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Sept. 26, 2021

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Is nonpartisan even possible in Clark County’s election races?

Party affiliation seems to matter more and more to local voters

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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Vancouver City Council candidate Diana Perez speaks at the "Ballots and Brews" event July 23 in downtown Vancouver.
Vancouver City Council candidate Diana Perez speaks at the "Ballots and Brews" event July 23 in downtown Vancouver. Photo Gallery

Diana Perez, a candidate running for Vancouver City Council’s open Position 3 seat, was rubbing shoulders with voters at a “Brews and Ballots” event at a local brewery last week when she was approached by two men wearing gold Proud Boy emblems.

They wanted to talk about her position on critical race theory. Perez said she extricated herself from the conversation, preferring to discuss topics more pertinent to a nonpartisan city council race.

Despite the politically agnostic nature of city races, she’s had these conversations before.

“Even when I was running in 2019, there were people that were going to ask, ‘Are you a Republican, or are you a Democrat?’ ” Perez said. “This year, it just so happens you have someone who’s the former chair of the GOP running.

“From that respect, it’s different,” Perez added. “Personally, I just focus on my values and focus on that seat.”

There are actually two former heads of the Clark County Republican Party on the primary ballot — David Gellatly is challenging Perez for the Position 3 seat, while Earl Bowerman is running for mayor.

Another hopeful for mayor, Doug Coop, isn’t formally affiliated with the local party organization but introduces himself on his campaign website as “the Republican candidate.” Greg Seifert, seeking a seat on the Port of Vancouver’s board of commissioners, previously served as precinct committee officer for the Clark County Republican Party.

Across Clark County, a similar pattern appears. Josh VanGelder, running for city council in Battle Ground, was also elected as a Clark County Republican Party PCO and has appeared at campaign rallies alongside far-right organization Patriot Prayer. Leslie Lewallen, running for Camas City Council, is a member of the Clark County Republican Women.

The trend isn’t exclusive to Republicans. Mike Pond, who’s seeking the Vancouver City Council Position 1 seat, currently serves as chair of the Young Democrats of Clark County. Kim Harless, running against Pond, is a PCO for the Clark County Democratic Party; so is Perez, as is Washougal School District board hopeful Donna Sinclair.

There’s always some overlap between partisan and nonpartisan politics — within any given community, there’s only so many people who seek out public office. But that’s a lot of explicitly partisan credentials for an explicitly nonpartisan ballot.

According to Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University, Clark County isn’t the only place where party affiliation appears to matter more and more to local candidates and voters.

Subtle party cues have always been part of nonpartisan politics — a study printed last year in the American Politics Journal, for example, found that nonpartisan candidates in California who emphasized their business background performed better among Republican-leaning constituencies.

But the subtext is rapidly becoming text.

“I think this is likely a phenomenon in all of the United States right now,” Stephan said. “The country is becoming incredibly polarized. We have a long history of nonpartisan races, but partisanship is sort of overwhelming that.”

Voters are also responding strongly to partisan messages associated with state and national issues. At a June forum for candidates, the lines that drew applause weren’t about city-centric topics, like investments in transportation infrastructure or the parameters of the Multifamily Tax Exemption Program.

They were the sweeping statements — calling climate change a hoax, or the shutdown orders at the start of COVID-19 unconstitutional.

A recent post to the app NextDoor, which allows neighbors to chat and network around local issues, also indicated a taste for more explicit affiliations in local politics.

Election Day is Tuesday, Aug. 3

  • Make sure your ballot is postmarked by Tuesday, or you can drop your ballot in any of the 22 drop boxes around Clark County.
  • Voting ends at 8 p.m., and initial results will be posted publicly around 8:30 p.m.
  • Columbian reporters will live-tweet the results. Follow our election night coverage at #clarkelex.
  • For more information, visit the Clark County Elections page

“I noticed that all of the … candidates do not say which party they are in,” one Burnt Bridge Creek resident wrote upon receiving her voter’s pamphlet. “Anyone know what is going on, because it sure sounds like a nasty deal to me. I want to know.”

Despite his ties to the party, Gellatly told The Columbian that his Republican status plays a diminutive role in his campaign. He said he disagreed with the notion that voters are growing more partisan.

“I’ve been talking to Republicans, Democrats and independents,” Gellatly said. “A couple main issues that I hear concerns from is the homelessness issue, which I don’t feel like should be partisan at all, and the safety issue based on what’s going on in Portland.”

He added that he’s scaled his involvement with the formal party organization down to an “advisory” capacity.

“If we get mixed up in the national politics, like our local governance, then we see policies come to play like defunding the police,” Gellatly said. “We can make poor decisions for our community based on national rhetoric.”

According to Stephan, regional political culture plays a major role in how much partisanship tends to leak into nonpartisan elections. Local politicians in the Pacific Northwest have historically taken nonpartisanship more seriously, he added.

“In some parts of the country — I think of the Northeast in particular — a race is nonpartisan in name only,” Stephan said.

“It is not surprising to me that you have noticed more explicit partisanship and partisan cues in nonpartisan races in the Northwest or here in Southwest Washington,” he continued. “What has been a more isolated regional thing is now more of an explicitly national thing.”

Races to watch in Tuesday’s primary

Vancouver mayor: The incumbent, Anne McEnerny-Ogle, is highly likely to make it through to the general election. But her two challengers, Coop and Bowerman, overlap ideologically on most major issues. For voters who align with them, it will likely come down to a contest of name recognition and style.

Vancouver City Council, Position 1: Four people are running for this open seat, including Pond, Harless, former Clark County Councilor John Blom, who was a Republican but is now an independent, and Justin Forsman, a repeat candidate for council whose recent social media post calls COVID-19 and subsequent “take over” “well planned, well in advance.” The broad spectrum of backgrounds and ideologies will likely make for a robust and interesting race.

Vancouver City Council, Position 3: Gellatly and Perez will run against Glen Yung, another familiar face to local government — Yung rarely misses a city council meeting, and he shows up to a lot of other commission and neighborhood association meetings. Bucking the trend, the three keep their campaigns hyper-focused on local issues. All have government experience and represent a broad range of ideologies.

Vancouver school board, Position 2: Following a lengthy discussion with the candidates, The Columbian Editorial Board said the race between Sandra Zavala-Ortega, Kathleen O’Claire, Chartisha Roberts and Michelle Belkot has a good problem: “too many strong candidates.” Zavala-Ortega is the incumbent, though she was appointed in April. Vancouver Public Schools has had six directors since 2019.

Camas City Council, Ward 1, Position 2: This four-way race between flight attendant Shawn High, executive and technology recruiter Gary Perman, Calling Church pastor Georl Niles, and Camas School District talent-development director Marilyn Dale-Boerke offers voters a broad range of options. Fundraising also makes this race interesting — according to Public Disclosure Commission reports, Perman has raised more than $9,000, almost half of which came from former Clark County Councilor David Madore and his wife, Donna.

Camas City Council, Ward 1, Position 2: Another robust four-way race with a funding boost from the Madores, in the form of $4,000 for mother and retired lawyer Lewallen. She’s running against former Washougal Councilor Jennifer McDaniel, Jazzercise instructor and flight attendant Alicia King, and consultant and e-commerce trader John Svilarich.

Columbian staff writer
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