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Tuesday, May 30, 2023
May 30, 2023

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Will nonpartisan be nonissue in Clark County races?

Candidates for county council, local political organizations weigh in on how elimination of party affiliation may affect races

By , Columbian staff writer

Candidate filing week doesn’t begin until Monday, but a half-dozen candidates have already hit the campaign trail for a seat on the Clark County Council.

The list of candidates who have already announced includes former state legislator and former county staffer Don Benton, recently appointed Councilor Richard Rylander Jr., former Vancouver school board candidates Michelle Belkot and Chartisha Roberts, League of United Latin American Citizens past president Hector Hinojosa, and previous Vancouver mayoral candidate Douglas Coop.

Three of the council’s five seats will be on the November ballot. With Councilors Julie Olson and Temple Lentz saying they won’t seek reelection and Eileen Quiring O’Brien’s vacant seat only recently filled by appointment, the council will have several new faces on board come January.

This will also be the first council election since a charter amendment changed the council positions from partisan to nonpartisan offices. Voters also approved a charter amendment making the positions of auditor, treasurer, assessor, county clerk, prosecuting attorney and sheriff nonpartisan offices.

But will this change from partisan to nonpartisan change how candidates campaign? Will it change how voters pick candidates to support? Or will it change how political organizations like the Clark County Republican Party or Clark County Democrats back individual candidates?

For most, the answers to those questions are a mix of “yes” and “no.”

“We’ll still be supporting candidates,” said Joe Maldonado, who is chair of the Clark County Democrats and the group’s recommendations and endorsement committee. “In nonpartisan races, rather than endorsements, we do recommendations. We’ve already started the process for interviewing candidates.”

Maldonado said choosing candidates will primarily be based on where those candidates stand on key issues. For Democrats, 2022’s key issues have revolved around the economy, inflation, gas prices, transportation and the environment.

“The questions we’ll be asking when we meet with them will be issue-based questions; basically seeing how they align with Democratic Party values,” he said.

Once the Democratic Party has decided on which candidates to recommend, they will be posted to Facebook and the party’s website, as well as emailed to mailing lists.

Joel Mattila, chair of the Clark County Republican Party, said precinct committee officers will decide on which candidates to recommend or endorse.

While it’s not on the agenda for the PCOs’ next meeting, Mattila said they would likely focus on issues as they have with other nonpartisan races.

The website for Washington Republicans said party members statewide are focused on public safety and rising crime rates, emergency powers reform, and elections and security.

As for how voters will select candidates, Maldonado said that during elections for other nonpartisan offices, voters often call or email their local party asking whom the party recommends.

“I imagine it will be pretty much the same this year,” Maldonado said.

Candidates weigh in

Vancouver resident Belkot, who is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, said she expects changing the county council positions from partisan to nonpartisan will have little impact on voters or candidates.

“I don’t think it will affect (voter) turnout. I think there are a lot of people who are getting a lot more aware of what the county councilors do,” she said.

Belkot said she expects voters to be focused on issues, like the county budget or redistricting, rather than party affiliation. Belkot said the school board position she previously ran for was also nonpartisan, adding voters in that race were concerned about the issues.

“If people want to ask where I politically align myself, that’s fine. The majority of the issues the council deals with are nonpartisan. Homelessness, security, things like that, are everybody’s concern,” she said.

Belkot said she chose to run for the District 2 seat because “some of the things going on at the county concerned me, just as they did with the school district.”

She specifically noted how the council handled the pandemic and Public Health, redistricting and a mini-initiative to ban mandates that discriminate based on health reasons, among issues that stood out.

“There seems to be a big disconnect with things being accomplished with the county councilors that affect our community as a whole,” Belkot said.

Benton said he expects voters to still care about a candidate’s political affiliation.

“My general impression is that most voters like to have some idea of what the candidate’s general philosophy is. Parties sometimes do that, not always, for some people,” Benton said.

For independent voters, Benton said political party affiliation will mean less than where a candidate stands on certain issues.

Changing the council positions to nonpartisan isn’t likely to change how the council governs or conducts business.

“I don’t think it will have much effect,” Benton said.

Benton was among seven county residents to recently apply for the District 5 vacancy now filled by Rylander. He was not selected by Council Chair Karen Bowerman for an interview. As for why he chose to run for the District 5 seat now, Benton said it’s really about what he thinks the council lacks.

“The council appears to be in need of some leadership skill. I believe I can provide that. It’s also in need of someone who feels that we’re already paying too much in taxes and look for ways to reduce the burden on the citizens of the county. That burden has been increased dramatically over the past five years,” Benton said.

Benton said his 22 years serving in the Legislature, where he championed dozens of bills with bipartisan support, would mean there’s no learning curve to get up to speed on council business.

“I achieved over 50 bills signed into law by four different Democrat governors even though I am a conservative Republican. I know how to get results for my neighbors on the council,” he said.

Benton is likely to face some controversy, though. After being terminated from his role as the county’s director of environmental services in 2016, Benton and two other former county staffers successfully sued the county for wrongful termination and were awarded about $1.4 million in September 2021.

Rylander said changing the council positions to nonpartisan won’t affect how he campaigns to retain the District 5 seat to which he was appointed.

“I’m focused on what needs to be done for District 5 and Clark County and that has nothing to do with political points of view,” he said.

As for how the political parties select which candidates to endorse or recommend, Rylander said he doesn’t know how they’ll approach the change.

“It’s up to party leadership. Some support nonpartisan and some don’t,” he said.

Rylander said he expects a similar mix of support for partisan versus nonpartisan among voters when they cast their ballots.

“I think more voters will be comfortable by trying to separate politics than not. If people are aware of a candidate’s historical views, that may still affect their vote going forward,” he said.

Previous school board candidate Roberts, who has experience in human resources and administration with large public-facing corporations, said changing the council to nonpartisan positions will be beneficial in the long run.

“I think it gets away from what the traditions of what a Democrat is or what a Republican is,” Roberts said. “We can just really look at the issues.”

Roberts said focusing on issues, rather than political parties, will let the council achieve more and focus on resolving problems instead of being stuck in an us versus them mindset.

“At the end of the day, we need leadership that is willing to serve the community as a whole. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you still need to eat. We still need a place to lay our heads, we still need to contribute to society.”

Roberts said she chose to run for the District 2 council seat because she wants to serve her community and the county’s residents. She also said her experience in human resources will give her a better understanding of what residents need.

“I understand that representation matters,” Roberts said. “I take it as a privilege to serve and be the voice for the voiceless.”

While everyone has different backgrounds and experiences, Roberts said it’s important to understand and recognize those differences and provide access to those who feel marginalized or disenfranchised.

One key issue for Roberts will be how the council addresses the county’s ongoing rise in homelessness.

“We should look at it more as our problem, rather than focusing on individuals. Where is the system broken?” she said.

Other issues she wants to focus on are public safety and public health.

“We’re still fighting through COVID. I just want to be in a space where we’re actually building and growing,” Roberts said.

County council candidates Coop and Hinojosa could not be reached in time for publication.