Narrow margin makes the difference in commissioner race

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Twenty-nine votes were all that separated Jay Purcell and Dan Niswonger in Tuesday's District 2 Cape Girardeau County Commission primary.

Voters made a narrow decision in what ended up being one of Cape Girardeau County's more interesting political races in recent memory.

Niswonger and Purcell were two men in a nine-Republican field that included several highly qualified candidates.

There were four members of the business community -- telecommunications owner Kathy Swan, downtown restaurant owner Dennis "Doc" Cain, former bank executive and entrepreneur Bill Stanfield and small-store owner Walter White.

Three of the candidates -- Niswonger, Barry Hovis and Clay Waller -- had backgrounds in law enforcement.

"I begged Barry not to run," Niswonger said Tuesday night before the final tallies came in. "I told him we'd be drawing from the same pool."

Cain agreed that similar backgrounds may have hurt several candidates' chances.

"I think the main thing is you just had a lot of good candidates," said Cain. "Some of us were more business oriented, some of us had law enforcement backgrounds. Basically, we got in the race to bring attention to some things that needed to be happening in the county. We ran a pretty good race, a good clean race. Everyone had their strengths, and the people decided."

Spent only $3,100

Niswonger, who spent the least money of the top five finishers, clearly got the most votes for his money. He spent $3,100 of his own savings on his campaign.

He said his campaign was built on relationships, and it was easy to see why Tuesday night. While several candidates huddled with their own family and campaign supporters in the basement of the county administrative building, the disabled Niswonger wheeled his chair all over the room, stopping to chat and laugh with other candidates, including his competitors.

Niswonger kept his campaign relatively small and simple, relying on word of mouth from a network of friends and family, signs, postcards and, like most of the other candidates, some newspaper advertising.

Next time he runs for office -- in two years for presiding commissioner, he says -- he joked that he may get a motorized wheelchair so he can get around the neighborhoods faster.

Big endorsements

Purcell built meaningful relationships himself. Melvin Gateley, a well-respected former school principal and city councilman, was his campaign treasurer.

Purcell also got several large financial endorsements from perhaps the most powerful family in Cape Girardeau -- the Drury family. The Rhodes Oil Company and Nip Kelley Transportation also chipped in with financial contributions.

"He had a wide range of people helping him. That's why he was successful," Gateley said. People bought into "his willingness to work hard and share information with people. That's the kind of guy he is."

Purcell also put up $6,000 of his own money. In all, as of July 26, Purcell raised about $9,000 and spent almost $15,000. Purcell spent thousands on newspaper and television ads.

He carried eight of the city's 18 precincts. His biggest margin of victory in actual votes was 36 votes in Precinct 16 in the area north of Lexington and east of Route W. His biggest percentage differential was 31 percent, 29-20, in Precinct 18 in south-central and west Cape Girardeau.

"I ran on my merits as a city councilman, and I think the citizens of Cape Girardeau responded," he said after the election results were posted Tuesday night. "You wouldn't believe the support I got from my church, my family and my friends. This was not just a win for Jay Purcell."

Niswonger easily carried Precinct 7 -- the area west of Kingshighway and north of Bloomfield Road, winning 130-91 over Purcell.

Name recognition one part

Gateley said it's difficult to gauge how much influence Purcell's extra advertising had on the turnout.

"I do know from experience that it's a combination of name recognition and a person's qualities," he said. "People really value relationships and the kind of person you are. At the same time, you have to show people that you're working at it and interested in it. That's how they get to know you and what kind of person you are."

Purcell was relieved when the vote came in his favor. He made his campaign a family affair, even taking his wife and children along with him canvassing. Their feet are probably still tired.

Niswonger was proud, having spent only a fraction of what some of his opponents spent, proud of his college son Eric, who was his unofficial spokesman.

Dan was also kicking himself for not accepting financial help. Just a few more postcards, a few more letters. Just 30 more votes was all he needed.


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