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Nonpartisan is the right move, but it does have consequences

The Crook County Court last week announced that the court may be moving toward going nonpartisan. That makes good sense, follows the pattern other counties are setting, and in total is the right thing to do.

But before putting it in the “no-brainer” category, take a moment. Local political party structures have played an important, productive role in county government since its inception, primarily in finding and nurturing candidates, creating a sense of competition, of checks and balances.

Of course, in Crook County, the Republican Party has become so dominant that Crook is already somewhat of a “uni” partisan county. In recently years, the important race to win hasn’t been in November against the other party, but the Republican Primary in May.

Going to a nonpartisan program will mean all the candidates for county court will run in the Primary, not as Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, but as candidates. Any registered voter can vote for any of the candidates, and not just one from his or her party. Having the party tags removed helps, theoretically, keep the contest based more on issues instead of the preconceptions and assumptions a person’s political party brings to their candidacy.

As for how going nonpartisan will change government operations, it won’t. County Judge Mike McCabe conveyed in the Central Oregonian article last week how often partisanship enters into a county decision: essentially never.

But one of the biggest services historically the parties did for local government is getting candidates to run. Certainly in rural areas, it can be difficult to get qualified people to submit themselves to a race. Having a political party do the “head-hunting,” and sometimes the begging, had its benefits.

The party structures provided for an element of competition. If no candidate on their own stepped forward to run for a position, the local party would often find one. They might not stand a chance of beating an entrenched candidate from the other side, but at least it prompted the entrenched candidate to campaign, to answer questions, and the public to ask them. Competition for our local government positions is a good thing.

The parties historically have been able to nurture a candidate, and provide a safety blanket of support for a good candidate who might not otherwise enter the race. Some of the best office-holders are those who had to be convinced to run, whose nature is not to put their faces and opinions out to the public necessarily. Having the support of an organized political party behind you can make the decision to run, to serve the public, easier, more comfortable.

This writing isn’t to challenge the county officials on the move to nonpartisan. It’s the right move. When everything is weighed, casting off the partisan party political element to becoming, and remaining, a county commissioner makes sense.

But there are some repercussions, potentially some unforeseen negatives. If nothing else, while wondering why county government at the commissioner level hasn’t gone nonpartisan before now, take a moment and consider how the local political parties, through the years, have contributed to local government. It’s been significant.




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