The partisan principle

GOP group's push felt in non-partisan elections

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Coeur d'Alene City Council challenger Dan Gookin and his supporters were deciding with the campaign-based marketing firm, "Strategery," what Gookin's last flyer should look like.

Two thousand of them would be sent through the mail on Nov. 4, a last-ditch assault over the final weekend before Tuesday's election, and it had to have punch.

They considered a handful of versions.

One draft questioned the voting record of George Sayler, a former Democratic state legislator and Gookin's main challenger.

Another highlighted Sayler's stance on McEuen Field.

Sayler didn't outright support a public advisory vote on the park's future, and Gookin did.

It wasn't enough, Strategery told him; it needed more.

So Gookin, a board member of the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans - at the recommendation of the marketing firm founded by another KCRR member - chose to tie Sayler to President Barack Obama to illustrate the differences between the two candidates in the nonpartisan local election.

"We had to do something in the minds of the voters that said, 'Here's where I'm coming from, here's where he's coming from,'" Gookin said. "It was just a way to say, 'we're basically different.'"

They called the flyer "The Conservative."

It mentioned Sayler's endorsement of the President in 2007 as Sayler was assistant Democrat House Leader, and his statement at an October North Idaho Republican Pachyderm meeting that he stood by his nod of support.

"Has the Obama Presidency been good for your family? ... Good for Coeur d'Alene? ... Good for America?" the flyer asks, and a drawing of a donkey kicks away in the top right corner.

On the backside, local issues are listed.

Gookin said it didn't sit well with him at first. He was told that it was what people wanted to read, and that it targeted the voters the group was after, so he chose it.

When Sayler saw it on the Sunday before the election, he laughed. Then he became a little angry about it. He thought it was below the belt.

"I thought it was a cheap shot. I thought it reflected an immature personality, to be frank," Sayler said. "Local issues should be resolved on their merits, not on partisan issues."

But nonpartisan campaigning may be a thing of the past.

KCRR believes that partisan politics can't be separated from a candidate, whether the races are listed as partisan or not. Political parties indicate a person's political philosophy, which in turn reflect a candidate's decisions when making policies.

Of the seven candidates the conservative political group endorsed across Kootenai County, all seven won.

Influence examined

After Tuesday's election, Coeur d'Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem attributed KCRR's influence as a key factor in the election's outcome.

Both Steve Adams, who won seat 5, and Gookin are KCRR board members and were supported by the political group during the campaign.

Both won easily.

But how much influence the political group deserves is split. Even the group's president, Jeff Ward, who also worked with KCRR member Ron Lahr on Strategery, thinks it's getting too much credit.

"It's nice to get those kind of kudos from the mayor, but she actually over-emphasizes our importance in the elections," he said. "It was a series of things; it was McEuen Field, it was pay increases - and Republicans turned out to vote."

With the help of KCRR.

The group, which is not a state-sanctioned political affiliate, raised around $10,000 for the campaigns. It sent out absentee voter applications, of which 1,100 were filled out and returned. Volunteers from the group knocked on doors and worked the telephones. And they drew a party distinction between Gookin and Adams, Republicans, and their challengers, Sayler and John Bruning, Democrats.

Still, Ward said the partisan part is being overplayed.

The most the group did was encourage conservatives to vote. The winners all won, he said, because of their stances on local issues. The partisan distinction was an easy way to capture those stances by illustrating each candidate's "political philosophy" behind it.

So locally, Adams and Ward both said, fiscal conservatism and limited government - national Republican rallying points - look like reduced employee staff and wages in Coeur d'Alene City Hall, less spending on big capital projects, such as McEuen Field, and more control over Lake City Development Corp., the city's urban renewal agency that spends tax increment financing.

"It gives the picture of what the candidates are, so you know what kind of governance you're going to have," Ward said.

Potential dangers

Opponents say that line of reasoning brushes too broad a stroke.

They suspect the national partisan angst in the country is seeping down to the municipal level, distorting local issues.

"I just don't follow that chain of thought at all," said Bruning, who was asked his political registration at a North Idaho Pachyderm meeting while campaigning. "Where is partisanship in the building of a park? I didn't support the (stimulus) bailouts, yet I support the park. I don't buy that at all."

And if it continues, what's to say city races won't be decided on whom a candidate supports for president? Should a city council candidate be judged on his or her stance on the Iraqi war?

"Our politics are local; they don't connect to what the President or Congress is doing," Sayler said. He added that he would have lost to Gookin with or without the flyer, but that it was a "dirty trick" since the North Idaho Pachyderm group invited him to speak at its breakfast and then Ward asked him if he stood by his endorsement of the President. "My support for the president is irrelevant in my opinion on local topics."

Sayler's answer was what Gookin used on his flyer.

"It was a completely legitimate question to ask, and people responded," Ward said. "It demonstrates a lack of understanding."

For a candidate not to declare his or her party is to "camouflage their views and still get elected to office," Ward said.

To Bruning, that sounds like national views connecting at the hip with local ones, which could set a dangerous precedent. It could also put more political money behind campaign donations.

In Post Falls, Barry Rubin, who challenged Skip Hissong for Seat 5 on the Post Falls City Council and lost, said the Reagan Republican endorsements carried a lot of weight.

"What the Reagan Republicans brought to the table was money, organization and manpower," Rubin said. "I'm not sure of the magnitude, but I think it was a deciding factor."

Hissong voted for a tax increase this year and he still won, so the endorsement could have helped as much as his tax vote didn't.

"I believe I still would have won without their help, but maybe not at the margin I did," said Hissong, who earned 61 percent of the votes.

Yet voters interviewed Tuesday outside a downtown polling place in Coeur d'Alene cited local issues that brought them to the poll. McEuen Field was the biggest one, most said.

Ron Edinger, the victorious incumbent, agreed those played a bigger part in his win, and he was supported by Democrats, Republicans and Independents, he said.

Jacquie Wright is one Coeur d'Alene voter who never considered partisan issues.

Talking at her 7th Street home this week, she said she voted for Adams, who described himself as "a Constitutional Conservative" on the campaign trail, and for Gookin and Edinger strictly for their stances on McEuen Field.

She also voted for President Obama, and plans to do so again on the national ticket.

"I want what most people want," she said of local races. "And that's, 'What are you going to do for my city?'"

Future elections

But those on both sides of the fence agree that partisan ties could be a factor in future nonpartisan races. They point to Idaho's law change that will require voters to register under a party to vote in the May 2012 primaries.

Added to that is Idaho's political leaning in general, which is heavily Republican.

Deanna Goodlander, City Council member, called KCRR "extreme" in their political views, and said party ticket voting in Coeur d'Alene would erase balance on the commission.

Even though she's a Republican, she said she's been branded a "liberal" by the group for her city stances and fully expects the group to come after her seat in two years, should she run again.

"It's a very radical, right-wing part of the party that has really taken over the Republican Party in this area," she said.

Regardless of how much influence the party played, it's every voter's right to judge candidates on every issue they see fit, including party affiliation, Mayor Bloem said.

"It is a direction we're heading, obviously," she said. "If some people use it as a measuring stick, I guess they would consider it as fair. Personally, that wouldn't be the measuring stick I would use. I would be more interested in what the local issues are."

Gookin, who admitted his reservations about sending out the flyer, said partisan politics are a result of what the voters are eager to learn. Voters have been conditioned over 200 years of looking at 'R,' 'D,' or 'I,' and any flier he might have sent out would look like a "hit piece" since campaigning is convincing voters to choose one candidate over another.

"It would be really cool if we could ignore that," Gookin said on the partisan factor. "But the voters want to know."

On the campaign trail, voters wanted to know which Republican presidential candidate Gookin would support in the 2012 primary. Not letting them know his political leaning would have hindered his campaign, he said. In the 2009 election, the first year KCRR organized in city elections, Gookin, then challenging Goodlander, said he steered clear of registered politics, and it cost him.

Ward, meanwhile, said he's unsure how big a part, if at all, KCRR will play in 2013. It all depends on how city governing goes until then. Local issues played the biggest part in 2011, but the goal going forward is not to get conservative Republicans elected everywhere, he said. But he also said it depends on the specifics. For instance, Ward said if Councilman Mike Kennedy were to change his stance on McEuen, KCRR probably would not go after him in the next election.

Bruning, for one, thinks the line has already been blurred.

"Nonpartisan races are a thing of the past. Now they're bringing it down to school boards, city councils and highway districts," he said of KCRR's involvement in those races. "They're going the way of the dinosaur, and that's unfortunate."

Staff writer Brian Walker contributed to this report.

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