Steve Stuart, the lone Democrat on the Board of Clark County Commissioners, hasn’t spoken much lately about his political future.
In fact, while sitting on a board that has spent most of the year locked into a rancorous game of partisan political warfare, Stuart has made it a point to avoid the will-he-or-won’t-he discussion surrounding his decision on whether to run for re-election in 2014.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it.
“I’ll be thinking about it a lot here,” Stuart said last week. “I have been thinking about it a lot. I’ll take the holidays to evaluate it and I will make my decision in January.”
And that is where Stuart leaves the discussion. He won’t go on the record about what will factor in to that decision, or if he’s leaning one way or the other.
But even as he avoids the talk, he still has found himself in the thick of a campaign against the policies of his fellow commissioners led by freshman Republican David Madore.
That battle may be a sign that Clark County politics is at a tipping point.
The politicking began just days into 2013 when Madore publicly announced on social media that state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, would run to replace Stuart come the 2014 election.
And while Madore apparently forgot to tell Harris about his plan — Harris said at that time it was far too soon to discuss such a matter — the seeds of discontent had been planted.
Madore and fellow Republican Commissioner Tom Mielke then moved quickly to posture themselves against the Columbia River Crossing by passing a nonbinding resolution stating their displeasure with the project, and breaking a contract with a local economic organization that supports it.
Stuart, the lone Democrat on the board of three, stated his concerns over his fellow commissioner’s actions to no avail. The reality of Stuart’s new political life is that county voters elected in 2012 to move the direction of the board sharply to the right with Madore and the re-election of Mielke.
Any power Stuart had became isolated, and he was facing a grim reality that he was one of the final publicly elected Democrats in a county that was now a strong bastion for Republicans.
But then Stuart did something that changed the landscape: He stood up and swore.
In a move he later called “embarrassing” and for which he apologized, Stuart became outraged at a May 1 meeting when Madore announced his desire to hire his friend, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as county environmental services director, without following the usual process.
When Mielke agreed with the appointment, Stuart erupted, declared the two guilty of political cronyism and stormed out of the meeting, yelling “bullshit” back at the two Republicans.
After the meeting, Stuart told The Columbian he had nothing more to say, but that he did “look forward to hearing what the people who I serve have to say.”
From there on out, commenters at public meetings overwhelmingly rallied behind Stuart for his brazen response. A coalition of them began a months-long public scolding of the Republicans.
Madore and Stuart also began trading barbs on their public Facebook accounts as Madore blamed the anger over the Benton hire on county staff for not updating a job description to one Madore found more fitting for Benton’s qualifications.
Madore would later claim in another Facebook post, which is no longer visible on his page, that he believed Stuart would not run for re-election. Stuart’s response at that time was that Madore “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Further, the two have taken each other to task verbally in public as Madore introduced resolutions and policies that lay out his new vision for Clark County.
The tenets of Madore’s election promises — eliminating parking fees at county parks and slashing development fees for businesses — each passed with a second vote from Mielke and a strong condemnation from Stuart.
Madore’s nonbinding resolutions — one an anti-Columbia River Crossing resolution and another a rambling resolution defining the word “integrity” and requiring more than 100 reference materials — both passed while drawing Stuart’s ire.
Stuart stated he believed the integrity resolution was simply Madore’s way of publicly criticizing elected officials who had voted in favor of a light-rail funding plan, on a separate board where Madore wasn’t in the majority.
“You want your pound of flesh,” Stuart told him.
And that’s just what’s taken place in the most visible public meetings.
During one board time meeting, a work session which typically sees low public turnout, Madore threatened that he could remove Stuart from his position as chairman of the board.
The chairman is typically appointed on a rotating basis between the three districts, not on the political whims of individuals.
After Madore’s claim, Stuart smiled back at him, saying, “I love the look in your eyes too as you’re saying it. Some anger in there.”
The anger being verbally dished out by the two may be another signal that Clark County politics is at a tipping point. And come the November 2014 election, voters must decide what the seesaw is going to look like.
On the one side, they can choose Madore and his new deal for the county, which is hopefully focused around rapid business expansion to build a broader tax base.
Or they can shun that direction as misguided and re-elect Stuart as the lone commissioner in dissent of Madore’s policies.
But make no mistake about it. If Stuart runs for re-election, he will be running against two candidates: both the individual listed on the ballot and David Madore.
Carolyn Long, a political science professor at Washington State University Vancouver whose expertise includes local politics and elections, said it appears Stuart has a chance to win re-election based on the recent results of the nonpartisan Vancouver city council elections.
“I would suggest that the results from the odd year election in November, that were four or five points in favor of (Mayor Tim) Leavitt, is an indication the county is moving in a different direction,” Long said.
In last month’s election, it was Leavitt who stood as a symbol against the policies of Madore and Mielke as he ran for re-election against Councilor Bill Turlay, who was supported by Madore.
And while that was a vote of just city residents, and not inclusive of the steadfastly conservative rural lands of the county, Long believes the results say something about which camp is currently enjoying a groundswell of support.
“I would interpret those results carefully,” Long said. “But I would use that as a data point to see if the county is at a crossroads. And I really do think we still are. It wasn’t a round rebuke of Madore and Mielke, but it was a significant enough margin that people may wonder what is going on here.”
Long isn’t presuming to know how an election campaign will turn out. But she does note there are several factors in play that could alter such an election.
Key among them is the current county freeholder board, which is working to draft a county charter. Among the issues the freeholders are discussing are splitting county legislative and executive powers, expanding the three-member board of commissioners and potentially eliminating partisan offices. When they are finished, their charter will be submitted to voters for approval.
Voter turnout — typically extremely low in Clark County — could be bolstered by such a charter vote.
Still another angle to consider is what does it mean to have a board of commissioners entirely of the same party? For many voters, the idea of a balanced government remains appealing, Long said.
“He’s been the strong minority voice,” Long said of Stuart. “People have become more apprehensive of the level of authority that two commissioners wield, and they’ll keep that in mind when they go to the ballot box.”
And Long said if Stuart runs and wins, he’ll find himself in a position with a mandate to be that minority voice. That means if he’s been pulling any punches, that tactic ends.
“He hasn’t been a lame duck waiting for reelection,” Long said. “He has been vociferous in his opposition so if he wins he may become an even stronger voice. He may not win those battles, but he can get louder.”
Name: Steve Stuart
Jobs before commissioner: Founded Urban Reserve, a wetland conservation firm; former executive director of Friends of Clark County; former state policy director for 1000 Friends of Washington.
Education: Law degree, University of Oregon, 2000; bachelor’s degree in business and sociology, Linfield College, 1994; Prairie High School, 1989.
Background: Despite being the youngest member on the board of Clark County commissioners, Stuart is the longest tenured member.
Political experience: Appointed in 2004 to fill the position vacated by Democrat Craig Pridemore, Stuart won his first election in 2005 against a now familiar face in Commissioner Tom Mielke. That election was to confirm the appointment and fill out the end of Pridemore’s term.
In 2006, Stuart won election to his first full term in office against Republican Bruce Hagensen with 54.4 percent of the vote.
In 2010, Stuart won 51.2 percent of the vote against Republican Alan Svehaug.
The 2010 victory was intriguing in that he squeaked out a victory against a candidate who barely ran a campaign in a time where the county was seeing power swing from the Democrats to the Republicans.
Other than Stuart, the only remaining Democrats in elected county positions are Doug Lasher, the county treasurer, and Tony Golik, the prosecuting attorney.