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Surkamp mulls write-in run

By Staff | May 21, 2010

Incumbent Jim Surkamp says he’s considering running a write-in campaign in the 2010 general election to hold onto his seat on the Jefferson County Commission, but he wants to hear from his supporters before he makes a decision.

If Surkamp decides to proceed with a write-in campaign, he would face Democrat Paul Taylor and Republican Walt Pellish. Taylor defeated Surkamp and fellow Democratic hopeful Ruth McQuade in last week’s primary election to win the Democratic nomination for the Shepherdstown District County Commission seat which Surkamp currently holds. Taylor led Surkamp by more than 300 votes, collecting 1,283 votes to Surkamp’s 927 votes and McQuade’s 922 votes.

The idea to run as a write-in candidate comes out of what Surkamp terms as “frustration, disappointment and outrage” expressed by his supporters over his primary loss. Surkamp says that he’s trying to fashion a response to the feedback he’s getting, but admits that the prospect of running a write-in campaign (and winning) is a daunting task.

“I have been trying to gauge how much support there is for me to continue,” said Surkamp in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “It all depends on if people really want me to.”

Looking back on his loss, Surkamp says that voters were unaware of the policy differences between himself and the other candidates. “It will become very, very clear that the views of the other two candidates are very, very different than those of Mr. Surkamp, something which was not brought out in the primary,” said Surkamp by phone. “I am convinced that the public did not have a clear idea of the positions of the County Commission candidates.”

In an e-mail sent to the Chronicle early Tuesday morning, Surkamp said that without his voice the County Commission would be unduly influenced by the interests of housing developers and the gambling industry.

“I am quite certain we would see our County go into a six-year-or-more tailspin of down-zoning, de-zoning, and a gutted and destroyed impact fee program that has brought the schools $10 million. Expect table games in every hotel. Jefferson County will no longer be our home place to retire in or raise our children in but an uneasy money pie that would be carved up under our feet,” Surkamp wrote in the e-mail.

Could he win?

Write-in campaigns are notoriously unsuccessful. Naturally, this causes some consternation for Surkamp as he ponders a general election write-in campaign, he said. Surkamp is also keenly aware of an apparent north-south split in opinion among voters of Jefferson County. He took the dominant share of the votes in the five precincts which make up the Shepherdstown District, yet he fared much worse in the rest of Jefferson County. There, Taylor took in 876 votes for nearly 46 percent of voters outside of the Shepherdstown District. Though the County Commissioners are tied to individual districts, they are elected by the entire county.

Surkamp says he can overcome his weak numbers outside of Shepherdstown by zeroing in on policy differences between himself and his opponents. “The whole focus must remain not on who this person or that person is, but how well served are the people of Jefferson County,” said Surkamp during the interview. “It shouldn’t be personality driven.”

Another factor which gives Surkamp pause is the voter turnout in last weeks primary, which he said was low. “Everybody is mystified at the low voter turnout,” said Surkamp. Out of over 34,100 registered voters in Jefferson County, only 13 percent of voters, roughly 4,680, cast ballots in last Tuesday’s primary election. Voters in the five precincts which make up the Shepherdstown County Commission District were among the most active, accounting for five of the top six precincts in Jefferson County in terms of voter turnout.

In his favor, Surkamp says that he has received a lot of positive feedback from disappointed Democratic supporters as well as fiscally conservative Republicans who were unable to cast a vote for him in the primary. He reports that many local Republicans are attracted to his penny-pinching policies and were disappointed to learn of his ouster in the primary. He counts these conservatives among his electoral allies should he proceed with a write-in campaign.

Additionally, Surkamp still holds a sizable amount of money is his campaign funds, telling the Chronicle that there was still over $1,600 in his war chest should he decide to run a write-in general election campaign.

Surkamp first investigated running as an independent. But state election law does not allow candidates who have appeared on a primary ballot to change affiliation to run in the general election. If a candidate loses a primary election, the only option is to file as a write-in candidate. Write-in candidates are subject to the same campaign finance laws and regulations as ballot candidates, but their names will not appear on the ballot. Staff at the County Clerk’s office said that past write-in candidates have distributed stickers bearing the name of the candidate to be affixed to a ballot to indicate a vote.

Surkamp, Dems eye growing movement

On the same day that Surkamp told the Chronicle he was still mulling a write-in campaign, Surkamp aligned himself with two new organizations on Facebook, joining the Campaign to Write-in Jim Surkamp for County Commissioner and affiliating with another group, the Independent Voters of Jefferson County.

The Campaign to Write-In Jim Surkamp For County Commissioner was created by Blue Ridge Mountain resident Jami Cashell Hadden and currently boasts 32 members. In a comment on the page Hadden says of her support for Surkamp that “If the mountain loses Jim, we lose our voice.” Another supporter, Jefferson County resident Steven Douglas, writes that “Jim is a victim of the current nationwide distrust of elected officials starting top-down.”

The Independent Voters of Jefferson County Facebook group is small, claiming only two members as of Tuesday evening, Douglas, the group creator, and Surkamp. It is inspired by the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, or IVI-IPO, and could provide a preview of the organizational activities which a write-in Surkamp campaign could employ.

Founded in 1944, the IVI-IPO describes itself as a “multi-partisan” organization which supports candidates through “voter registration, voter information services, and candidate endorsements” with a goal of fostering social justice issues by “increasing voter participation and knowledge.”

Local Democratic leaders are cautiously eying these developments, fearful that disaffected Surkamp supporters could draw votes from Taylor’s campaign, opening up the seat to Republican Walt Pellish. The fear is made all the more palpable by the fact that, despite his primary victory, nearly 60 percent of county Democrats who voted in the May 11 primary election essentially voted against Taylor.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday evening, Jefferson County Democratic Party Chairwoman Reva Mickey of Kabletown questioned Surkamp’s loyalty to the Democratic party, saying “the Democrats have spoken as to who they feel their candidate should be in the november election, and it was Paul Taylor.”