Voters in Crook County will be asked in the May election to consider eliminating party labels for county commissioners.
The sitting commissioners, all three Republicans, voted last fall to put the measure before voters.
Commissioner Ken Fahlgren said Crook County’s heavy Republican tilt has made the Republican primary in May the real election for County Court and the November general election more of an afterthought.
As of February, there were 5,519 registered Republicans in Crook County, 3,239 Democrats, 2,685 nonaffiliated voters and 1,943 aligned with a minor party, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office.
Fahlgren said only a handful of Democrats have been elected to the court in the more than 40 years he’s lived in Crook County, though there are likely many more qualified, would-be candidates who never ran, because of the near-impossibility of winning as a Democrat.
“You’ve isolated those people in the very beginning,” he said. “They’re not going to run if they have to lie about it or change.”
Judge Mike McCabe, head of the County Court, said the business of county government doesn’t lend itself well to party politics. Party labels might provide a valuable indicator of a candidate’s philosophy at the state or federal level, he said, but even then partisan politics hasn’t served the public well.
“There’s just no reason to have a partisan government at this level,” McCabe said “We’re just here to do the best for our constituency. I it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent — that just doesn’t cut in.”
If voters approve the measure, the May primary would not go away. Instead, starting in 2015, all candidates for a County Court seat would enter the May election, with the top two finishers facing off in November.
Commissioner Seth Crawford, the only one of the three commissioners up for election this year, said that although he voted to put the change in front of voters, he’s not sure how he’ll vote personally.
Crawford — who faces fellow Republican Jack Seley, a Prineville city councilor, in the upcoming primary, with no candidates filed for the Democratic primary — said he hasn’t heard much about the proposal from voters he’s met while campaigning, but expects that will change as Election Day approaches.
“That’s the most important thing; if we’re going to change the way the government works, the way people choose candidates, the people need to make that decision,” he said.
Fahlgren said Crook County would be the 21st of Oregon’s 36 counties to adopt a nonpartisan county government if voters say yes.
Deschutes County continues to use the party system, while Jefferson County voters scrapped party affiliations for their commissioners in 2008.
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