Filling in the blanks

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

On Feb. 24, the first day to file for county elections, a long line wound out from the Cape Girardeau County clerk's counter as people waited their turns to fork over the $50 filing fee and place their signatures on the dotted line.

When the filing deadline ended at 5 p.m. Tuesday, 20 candidates had filed for the two county commission spots and 32 candidates had filed for the seven offices combined.

The current interest in holding county government positions is unprecedented. Back on the first day of filing, veteran county clerk Rodney Miller said he had never seen so many candidates, and many more have joined the list since then.

The Aug. 3 primary ballots will be stocked with names.

"There are usually one of two explanations for something like that," said Southeast Missouri State University political science professor Dr. Rick Althaus. "Typically, there is a lot more interest in running if a long-standing incumbent is stepping down and the position is considered open. The second possible explanation is if there is either controversy, a perception of ineffectiveness or a perception of political weakness."

Larry Bock is the incumbent as the second district commissioner and is running for re-election. Joe Gambill entered the filing season as undecided, but ended up not filing.

There have been several controversies over the past couple of years, ranging from the decision not to build a new juvenile detention center to an ongoing road and bridge tax lawsuit with the city of Jackson.

Several of the candidates have talked about putting more office hours into the job.

"I feel it should be a full-time job," said Bill Reynolds, the 24-year treasurer who is retiring from that post this year to run for commission.

The commissioners deny they are coasting. Presiding commissioner Gerald Jones, whose spot is not up for election, submitted a memo to various county offices and the media explaining that the commissioner post is not a sit-in-the-office job.

Jones spends a lot of time at various meetings, networking with other government officials and has been active in lobbying for county support at the state capital. The memo contained a year-by-year breakdown of the number of meetings he attended since 1995.

Bock also argues that the position requires more hours than what most people realize.

"As far as the position being full-time, it is full, full time," Bock said. "We have our regularly scheduled meetings twice a week, and I'm just guessing we have an average of three to four other meetings a week having to do with other organizations."

The commission races are fascinating if for no other reason than the diversity of the individuals running.

Among the candidates are four former law enforcement officers, including Barry Hovis, Clay Waller and Dan Niswonger in District 2; and Richard Rushin in District 1.

"I feel like my experience at the sheriff's office will give me insight on their current needs," said Waller, who has seven years experience in law enforcement.

Rushin and Hovis both entered the race late. Rushin filed Friday, and Hovis filed Monday.

Rushin, who now works at Procter & Gamble, is a former detective with the Jackson Police Department. Sgt. Hovis has taken unpaid leave at Cape Girardeau Police Department in order to run for commission. He said the law enforcement candidates might have a valuable insight, given the sheriff's department's budget is 40 percent of the overall budget.

"When I heard that the incumbent, Joe Gambill, might not run, I thought it opened up an opportunity," said Hovis, who, while campaigning, is working part-time for the Chaffee Police Department.

Including District 1 incumbent Bock, there are three candidates who are, or have recently, held county positions. Reynolds has jumped into the commission race and former county information technologies director Robert Cox decided to give it a shot.

Of all the candidates, there are only two Democrats -- Jim Bowers for District 2 and Fred Wilkinson for District 1 -- and only one woman, Kathy Swan, for District 2.

Swan's business, JCS Tel-link, a communications operation that frequently services the county's 911 equipment, has had issues with the county over the years. Last year, JCS Tel-link sent a letter through a lawyer questioning the county's bidding process on a server that did not go out for bid. Swan is well known in local Republican circles.

Both races also include several people who have run for public office before. Like Reynolds and Bock, Jay Purcell is a local politician. He ran twice for Cape Girardeau city council and won; and ran for state representative and lost. This will be the third time Doug Flannery has run for District 1 commissioner. Swan has served on the Cape Girardeau school board, Fred Wilkinson ran for commissioner in 1994 and Walter White is in the race after losing a Cape Girardeau mayoral bid in 2001.

The high number of candidates will make campaign strategies for the August primary less about name awareness and more about networking, according to Althaus, the political science professor.

Several of the candidates, as well as Althaus, said they believe money is a factor in the interest as well. City and school elected officials earn either nothing or next to nothing for their services.

The associate commissioners make $54,968 per year.


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