That’s the question being asked by local political observers who are trying to parse Tuesday’s ballot results.
Sure, Jackson County elected a new chairman of the board of commissioners, Hunter Bicknell, and the county also helped elect a new District Attorney, Brad Smith.
But that’s just part of the picture. Both elections had messages, hidden and obvious, that frame a larger setting.
Here’s a quick rundown on some of the messages, and lessons, of the 2008 local elections:
• If you want to win an election in Jackson County, you have to carry at least two out of the three largest precincts: Jefferson, Commerce (Minish) and Randolph (West Jackson.) In Tuesday’s voting, they accounted for at least 40 percent of the ballots cast. Bicknell won all three areas. Smith won two out of three. It’s difficult to see how any candidate can win countywide without carrying those precincts.
• The Bicknell vs. Ron Johnson race was interesting. Two men, neither of whom had lived in Jackson County more than 10 years, were in a runoff for the county’s top elected position. That would have been impossible a few years ago.
• While newcomers aren’t discriminated against at the ballot box, they’d better not have a checkered past. That’s what Johnson found out as unflattering information began to leak out between the Primary and Runoff. The more people learned of Johnson’s background, the fewer votes he received. Had he spent more time building a base and running for lower offices, he might have established a local record to overcome that. But he went for the top job without having served any other local position. Bad idea.
• Although Bicknell won, there was a lot of hesitation from people concerned about how much campaign donations he received from the development community, especially out of town developers. His every move will be watched and weighed against those campaign contributions to see if donors bought any undue influence.
• There’s a difference between an aggressive campaign and a misleading campaign. Ask Donna Sikes, who lost the DA’s race to Smith. Sikes peaked around the time of the July 15 Primary and should have had enough momentum to carry her into a runoff. But a misleading campaign flyer she mailed out cast doubt on her ethics and the backlash hurt at the ballot box. She ended up losing Jackson County, which she had won in the Primary.
• Smith covered a lot of political ground by comparing his having prosecution experience against Sikes lack of prosecution experience. But like Bicknell, Smith’s moves once in office will be carefully watched. If he attempts to recreate the old Tim Madison atmosphere in the office, his supporters could fade quickly.
• Money is important in today’s campaigns. It takes a lot of money to get elected to a countywide office, somewhere between $30,000-$60,000 depending on the position. Fundraising will be more important in the future than any other single factor.
• The county’s power base is shifting. Both Bicknell and Smith hail from the Hoschton-Braselton area. That may not mean much in the DA’s seat, but it could in the BOC chairman’s chair. While the West Jackson Area isn’t totally dominating the political agenda, the line between that area and Jefferson is the fulcrum around which Jackson County politics now revolves. That’s where growth has put the most pressure.
• Politics is not issue-driven, it’s people driven. While people say they want to talk about issues and not personalities, they actually vote more on the latter than the former. People vote for people they like, or candidates who present the right persona. Smith and Bicknell won because they projected a more stable, traditional, secure image than their opponents. People matter. Personalities matter. Issues are, to a large extent, secondary at the ballot box. Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I hate to say it, but your last point hit the nail on the head. You're absolutely right, but it bothers me that elections have turned into popularity contests where the issues are not a factor. I think in this past election, Smith and Bicknell were probably the right candidates to be elected, but it concerns me that citizens are not considering the issues as much as personality. In a perfect world, we would be voting based on the candidates positions, not on their popularity. Quite frankly this scares me.