Trading expectations for reality in Linn County supervisor race

Seems like everyone is excited about the number of women up and down the ballot. But there is one hotly contested Linn County office where no female names appear.

The Gazette’s Editorial Board has been busy with candidate interviews, which are one part of our endorsement process. To date, we’ve sat down with candidates involved in nearly every contested regional race as well as the statewide races that will appear on local ballots, and have more scheduled in the coming days.

These are similar meetings to those we hold throughout the year with elected officials, advocacy groups and others except that they tend to be more diverse in their scope. We aren’t gathered to discuss a single issue or learn about a specific concern. There are some things that the paper has identified as topics of conversation, but there are also opportunities for candidates to discuss what they’re hearing while campaigning, areas where they hope to lead if elected and really anything else that might be on their minds.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors meeting room is shown in the Jean Oxley Public Service Center on Friday, July 8, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Linn County Board of Supervisors meeting room is shown in the Jean Oxley Public Service Center on Friday, July 8, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

It was as part of our conversations with candidates for Linn County Supervisor that I mentioned the absence of women seeking the office. In fact, once this election is complete, it will be the first time in 45 years — since Jean Oxley was elected in 1972 — that no woman will serve on the board. I asked each candidate what he would do to mitigate the loss of this long-standing female perspective.

It was one of those questions that was asked as much to draw awareness as it was for the answer, and I expected to receive some standard, boilerplate responses about how, if elected, the men would seek out diverse opinions or search for women or others from less-represented demographics to serve on task forces and commissions.

Perhaps my expectations were too high.

Candidate consensus seems to be that female perspective is a lost cause; something they generally lament, but otherwise don’t believe can be mitigated. Only one, Randy Ray, who is seeking the District 4 seat, directly answered, saying he would make sure women were included in an advisory group he plans to form.

Ben Rogers, a District 3 incumbent, noted that while a woman’s voice may be missing, the county has an opportunity to include the perspective of Stacey Walker, a black man seeking the District 2 seat. I believe his intention was to focus on what might be gained, rather than what was lost, but it came across wrong, as if women and other minorities were spare parts that could be traded or exchanged.

As for Walker, he held firm in the “lamenting” camp without offering a solution, but came the closest to identifying why such a perspective should be preserved.

District 3 candidate Tim Gull erupted with a litany of complaints against one past female board member. I asked for clarification since his assessment seemed to be that the board was better off without a woman, if this past female was any measure, but heard nothing to dissuade from his original assessment.

Brent Oleson, incumbent in District 4, made note of how many races this year include female candidates and how voters, when they reached the supervisors race, would “finally be forced to choose between two middle aged, white guys.” The female perspective was simply lost, he surmised, as part of a response that in my opinion smacked of mockery.

Due to a family crisis, our interview with District 2 candidate Adam Jensen was canceled and will hopefully be rescheduled at a later date.

But based on the responses of all other candidates, I believe Linn County women have their work cut out for them regardless of how the election ends in November. Policy and budget decisions involving outdoor recreation, elderly services, food safety, public health, incarceration, behavioral health care, transportation, indigent care and military veteran assistance are at stake, and shouldn’t be developed without seeking advice and input from all people who will be impacted.

That this group of intelligent and well-intentioned men couldn’t or wouldn’t directly speak to such a softball question on how they would seek the counsel of women when making county government decisions is troubling. At best, it signals that they’ve not considered the ramifications or pondered possible solutions. That could be because women have been a part of the process for nearly 50 years, or that the interim inclusion of Amy Johnson has postponed the inevitable.

Still, 51 percent of Linn County residents are female and deserve a seat at the strategic planning table.

Let’s start now to identify and promote thoughtful women for ad hoc and ex officio placements in county government. It’s a task that, thankfully, will be made easier by state gender equity law.

My hope is that the lack of female representation on the Board of Supervisors serves as a wake-up call, prompting Linn County women of all backgrounds to use their voices and be more involved. Based on what I’ve heard, our newly elected leaders are going to need the help.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on September 25, 2016. Photo credit: Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette