County next door turning blue?
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” In recent years, Garfield County has been Republican country. The party has had a majority on the Board of County Commissioners. And many other elected offices were held by a fellow party member.
Then Tresi Houpt, a Democrat, was elected as a county commissioner. John Gorman, another Democrat, became County Assessor. Jean Alberico, another Democrat, became county clerk.
Even more dominos in Garfield County could potentially fall for Republicans this year with two contested county commissioner races that feature one Republican incumbent and a wide open race in western Garfield County because Commissioner Larry McCown, a Republican, decided against running for re-election.
If either Republican commissioner position in the county flips to a Democrat, the makeup and agenda of the new Board of County Commissioners may change considerably.
Houpt, who is not up for re-election this year, said the outcome of this year’s election will indicate what the people of Garfield County “want in terms of general development and energy development and what kind of regulations need to be put in place.” On many energy-related issues the commissioners vote on, Houpt is often on the other side of a two-vote majority.
“I think you feel more accomplished when you are able to be on the side of the 2-1 vote,” she said. “It certainly would make a difference (being in the majority) in terms of what I would like to see brought forward, in terms of public transportation, affordable housing, oil and gas development and local regulations.”
Nationally, Republicans face a tough political environment. But in Colorado, recent polling shows Republicans matching up well against their opponents. Former congressman Bob Schaffer is tied with Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, in their race to replace retiring Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., according to a recent poll. Other polls have shown John McCain is running almost even with Barack Obama in their battle to become president.
The commissioner races have been quiet since the county assemblies in March, but they are expected to heat up after the Aug. 12 primaries. However, there aren’t any primary contests for the two commissioner races this year.
The current commissioner race in District 2 is between Republican John Martin, a three-term commissioner, and Democratic challenger Stephen Bershenyi, a Carbondale blacksmith/artist.
Martin said this year’s election could have a tremendous change on the direction of the county if another Democrat is elected to the commission.
“It would change almost 180 degrees in reference to the approach of expenditures of savings. There would be investment changes,” he said. “It would be a monumental change in the philosophy of the county presently and how it’s been in the last 20-some years.”
Martin said he is not running on political rhetoric, but on “accomplishments and the issues at hand.” He said he is going to have three basic planks in his platform as he begins campaign in earnest and that they will be the economy, the environment and respect.
“Those are the three items I am going to be talking about,” he said.
Bershenyi said he views this year’s county commissioner races as non-partisan, even though he is a Democrat.
“I see this more as an opportunity for the citizens of Garfield County to take part in an election that gives them the option of taking their government back and hiring someone who is going to serve in their interest and put their interest first,” he said.
Bershenyi said Martin seems to have drifted “away from the realization that the citizens of the county are who he works for.”
“I think that is the most important tenet of working at the county level,” said Bershenyi, who has been to several parades and gone door-to-door to meet people in the community.
The main issue Bershenyi is focusing on in this year’s election is “making sure that the interests of the citizens of Garfield County, whether they live in the east end or the west end, are being served.”
“We have some very, very significant problems and the only way to solve those problems are to tackle them head on,” he said.
In the District 3 race, Rifle attorney and former county judge Steve Carter, a Democrat, will face off against Republican Mike Samson, Rifle High School’s dean of students. Both are running for McCown’s commissioner position.
Like Bershenyi, Carter said he doesn’t view this year’s election between him and Samson as a partisan election, adding that in the late 1970s the Board of Commissioners was dominated by Democrats. But he said there will be significant changes no matter who is elected because there will be a new official taking over the District 3 seat.
“I come squarely down in the middle on a number of issues,” Carter said. “People are anxious for change. They are not happy with the way things are run and do want something to change.”
Carter said the most significant issue for him in this year’s election is to make growth in the area work for the county’s residents.
“We should welcome it,” he said, reminding residents of the economic woes in other parts of the country. “We need to take charge of this growth so that it benefits us.”
Carter said he and Samson were friends before this election started and that they will remain friends after it.
“I just think I am more qualified,” said Carter, who is currently raising money for the campaign, walking door-to-door in efforts to meet people, he said.
Echoing the same sentiments as Martin, Samson said this year is going to be a pivotal election at the national level as well as at the county level.
“It is going to be a watershed here (in Garfield County)” Samson said. “There is going to be a new commissioner. The third seat, it could be the balance of power, politically party wise, to change. I am going to my best to make sure it doesn’t change to a Democrat, obviously.”
Like all the rest of the candidates, Samson has been out meeting people and participating in several area parades.
“We are all doing the same thing,” Samson said. “We are all out there talking to people. People want to see you and meet you personally.”
Samson said his top focus for the election this year is to talk about the economy. He said Garfield County is doing better economically than many other communities and that he wants “to keep it that way.”