Democrats have struggled to find candidates to run for office in Grand Traverse County.
In recent elections, Democrats let most seats on the county Board of Commissioners go unchallenged.
And only one Democrat has won a county commission race in the last decade – former county and Traverse City Commissioner Ross Richardson.
But this November, Democrats will have a candidate in every single district.
The Democratic candidates come from a wide range of backgrounds.
Dr. Linda Pepper is a former veterinarian and a retired school principal.
“I think of myself as a problem solver,” Pepper says. “That’s what I certainly did all the time as a high school and middle school principal.”
Pepper moved to Grawn in 2014 after living in the Upper Peninsula and Colorado. She’s challenging incumbent Republican Ron Clous in District 5.
Pepper says she never would have imagined running for the county commission two years ago.
“But the world has changed in the last two years, and I am ready to meet the challenges that are coming at us,” Pepper says.
Pepper says she wants to find local solutions to the opioid epidemic, and wants to tackle the county’s unfunded pension debt.
Betsy Coffia, an experienced campaigner who ran for the state House three times, is running in District 1. That district includes the entire Old Mission Peninsula and the northeast end of Traverse City.
The slate for the county board also includes an accountant, an emergency room doctor and an energy consultant, among others.
Renewed focus on local elections
Chris Cracchiolo is the chair of the Grand Traverse County Democratic Party. He works out of the party’s headquarters in a lower-level office in downtown Traverse City.
Cracchiolo took over the position last January, months after Democrats were walloped nationwide in the 2016 election.
A year ago, he told IPR that the party had a renewed focus on local elections and attracting local candidates.
And on Tuesday, which was the filing deadline for most candidates to get on the ballot, Cracchiolo said Democrats were making history.
“We’re not aware that there have been seven Democrats on the ballot in Grand Traverse County before,” Cracchiolo says. “The real significance to us is we want to give the voters of Grand Traverse County choices.”
Cracchiolo says people have given up on local races in the past because they feel they’re hopeless for Democrats. And that has made it difficult to attract candidates.
But Cracchiolo says local Democrats are energized in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump. The party spent months inviting hundreds of local Democrats to consider running for office.
“What we’re trying to do is change the culture, that yes there’s Democrats here and Democrats do want to run for office – and they can win races, too,” says Cracchiolo.
Can Dems win?
Traverse City attorney Grant Parsons is a longtime Democrat. He was a leader in the local party in the 2000s.
Parsons says Democrats across the country are expected to do well in the midterm election this year.
“There’s an aura about this election,” Parsons says. “Everybody is … waiting to see, is this miraculous Trump backlash and the amalgamation of all these social protests and movements going to produce results?”
Parsons says it’s a good sign that local Democrats have a full slate of county commission candidates. But Republicans have a natural advantage in Grand Traverse County because there are more of them.
Parsons says Democrats need to find a way to beat a highly-organized and well-financed GOP.
“The question is, are they just going to run candidates?” says Parsons. “Or do they have the infrastructure now and a message to really attract voters?”
Repubs face primary opponents
On the Republican side, five incumbent commissioners are running for re-election, including Dan Lathrop in District 1, Cheryl Gore Follette in District 3 and Carol Crawford in District 6.
Lathrop, Follette and Crawford each have primary challengers.
John Roth is the chair of the Grand Traverse County Republican Party. He says he’s not surprised about the competition this year.
“I think we’ve got good candidates and I’m glad that the Democrats filled up the spots on all the others,” Roth says. “We like the competition.”
Roth says voter turnout will be critical for Republicans this year. President Trump attracted new people to the Republican Party in 2016.
Roth says they need to get those voters out again, especially with a motivated Democratic Party.