Meridian is at a crossroads but it depends which side of the road you stand on. Take the intersection of Eagle and Overland roads as an example. To the north, cattle slowly graze in an open field not more than a cow patty's throw from Interstate 84. To the south, an endless string of strip malls promises everything from a quick loan to even faster food.
It was more than appropriate for a hotel on the southwest corner of Eagle and Overland roads to be the site for an Oct. 18 gathering of the men and women who want to lord over the people (and possibly the cows) of Idaho's fastest-growing urban/rural community. The 2010 Census showed Meridian's population at 75,092, representing an 81.5 percent increase since 2000. Meridian recently surpassed Pocatello and Idaho Falls to become Idaho's third-largest city.
Meridian residents who filled the Courtyard by Marriott's ballroom represented a microcosm of the community as trucker caps and Levi's shared lunchtime tables with pinstripes and Florsheims. The 200-plus attendees were all too anxious to hear from the five candidates who want to be Meridian's mayor but only three were present: incumbent Tammy de Weerd, 52, the two-term mayor and former member of the Meridian City Council and the city's planning and zoning and parks commissions; Gerry Sweet, 54, former Republican state senator and former staffer for Republican Rep. Bill Sali; and Jason Monks, 43, owner of The Blind Gallery and Valley Medical and proud non-politician.
Sweet immediately wanted attendees to know of his political influences (though party affiliations traditionally have no place in a mayoral election).
"I'm a conservative Republican," he said. Just in case anyone missed it, he would repeat the line twice in the next 45 minutes. "I believe in less government, lower taxes and promoting family values."
De Weerd and Monks kept their "family values" comments limited to introductions of their relatives.
"I like Mayor de Weerd. I like this guy," said Monks, pointing to Sweet. "But if you think I'm going to support either of them, you're wrong. I believe that government is not there to create jobs or create businesses. It is there to clear obstacles, so that businesses can survive."
De Weerd countered by pointing to what she called her impressive jobs record.
"In eight years, we added 12,000 jobs," said the mayor. "Are we perfect? No. But we continue to build solid relationships between the city and businesses."
The forum was cordial and well behaved, at least among the candidates.
Republican Sen. Shirley McKague, representing Meridian's Legislative District 20, had to be shushed repeatedly through the event because of a louder-than-a-whisper commentary to her table mates. Strategically, McKague only talked as de Weerd was speaking. When Sweet spoke, she listened attentively and led the applause. McKague proudly sported a "Sweet for Mayor" button.
"I wish I could have been [at the forum], I honestly do," said Lisa Paternoster, a fourth mayoral candidate. "I told the organizers that I would definitely do my best to be there but I had an important family event."
Paternoster, 43, a marriage and family counselor with the Genesis Counseling and Psychological Center, told BW that she was still anxious to get her message out to Meridian voters in the final two weeks of the campaign.
"Hope is a precious commodity, and I know that may sound cheesy, but I want to give people hope," said Paternoster. "They need to hope that things are going to get better. Meridian needs more trust in its government right now, and I honestly haven't heard that as a focus from any other candidate."
Paternoster said she took pride in not being flashy or political.
"You know those people who show up in class but didn't study for the test, but they get by because they wing it? I've never been that girl. I'm analytical. I like to have all the information," she said. "I'm not a winger."
Randy Pew, a fifth contender, said his motivation to run for mayor was simple.
"I didn't want Tammy de Weerd to run unopposed."
Pew, 56, owner of Mountainaire Research and a seasonal soccer referee, told BW he's not an aggressive campaigner.
"I have a zero budget. You won't find any signs with my name on them," said Pew. "I'm not buying votes, basically."
Conceding that his chances of winning are slim, at best, Pew said he's not entirely opposed to endorsing another candidate.
"That's a distinct possibility," said Pew. "I spoke to Mr. Sweet, but, believe me, my campaign is not coming anywhere near in interrupting his campaign. He's spending an extensive amount of money.
"What's the chance of me endorsing someone else? Fair to medium. I'm thinking about it," said Pew.