JOHNSON COUNTY– It wasn’t a landslide victory, but it might be considered a landmark one.
On Tuesday, March 5, Republican candidate John Etheredge won a seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, the first Republican to serve on that body in 51 years, since the term of Republican Oren Alt ended in 1962.
Etheredge, of rural Kalona, beat challenger Democratic candidate Terry Dahms by 193 votes, according to official results posted on the Johnson County Auditor’s website. Of the 91,686 registered voters in Johnson County, just 6,113 turned in ballots in the special election, or 6.67 percent. Etheredge received 51 percent of those votes, and Dahms 48 percent.Etheredge said he felt the race would be close.
“But I knew from the outset I had a chance,” said Etheredge. “I’m from Johnson County, and you never count the underdog out.”
Etheredge said his victory as the first Republican to be elected to the board in 55 years sends a message to the people of Johnson County.
“I think the message is that people voted for a new voice,’ said Etheredge. “They voted for the views that aligned with themselves. People like the idea of more freedoms, individual liberties, personal responsibility and personal property rights. That’s pretty much what I ran on.”
Dahms and Etheredge were nominated by their respective parties to run in the special election after a seat was left vacant by former supervisor Sally Stutsman, who served on the board for 18 years before being elected to the Iowa State House of Representatives in November. Etheredge will fulfill the remainder of Stutsman’s fifth term, which expires in December 2014.
Dahms, of rural Iowa City, said he was taken by surprise as the election results rolled in.
“And, of course, I was disappointed,” said Dahms, and he has heard the same reaction from fellow Democrats since the election.
“I am hearing, ‘I wish we would have done more, I didn’t expect this, it shouldn’t have happened,’” said Dahms. Given that registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in Johnson County two-to-one, the sparse voter turnout was likely a big factor, but Dahms speculated no further. “I don’t know that anybody has a real satisfactory explanation. We are a very Democratic county, but did we take it for granted? Democrats did not turn out to vote, and we’re not sure why.”
Dahms said his disappointment lies more in the fact that he won’t get to carry out the goals he had already set for himself if elected.
“I had a lot of plans,” he said. I’ve been working on some of these things already, primarily the justice center. I’ve been attending a lot of meetings, and I was hoping if I were elected, I would have a bully pulpit. I would be in better position to speak in favor of that.”
Dahms said he intends to continue to work on the justice center campaign, and will resume his position as chairman of the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission, on which he has served since 2008.
As for his opponent, Dahms said he expects Etheredge to work hard to catch up to the obligations of his new position. After sitting in on recent county budget meetings, and even given his previous exposure to government budgets and policies, “It’s a steep learning curve,” said Dahms.
Johnson County Republic chairperson Deb Thornton is confident in Etheredge’s abilities to take it on.
“I expect him to work proactively to establish connections with the other supervisors, and to work with make sure his ideas are heard, and that they consider his ideas and approaches,” said Thornton.
Etheredge ran on a couple of main issues, she said, including opposing stringent zoning requirements and their effect on rural landowners, concerns about how county roads are maintained, and how land use and zoning issues impact roads and the rural community. He is a fiscal conservative, generally opposed to tax increases.
“John is very smart, he is a quick study. I expect him get up to speed very quickly and expect him to have a positive, moderating impact on some of the decisions the board has come down with,” Thornton said.
During his campaign, Etheredge also questioned the proposed new justice center. He isn’t against taking some measures to update facilities, he said, but not at the projected costs.
“I think people were more or less stunned by the price tag. It will raise what they owe to the government. People who voted against it aren’t just out to say no, but nobody wants their taxes to go up,” Etheredge said. While he thinks people are in favor of keeping the justice system up-to-date, the overall project cost is still $46.2 million, and the bond referendum that will come up for a vote in a special May 7 election is $43.5 million, down $3.3 million from November’s ask.
“That’s not real change from the $48.1 million that was proposed last time, so I think we do need to hear more. As a board we need to get out there and find out why this is…instead of just saying people didn’t know enough about it,” Etheredge said.
After 51 years of feeling underrepresented at the county level, Johnson County Republicans are elated about Etheredge’s victory.
“Because of the one-party dominance on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, a huge number of people have not been represented and have not had their views and opinions and considered in the actions of the board,” said Thornton. “So, not only Republicans, but independents and Democrats as well, are thrilled to have a new voice, to have someone who is not a party insider, with new thoughts and who is going to listen to everybody.”
And they aren’t the only ones who are happy to see Etheredge win, she said.
“People are very energized and excited, not just within Johnson County, but on a statewide basis as well, to see a personable smart, younger professional family man step up and put himself out there to be a leader and be a decision maker,” Thornton said. “The governor called him, Chuck Grassley called and was very happy he won. State (GOP) chairman A.J. Spiker was thrilled at making inroads in Johnson County. John was able to put together a coalition of not just Republican voters but independent and Democrat voters who were dissatisfied with the current board of supervisors. Their public behaviors has been unprofessional, and I think there are a lot of people who are dissatisfied with that.”
Post election, Dahms was equally dissatisfied with voter turnout, and he believes there is a message in it for Democrats as well.
“I think this will motivate the (Democratic) party to work really hard next time,” he said. That will likely be in November 2014, when the seat will be vacant again. Dahms said he has no plans at this time to run in that election.
For now, Etheredge is looking ahead just one day at a time, and reflecting back on the last two months.
“I want to thank everybody for helping out in my campaign,” he said. “To the people participating, donating their time, energy and finances to my campaign, and to the people getting out and voting during bad weather. I talked with one gentleman who plowed his neighbors’ driveways so they could get to the polls. It was a team effort, and definitely a team win.”