Ada's Dem turn

Ada County shifts Democratic while statewide Dems struggle

by and

Idaho's most populated county may be feeling the influx of new residents, as voters turned toward progressive candidates and issues in the 2006 election. While Ada County seems poised to pick up a Democratic sheen, statewide candidates from that party struggled as BW went to press.

Tuesday's election reinstated an old face in local politics and added fresh blood to the Ada County Commission, which came under scrutiny during the campaign season for closed meetings and the inability to collaborate with city governments.

As of 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Democrat Paul Woods held a comfortable lead over Republican Steve Kimball and former Ada County Commissioner, Independent Sharon Ullman. Woods looked set to join incumbent Commissioner Fred Tilman, who was in position to reclaim the commission seat he has held since 2003, when then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne appointed him to the position.

"I feel like we ran a great county-wide, grassroots campaign," Woods said on Tuesday night. Chief among the issues he'll face is growth in Ada County.

"Because we haven't managed it well, we're living in this unpredictable (state) and unpredictability isn't an asset," Woods said. "There are so many issues that are facing the county and it will be interesting come January to see what those issues are."

Republican Fred Tilman looks to bring 13 years of experience as a state legislator to the table and some incumbent baggage commission contenders used as campaign fodder. Commission hopefuls called for a more open and accessible county government. Tilman's opponent, Democrat Al Ames, called for massive restructuring of the three-person commission. Ames' campaign centered on his plans to turn the commission into a county board, with seven part-time members led by an appointed manager. He also pushed for combining the Ada County Highway District with the Commission. But as of early Wednesday, Ames' ideas appeared too radical for Ada County voters.

"Judy Peavey-Derr had been calling all the shots and the other two just went along," Ames said of the commissioner who had been ousted in the Republican primary in June.

Some pundits called the vote of no confidence a vote of dissent against the whole Commission. That vote gave Kimball, who admittedly did little campaigning and even less fund-raising, the opportunity to vie for the open seat. Kimball's guy-next-door campaign style and single-issue platform helped turn his opponents, who offered comprehensive plans for Ada County's future, into commanding challengers.

"I ran to make a statement. You can't double my property taxes every five years," Kimball said during the campaign. "I don't know how to solve everything. I just put my name in the hat and said, 'Hey, give me a chance,'"

The Kimball campaign helped elevate Woods, from a potential underdog facing commission veteran Ullman, into a formidable force that Boise State political analyst John Freemuth said could tip the scales in Ada County politics.

Woods, who gained bi-partisan support from powerful politicos such as Boise City Council member Vern Bisterfeldt and former Governor Cecil Andrus, gained some notoriety as the city's Foothills land acquisition director. His supporters said he entered the race with an already established group of supporters who shared in his efforts to keep open spaces on the Boise map. The Woods campaign push for other quality of life issues such as housing options, a clean environment and regional transportation.

His campaign turned into a forceful yet amicable challenge to Ullman, who sat on the commission between 2001 and 2003. Her campaign echoed the concerns of many voters by calling for lower property taxes, managed growth, improved public health and safety and open government. The current commission is currently in the middle of a lawsuit, which commissioners have said they'll bring to the state Supreme Court, to defend a closed meeting they held last year.

"It's all resolved quietly," Ullman said of commission decisions. "Then the united front is brought to the public."

Ullman saw the campaign as an opportunity to inject accountability into the commission, regardless of the winner. "There were many discussions about the issues, many candidate forums, many interviews and media coverage. That's good because that creates accountability for the commissioners."

Tilman said among his first order of business is finding a place for people facing drug addictions to sober up and detox. The commission had faced criticism for not working cooperatively with local government, but Tilman said he'd like to unite the resources of the state, county and cities to make a detox center a reality. He said he'll also aim to collaborate with the newest commission line-up.

"I can work with anybody as long as they can meet me half-way," he said.

As of press time, local Democrats also looked to make an impressive showing in several key legislative districts. The apparent upset of the evening came from Democrat Sue Chew, who held a very comfortable lead over two-term Senate incumbent Republican Janet Miller in district 17, seat B. In House district 16, seat B, Democrat and former executive director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center Les Bock also held a stable lead of around 3,000 votes over incumbent Jana Kemp. In the Bench's Senate seat, Democratic incumbent Elliot Werk was delivering a beat-down to Republican challenger Tim Flaherty. He attributed the local successes of Democrats to a changing voter demographic.

"Ada County and Boise have become increasingly urban," Werk said. "Democrats are very attuned to urban issues."

The impending losses of moderate Republicans such as Kemp, who are known for their willingness to work on progressive issues from within the majority party, did not faze Werk.

"Most things in the legislature aren't partisan in any way, shape or form," he said. "There are plenty of Republicans who can't get anything done. Bill Sali is a good example of that."

Despite these local victories, though, it wasn't all good vibes around the Democratic headquarters. When The Associated Press called the Idaho governor's race for Republican Butch Otter over Democrat Jerry Brady, the crowd at the Owyhee Plaza let out an audible groan. State Democratic Party chairman Richard Stallings took the podium to speak as campaign staffers raced to turn down the blaring televisions broadcasting a cheerful scene from the Republican headquarters at the Doubletree Hotel Riverside.

To a party that had made a strong showing nationally, taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and locally, even if not in statewide races it was nothing short of a downer.

"There will be no concession speeches," Stallings said.

As of press time, several statewide and local races were still too close to call. For up to the second election results, visit the Idaho Secretary of State's Web site at