Many prospective voters are focused on the national elections in 2020 and giving little attention to this November’s contests. For voters in Washington County, this would be a mistake. This year’s race for county commissioner will determine whether Washington County remains on the path of responsible decision-making or enters into an uncertain future with a high probability of a change for the worse. Unlike the well-worn political slogan, it is simply not “time for a change” in Washington County.
No one who follows local politics believes that Commissioners Larry Maggi, a Democrat, or Diana Irey Vaughan, a Republican, are in danger of losing their seats. The future of Washington County governance will depend on whether incumbent Democrat, Harlan Shober, or Republican challenger, Nick Sherman, wins the third seat for commissioner.
Voter registration has become more Republican in recent years. In the event that Democrats do not turn out to vote, Washington County could enter 2020 with a Republican majority on the board. This was almost the result in 2015 when Shober won his seat by the narrow margin of 35 votes over his Republican challenger.
Let me be clear: I am not a diehard local Democratic supporter. I disagree with the present board on several issues. I felt that the court-mandated money spent on tax reassessment was important and warranted. I was not in favor of privatizing the Washington County Health Center. I would like to see more county resources dedicated to mass transportation and social issues. I believe that the county has a responsibility to provide more economic assistance to the City of Washington and other struggling municipalities.
Despite my concerns, it is impossible to ignore the facts. The present board works well together and governs with minimal political rancor. The county has faced many challenges over the past decade. By all appearances, the incumbent commissioners have been adept at incorporating new economic wealth from fracking operations and proximity to a major urban center into a desirable place to live and work.
The unemployment rate in the county is at record lows. Many new businesses have located their operations here. Each year, more tourists visit the plethora of festivals and activities within our borders. For these and other positive developments, all three incumbents have earned the right to be re-elected.
Full disclosure: I know Shober and find him to be an accessible, hard-working commissioner. It was impressive to me that his fellow commissioners across Pennsylvania voted him president of their statewide association in 2018. Before serving as commissioner for eight years, Shober earned his political stripes as the former chairman of Chartiers Township Board of Supervisors. I do not know Republican challenger Sherman. I must give him points for honesty when he states on his campaign website, “We are doing well in Washington County.”
To illustrate what can go terribly wrong, consider the 1996 commissioner race in Allegheny County. Two Republicans, Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer, won the election, creating a Republican majority for the first time in six decades.
The new Republican administration quickly went to work firing department heads with many years of experience and replacing them with political appointees and conservative ideologues. One of the first actions of the new board was a 20% property tax cut, implemented before spending cuts were in place. Allegheny County’s reserves of $80 million quickly disappeared. When the budgets of essential county services were finally slashed, a host of lawsuits were filed. Attempts to privatize county services resulted in union protests and more lawsuits.
The following two years were a mashup of chaos, bumbling, bickering, financial problems and lowered bond ratings. Allegheny County voters responded by getting rid of the three-headed commissioner system in 1999 and adopting a county executive with a 15-member council.
Washington County can point to its own misplaced “time for a change” moment that occurred in January 2000. Under the pretense to balance the budget, newly elected Democratic Commissioner John Bevec joined forces with Republican Diana Irey to terminate several well-qualified department heads. Among the dismissals were County Administrator Bill McGowen and Director of Parks and Recreation Andy Baechle. Baechle was recognized as an expert in his field and had secured $3 million in grants during his tenure. Allegheny County quickly hired him at twice the salary.
Many in Washington County interpreted the dismissals of professional department heads as more political than economic. The one commissioner who had worked to develop a strong lineup to run the county, Bracken Burns, was outraged by the maneuvering of his fellow commissioners. In interviews with local newspapers, he called the actions a “political purge” and “the dumbing-down of Washington County.” Predictably, until the next election, county government was marred by infighting and little was accomplished.
In this November’s election, there is no reason to roll the dice with an uncertain future and risk repeating the post-election meltdowns cited above. The voters of Washington County know what they have with the three incumbents. They are a team that has earned the right to remain in office so they can continue to work together and provide thoughtful leadership and a stable government.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.