Political parties take increasingly active role in nonpartisan elections

By Tyler Graf and Erin Middlewood

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When Vancouver Councilman Jack Burkman received an email last month from the Clark County Democratic Party chairman about a chance to interview with the central committee, his first thought wasn't how to win the party's endorsement.

It was that the political party shouldn't be making endorsements at all.

"Thank you for this offer, but I ask you not to move … into formally endorsing in nonpartisan races. You will be fundamentally changing the character of these races," Burkman wrote back to Mike Heywood, the party's county chairman. "When you formally endorse as an organization, you cross a line I believe will harm our community."

Several share Burkman's concern that increased party involvement will distort nonpartisan races and impose rigid thinking on civic leadership, while others say it's healthy for local democracy. For better or worse, the parties are more involved in nonpartisan races this year.

In each of the last two off-year elections, 2009 and 2011, three sitting precinct committee officers ran for nonpartisan positions, two Republicans and a Democrat each time. PCOs, as they are known, are elected every two years and serve as grass-roots organizers for the parties. This year, eight PCOs -- all Republicans -- are running for city councils, school boards and a fire commission seat. Burkman, for example, faces three challengers, two of whom are Republican PCOs. While the Association of Washington Cities' position is that council candidates remain nonpartisan, the organization has no official stance on the appropriateness of committee officers running for office.

Battle Ground City Councilman Adrian Cortes, himself a Republican PCO, said there's been a concerted effort to fill local elective offices with active members of political parties. Cortes said before the candidate filing deadline, emails circulated among Republican PCOs reminding them of the upcoming election.

"It does seem as if this year both parties are more actively supportive of candidates," Cortes said. "The perception is that it's getting louder."

Perception may be everything. But it's not the only thing, said Randy Pepple, a Woodinville-based Republican strategist who managed Rob McKenna's gubernatorial campaign. Partisan politics have always been part of local races, especially in bigger cities.

"If they're in Seattle, (candidates) will fight like hell for the Democratic endorsement," he said. In Clark County, he added, party credentials are equally important.

Putting a "D" or "R" by a candidate's name -- even if it's only in a voter's mind, as the affiliation won't appear on ballots -- can be a powerful tool during an off-year election, Pepple said.

The Clark County Republicans are making endorsements in nonpartisan races this year. And for the first time, the Clark County Democrats will join them in doing so, something that was previously barred by the local party's bylaws.

Ultimately, the Democrats decided not to endorse candidates in some races. The party is skipping Burkman's seat and several in Battle Ground, Camas and Washougal. The Democrats will endorse in the races for incumbent Vancouver Councilwomen Jeanne Stewart's and Jeanne Harris' positions.

"Thanks to our tradition of staying out of nonpartisan races, we've seen a lot of regressive candidates win," Heywood said. "So we're looking at progressive, thoughtful, competent candidates who will be good public servants."

The Clark County Democrats' July newsletter pointed to the 2007 Vancouver council race. "Vancouver Councilor Dan Tonkovich, a thoughtful progressive with Democratic supporters, lost to sometimes-Democrat Pat Campbell by 226 votes out of 23,000 total votes cast. Given just a little Democratic Party support, Tonkovich would have won re-election and remained in public service."

The March newsletter mentioned another factor in the decision to make endorsements in nonpartisan races: "The wealthy Republican fellow who bought himself a position on the Board of Clark County Commissioners is said to be determined to see that like-minded allies come to dominate the Vancouver City Council."

The Madore factor

That "wealthy Republican fellow" is David Madore, the self-made millionaire and founder of US Digital, a Vancouver maker of motion-control devices. For several years he has pumped thousands of dollars into the campaigns of candidates who opposed light rail and tolls for a proposed new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River. Madore ran as a Republican for county commissioner last year and won the seat.

"Our policy redirection is not a direct response to Madore, but his activity did get our attention," Heywood said.

Madore's supporters have formed Clark County for Better Government, which plans to endorse candidates and contribute to their campaigns. However, Madore isn't listed as a contributor or officer.

"I'm just one player, one individual," Madore demurred. "I intend to participate as an individual to help support new leadership."

He's not worried about partisanship in local offices, and he doesn't see himself as a partisan figure. When he gives money in local races, it's not as an extension of the GOP, although he has been involved in the party.

"Every election has individuals and organizations that get involved. That's healthy," Madore said. "Anybody who claims not to be a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent, they're not being transparent because everybody has values."

Otto Guardado, a Republican PCO seeking to oust Burkman, agreed.

"As far as partisan politics goes, I think you are always going to have individuals who fall into one of two areas: conservative or liberal. You're not going to escape that whether it's Vancouver local politics or higher up," Guardado said. "That is not to say that conservatives and liberals should not work together. In fact, one of the things that turns off voters now is the inability for lawmakers on the state and federal level to professionally work with each other."

In that spirit, he said he would resign his PCO position if elected to the city council.

Parties a presence

Party involvement is nothing new, even if it hasn't been so obvious in the past, said Stewart, a conservative Vancouver councilwoman who faces two challengers.

"Parties should stay out of it -- that would be just dandy. Except that the Democrats have never failed to interfere in my race," Stewart said.

Stewart said she's not a member of the GOP, but she attends party functions. She said she likes the approach the Republican Party has taken in nonpartisan races in the past when it indicated favor without explicitly endorsing candidates.

While she believes the Democratic Party recruits people to run against her, this year's opponents say they decided to run on their own.

"Numerous city of Vancouver residents encouraged me to run. I was not recruited by a political party," Ty Stober said.

Alishia Topper said although she considers herself a Democrat, she has supporters from both political parties.

"It's about community," Topper said. "It's not about party."

That's a point echoed by Battle Ground council candidate Steven Douglas Phelps, a Republican PCO running against longtime Councilman Bill Ganley. He, too, has supported both parties over the years but found himself more attracted to the GOP over time.

Despite his affiliation with the Republican Party, Phelps said he was sick and tired of the divisiveness of American politics. He said the local Republicans didn't actively recruit him.

"No one is trying to lead me, or focus me," Phelps said. "I made this decision myself."

Party affiliation, however, shouldn't be a surprise in local nonpartisan races, several said.

People who choose to serve as PCOs do so because they want to be active in local politics, said Lynda Wilson, chairwoman of the Clark County Republican Party.

"It seemed quite logical to us that many would choose to run in races where they qualified. We are very excited that so many decided to jump into the arena of local government," she said.

Running for city office can be a step toward bigger political aspirations, said Lyle Lamb, a Republican PCO running against Battle Ground Councilman Michael Ciraulo.

Cortes, for example, parlayed his role on the Battle Ground City Council into a bid last year for a seat in the state House of Representatives. Vancouver councilwoman Harris twice ran as a Democrat for county commissioner. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt explored a run for Congress as a Democrat.

In the end, good working relationships tend to override party affiliation. Cortes isn't supporting Lamb, one of three running against Ciraulo, even though he's a fellow Republican PCO. Cortes considers Ciraulo a mentor, and is endorsing him instead.

That's the thing: When candidates of either political persuasion are elected, they often find their ideology simply doesn't apply to the business before them.

"Especially in nonpartisan work, you need to have the ability to think independently and critically and with a full set of facts and information. You're not necessarily approaching every single thing with a party philosophy. That's an artificial insertion into decision-making," Stewart said. "This is a way more complicated business than anyone imagines."