Jim’s Political Notebook: Election’s outcome proves the rarity of a ‘sure thing’

Nelson County Gazette

Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022 — The dust is finally starting to settle and life for us political junkies is returning to normal in the wake of Tuesday’s local election.

I don’t like the term red or blue “wave” to describe the outcome of an election. But there really was no better term to describe Tuesday’s Nelson County election results other than a “red wave.”

Why is “red wave” an appropriate description for a local election? For starters, Nelson County Republican candidates on Tuesday won EVERY race they were in — and produced some monumental upsets that stunned members of both political parties.

It’s pretty much a political truth that a well-liked incumbent is nearly impossible to beat. Its just really difficult to defeat someone who has been in office and serving for decades — or so goes the common line of thinking. Tuesday’s election showed that in some circumstances, being a well-liked incumbent just didn’t really matter.

CORONER. On Tuesday, Danielle Chladek — who has run several times in the past against Coroner Field Houghlin — won over Houghlin by 768 votes. Houghlin has been either county coroner or deputy coroner for four decades. In race for county coroner, there had been no real driving issues this election cycle to attract voter attention or to blemish the qualifications of either candidate.

To her credit, Danielle campaigned on the strength of her education, experience and desire to serve as coroner.

D2 MAGISTRATE. Another outcome I consider an upset is in the District 2 magistrate’s race, with challenger Adam Wheatley outpacing incumbent Magistrate Gary Coulter by 558 votes.

I personally think this race was decided by the popularity of the candidates. Both men have been successful in business, Coulter as former owner of Coulter’s Towing, and Wheatley in his work through Farm Bureau insurance.

While Coulter has only served one term as magistrate, he’s been a responsive magistrate who has taken care of the needs of his district as well as that of county overall. Wheatley, with his ag experience, will serve as a much-needed voice for agriculture on fiscal court.

PVA. A third outcome that surprised many was Jason “Jay” Williams’ win over PVA Tracey Bonzo.

Bonzo has been PVA since earlier this year, and has worked in the office 17 years. Williams, who has a background in real estate, has never worked in a PVA office.

Williams topped Bonzo in Tuesday’s election by a substantial 2,268 votes, which is a pretty impressive win. Williams, with the catchy “Vote Jay for PVA” catchphrase, was out early with advertising. He also cast national politics into the race. Among his campaign promises was his promise of fairness and accuracy as PVA.

NC JUDGE EXEC. In what is undoubtedly one of the most expensive races in Nelson County history, Republican Tim Hutchins topped Democrat Eric Shelburne by 2,333 votes. Both men invested heavily in advertising and local media to get out their messages.

Hutchins took heat from local Democrats for bringing national issues into the judge-executive race. But there’s no denying the fact that national issues like record inflation, abortion, and other social issues aren’t topics a judge executive can change, but those same issues are indicators of a candidate’s character — and the sins of a political party can taint the candidates, even on a local level.

NC JAILER. The Republican who won by the widest margin was Justin Hall in his win to be the next Nelson County Jailer. Hall won the race against Democrat Stephen Campbell by a margin of 6,348 votes.

And from what I observed, Hall earned all of those votes the old-fashioned way — he asked for them. He and his campaign team canvassed the county, attended every public event, and worked hard day-in and day-out. He placed what looked like hundreds of signs of all sizes, including one the size of a tractor-trailer rig.

STRAIGHT TICKET. One factor that apparently helped pushed Republicans to victory in so many races was the fact that 4,595 Republicans in Nelson County were straight-ticket voters.

While I don’t vote straight-ticket as a rule, I think one reason so many did in this election was this was one of the first elections we had a large field of Republican candidates.

It wasn’t too many years ago that all the local races, from jailer to judge-executive, were all decided in the county’s Democratic primary. And for good reason — there was seldom a Republican candidate to oppose them in the General election.

One of the sacrifices I made when I became a Republican was knowing that there would be local elections that would be decided in the Democratic primary, leaving me without a voice — or vote — in the process.

Since then, however, the number of Republican candidates has steadily increased in Nelson County, which led to a record number who filed this election season.

In closing, its important that all of us voters and political wonks let our candidates — both those who won and those who did not — know how we appreciate the work and time they sacrificed to campaign and pursue elective office. We need to encourage up-and-coming generations to get involved in the local democratic process and take an interest in politics and public service through elective office.

And it goes without saying that our elections would not be possible without the many precinct volunteers we have who staff the polling locations, as well as the fantastic staff of Nelson County Clerk Jeanette Hall Sidebottom.

AND JUST ONE MORE THING … I’ve watched newly elected politicians make mistakes during my three decades as a journalist. One piece of advice to the winners of Tuesday’s election is to keep the experienced staff you have with you — even if one of those staffers ran against you. That person’s experience cannot be replaced and is worth any awkwardness you may feel about hiring the person you just defeated.

Surround yourself with individuals with experience and skill. Let them help you learn about the office you’ve won, and keep an open mind. Good luck!


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