you don't believe in (what you promised), but you look around, you start talking with other officials, and you deal with the reality of what is there. You work with the other officials to get done what you need to get done."

Van Nortwick said he hopes to see Madore jump right into the budget process, and focus on finding new efficiencies for the county.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt campaigned for the mayorship in 2009 with a similar message as Madore: no tolls in the Columbia River Crossing Project.

After being elected Leavitt said he recognized tolls as a necessary component to the project, and that the no-tolls stance was a nonstarter.

Madore was at the meeting where Leavitt addressed the public on the matter, and was critical of Leavitt's change of heart.

"He's out of the closet, or should I say, out of the toll booth," Madore said of Leavitt after the meeting. "He was elected on a no-tolls platform, and he reversed his position as soon as he was elected."

Leavitt says he and Madore are different people, who view the Columbia River Crossing project in far different ways.

"There is a big difference between where I am now and where I was, and where he is and where he wants to get to," Leavitt said. He says he's still fighting to minimize or eliminate tolls, but is working within the parameters of what the city can control.

He says he expects Madore to come to the realization that he may not deliver on what he promised.

"Who knows? Maybe he's going to have his 'come out of the toll booth' moment now that the election is done and do an about-face once he learns what is going on," Leavitt said. "I guess if I am a citizen of Clark County, then I watch very closely to see how much David Madore spends on actual county issues versus issues which are outside his realm. I think he will have a real awakening, and it will be interesting to see how accountable his supporters hold him to it."

Looking for change

Madore takes great pride in his efforts to direct change.

"I'm a problem solver," he says, spreading his arms out wide with a kind of a shrug.

Madore's electronics empire was born in 1980 after he couldn't find an electronics component that met his specific needs. So he designed the part himself. That evolved into U.S. Digital, which now employs 120 people and generates around $20 million per year in sales. He moved the company from Orange County, Calif., to Vancouver just over 20 years ago, and for a time remained incognito in community politics.

But in 2005, Madore became curious as to why traffic signals on Mill Plain Boulevard were poorly synced. He began researching ways to fix it, and Madore said he'd do it for the city for free.

The city said thanks but no thanks. They said Madore had good intentions but no background in traffic engineering, and that Vancouver was not a research institution to be tinkered with.

In 2009, Madore began developing a new response system for schools to utilize in the event of an emergency. He wanted to install the system for free at local schools.

That project was turned away by law enforcement, saying the work looked encouraging but could conflict with state laws.

The rejections confound Madore to this day.

"I'm a problem solver to the core," Madore said. "You have to have people who aren't threatened by that for it to work."

Entering politics

Madore stepped fully into the public spotlight in 2010 when he started questioning the Columbia River Crossing project. He started a political action committee, NoTolls.com, to raise funds for candidates opposing light rail and bridge tolls. The PAC raised around $180,000, and Madore was the leading local donor in the 2010 fall election.

In 2011, Madore put $95,000 into the Save Our City PAC, which helped Bill Turlay get elected to the Vancouver City Council.

Also in 2011, Madore mulled a run for a seat on the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners. He filed paperwork for the spot, but pulled out five days later, saying talks with the current commissioners showed him "that the port is in great shape."

By 2012, he had sat on the sidelines long enough and declared his candidacy for commissioner. Madore poured more than $300,000 of his own money into his campaign's war chest to unseat Boldt, a fellow Republican who had served five terms as a state legislator and was running for his third term as a county commissioner.

Boldt lost favor with the GOP last year for not keeping in line with the party's goals. Sanctions from the Clark County GOP's executive board kept him from speaking at the local GOP convention, cut him off financially from the party and opened the door for Madore to run.

One criticism Madore says he's heard of his victory is that he bought the seat. He says that's not so. Instead, he said, his personal financial commitment shows that he'll never become the role he's rallied against.

"The people can't be bought," Madore said. "Politicians can be bought. But I'm not for sale. I can't be bought."

Madore says everyone views themselves as a hero, and that he, too, seeks that role by wanting to be a champion for the county.

"I'll do whatever I can to protect our community," he said. "I am a protector. I am a defender."

Working together

Madore predicts his passion will be welcomed by his soon-to-be fellow commissioners, and he's doing his best to be involved immediately. Fresh on the heels of a Tuesday night election victory, Madore attended a nearly daylong Wednesday session of budget talks.

Madore has appointed a new president of U.S. Digital and while he's still an owner, he says he will devote most of his time to the county.

"I'm excited to jump into it," he told Commissioners Tom Mielke and Steve Stuart during his first board time discussion.

Madore got more involved during his second board time session, a move welcomed by Mielke and Stuart, firing off a few questions that prompted a workshop to be scheduled on parks fees, and the direction to staff to follow-up on a state law pertaining to light-rail funding.

Mielke, who said he is "honored" to have won reelection himself, said he believes Madore has some work to do to get up to speed, but expects him to be effective.

"I think there is going to be a learning curve for him," Mielke said. "It's not always that easy in government. Sometimes laws won't let us do certain things. So we have to find ways to make changes that are within the letter of the law. I expect him to bring ideas to the board which we may have missed … and what I really like about him, is if he can't get an answer, he will go out and find someone who can give him one."

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com.