The headline from our recent County Council election is that The County Council President, Jennifer Williams, was voted out of office, and by a very large margin. By contrast, Laura Price won big, even though she was the apparent nemesis of Ms. Williams and everyone else connected to the Republican Central Committee, including 3 other winning Republican candidates. A new face, Democrat Pete Lesher, came in a strong second, comfortably ahead of all the other incumbents.
But what does all this mean for Talbot County’s future?
First, The Turnout: Compared to the last midterm election in 2014, voter turnout in Talbot County increased this year by 20%. But get this: the total number of votes cast for all County Council candidates increased by 102%–not 2%, but 102%! Talbot’s voters this year were laser-focused on the County Council, and virtually no one was indifferent to the question of what policies and attitudes should govern, and who should lead our Council. No doubt voters’ heightened awareness of the issues will extend into the coming session and beyond.
What Seems Certain:
Talbot’s voters have absolutely repudiated any effort to undermine our historic commitment to “quality of life and rural character” as the bedrock principle that has guided the County’s land use planning for decades. This was the chief policy complaint against the leadership of Ms. Williams over the past four years, as documented in great detail by the Coalition committed to her ouster. Talbot’s citizens recognize their blessings, and clearly oppose turning this special place into “Anywhere, USA.”
Remarkably, Ms. Price received 47% more votes than she did in 2014 in the face of relentless attacks from the other four Republican candidates and the County Republican Central Committee. Why? Voters could not be more clear: they want people in office who respect their voice, not special interests (which is why we’re all seeing repeated–and justified–calls for Ms. Price to be elected Council President). On issues like short-term vacation rentals, people demand to be heard.
Talbot voters are no fools. It is doubtful that the “Sears Wheeler” nonsense would have turned many heads even without the Star Democrat’s expose of those malicious shenanigans, nor bought into the reprehensible effort of Ms. Williams’ husband, who failed to disclose his relationship when authoring a piece intending to drive a wedge between “normal” people and the purported “rich people” he said opposed his wife’s re-election. And refuting predictions from friends and foes alike, the informational website of the Bipartisan Coalition was visited by 1700 discrete individual readers, and word got around. People do care about the facts.
“Question A,” concerning revision of the County’s Revenue cap, did not succeed, overshadowed perhaps by the contentious Council race. So this Council will face even greater fiscal challenges at every turn. As important as they are, the divisive issues at the center of the campaign— STRs, sewers and land use, noise—may get much less attention than pressing budget issues.
The Big Uncertainty:
Each member of the new Council needs to decide just what attitude he or she is going to bring to the Bradley room. These are 5 individual decisions that together will determine where Talbot County goes from here, both next year and perhaps for a long while to come. (They may determine where future political careers go as well.)
In particular, the four Republicans each individually needs to decide if he or she is looking backward, where the baggage of an intense and hard fought campaign shapes everything. Plenty of people in the County believe that the following is inevitable:
Laura Price will never be able to rise above being “the victim,” and that an unforgiving attitude will shape everything that comes after, whether she is elected Council President or not.
However uncomfortable (or not) Corey Pack may have been personally with machinations of the discredited “Common Sense Talbot PAC,” the campaign leaves him inextricably bound into 3-man bloc that he will be happy to control. He is Jennifer Williams’ stand-in.
Chuck Callahan cannot act independently, and will rely on Corey Pack for leadership in all things—or more sinisterly, will be guided by Jennifer Williams who, though unseated, is predicted to remain on the scene working with figures from the County Republican Central Committee.
Frank Divilio, the least experienced and least known Council member, will adhere to his well publicized pledge to follow Jennifer Williams, and will do exactly that even if she is off stage—or in the alternative will vote as part of Mr. Pack’s bloc.
Poor Pete Lesher, who was outside the internecine battle, brings none of that baggage with him…but will have to navigate among the others, like a dingy among ego icebergs. On issues, he gets to play Dirck Bartlett.
I for one do not believe the scenario above is certain, or even all that likely. Bruises notwithstanding, the members of this new Council are all intelligent adults who realize the County—and each of them individually, for their own careers—needs to look forward, not backward. I’m sure each of them appreciates the four “certain” outcomes of the election outlined above, and those facts will shape a lot of what follows. Ms. Price (who should be elected President) must know that she has to let go of the campaign, rise above it. Mr. Pack seemed his own man before 2014, and I cannot believe he was intertwined deeply with many things that transpired in the campaign. Like everyone, I’m sure he welcomes allies to positions he will advance, but taking responsibility to run a “bloc of three” reporting to the Republican Central Committee? I’m much less sure.
And Messrs.’ Callahan and Divilio must see that voters’ overwhelming rejection of the former County Council President is permanent, that their damaged Central Committee can provide them no direction (indeed, should be most unwelcome politically). So each can and will stand on his own two feet. And Pete Lesher will do fine in any event. There is every reason to be optimistic for Talbot County.
The first week or two should reveal much: the naming of a new member of the Planning Commission, the formation of the first Short Term Rental Review Board, and of course a vote on the new Council President. Facing forward, facing backward? Each Council member must decide.
Dan Watson was the chair of the Talbot County Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership