MONTROSE – Incumbent Montrose County commissioners David White and Ron Henderson narrowly fought back challenges from within their own Republican Party in the June 23 primary election.
The unofficial margin in favor of both incumbents was less than 100 votes, an outcome that could portend a close election in November when the incumbents face off against Democratic challengers, Kjerston Davis versus White and Dennis Olmstead versus Henderson.
Or that’s how the Democrats see the races shaping up. Republicans, on the other hand, say the apparent division within the Republican Party in the primary was misleading.
Political observers from both parties attribute the close primary to supporters of a failed effort last year to recall the current commissioners – combined with a low voter turnout.
"We have people not satisfied with the county commissioners who wanted change, and they were the ones that voted," Montrose County Republican Chairman Dave Laursen said. "The biggest group is the hospital group, in my opinion. We know they got out and voted."
In August 2011, two Montrose Memorial Hospital employees launched a petition to recall all three of the county commissioners, charging them with general incompetence and specifically citing a county lawsuit against the hospital. The effort failed in October 2011, when the county clerk ruled that not enough valid signatures had been submitted.
"I think [the lawsuit with the hospital] is a contentious issue in the community," Henderson said in an interview with The Watch.
Although the recall effort failed, the legal dispute between the county and hospital board is ongoing.
In August 2011, the commissioners voted 2-1 to appeal a district court ruling that found that the hospital's board of trustees did not violate the law when creating a nonprofit organization, Montrose Memorial Hospital Inc., and leasing MMH to that new entity. The case has not yet been decided.
Many of those hospital trustees – including Patricia Dickinson, Don Gladwell, James Whitticom, Robb Ruyle, William Bennett, and longtime MMH attorney John Brooks – financially supported Republican challengers Ed Ulibarri and Jim Haugsness, according to filings with the Colorado Secretary of State.
In the primary election, only 42 percent of registered Montrose County Republicans cast votes for a candidate, a low number compared to 60 percent two years ago, Laursen said.
He suggested that Republicans who did not vote may have believed there were no issues important enough to drive them to the polls. Monrtose Democratic Party Chairwoman Jayne Bilberry said she thinks the low turnout and close election amounted to a "vote of protest" expressing dissatisfaction with the current commissioners.
Henderson said he'd attribute the 49.34 percent of votes that Ulibarri got and the 48.95 percent of votes that Haugsness got to the "strong telephone bank" of the recall leaders.
"I think they worked really hard on the recall list. That was their prerogative, to make sure those people got to the polls," he said.
"Obviously those who voted for Ed and Jim want change," Bilberry said. "We're hoping we can woo those people and open their minds to our candidates because there is obviously room for improvement in the BOCC."
Democratic candidate Davis said she hopes voters in November’s general election continue to consider the issues and not just their party affiliation.