2014-11-06 / Front Page

Dems make gains

By Amy Hubbell of the Enterprise staff

As Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate and retained control of state government in Tuesday’s national election stage, it was Democrats who made history in Leelanau County.

For the first time, the county Board of Commissioners will include more than one Democrat.

Incumbent District 6 commissioner Peachy Rentenbach, who survived a challenge from former county board chairman Bob Hawley, is the current board’s lone Dem. She will be joined by two more Democratic Party members who topped incumbent Republicans.

Former Northport superintendent Tyrus Wessell ousted board chairman Tom Van Pelt for the District 4 seat; and Patricia Soutas-Little beat out Karen Zemaitis for the District 5 seat.

“I appreciate the large turnout of support,” Wessell said. “The outcome suggests that focusing on issues and knocking on doors makes a difference.”

Wessell garnered 54 percent of the votes in the district, which includes northern Suttons Bay Township and all of Leelanau Township, to Van Pelt’s 46 percent.

“I guess I’ll have more time for farming,” Van Pelt said, who was clearly disappointed in the election results.

A lifelong county resident and member of the Leelanau Township Fire Department, Van Pelt was considered by many as the front-runner in the campaign. However, Wessell’s well-organized and well-funded campaign pulled off the win.

“I’m pleased with what happened during my tenure at the county,” continued Van Pelt, who was first elected to the County Board in 2010. “I don’t have any agenda (for the remaining month or so in office). I’ll continue to do my job and take care of what needs to get done.”

Soutas-Little, who was edged by Zemaitis in 2012 by a mere 10 votes, topped the one-term incumbent with 54 percent of the votes cast in her favor. She held a 605-505 advantage after the outcome was released in Leland Township, and cemented the deal by prevailing in Centerville, 301-257.

Why were things different this time around?

“I think people got the opportunity to know me, my views and my vision,” Soutas-Little said. “I also think were a lot of people who see the county commissioner’s seat as non-partisan and crossed over to vote for me.”

The final tally was 906-762.

“I am very glad to have served the people of Leelanau County,” Zemaitis said. “I enjoyed getting to know the people I served with. I think years from now people will see this period of time as the ‘Golden Age’ of Leelanau County.”

Elsewhere in the county, it was close but no cigar for the Dems whose candidate, television weatherman Dave Barrons, fell to Republican incumbent Debra Rushton by just 70 votes, 802-732.

“I’m disappointed. I was really looking forward to doing the job,” Barrons said early yesterday morning. “But I deeply appreciate all the support I received.”

Like Wessell, Barrons’ campaign was also well funded. And Barrons also hit the streets, knocking on the doors of an estimated 700 residences in Suttons Bay and Bingham Townships.

District 6 commissioner Rentenbach had the largest margin of victory among board incumbents. She topped former board chairman Bob Hawley with 56 percent of the vote to Hawley.

The county’s longest-serving commissioner in District 7, Melinda Lautner, will be serving a ninth consecutive 2-year term.

Lautner edged Democrat challenger John O’Neill of Cedar by 54 votes, 712-658.

“People were amazed that I came so close,” O’Neill said Wednesday morning. “I wish it had been a little more amazing and I would have won.”

The campaign for the seat representing Kasson and Solon townships was a little more chippy than others with sharp words exchanged between members of each candidate’s camp.

However, O’Neill said he feels good about the effort put forth on his behalf.

“I had no idea it was going to be so intense,” he said. “I think I’ve grown six new layers of skin.

“We ran an honest, honorable, factbased campaign of which I’m proud.”

Despite the loss, O”Neill said he was encouraged at the prospect of having three Democrats on the County Board. Republican commissioners Jean Watkoski, (District 1) and Will Bunek (District 3), ran unopposed.

“It is my hope that more moderate policies will prevail,” O’Neill said.

Lautner was concerned about changes in County Board policy.

“It’s policy that concerns me. Some of the candidates came out with pretty liberal positions,” she said. “I hope we are able to keep the county in stable financial condition … It will be interesting to see what happens.”

Commissioner-elect Wessell is enthused.

“I look forward to the opportunity to work with the other six commissioners,” he said. “Diversity of ideas and philosophies will give us the opportunity to work together, learn from each other and reach final decisions based upon thorough discussion, civil debate and thoughtful decision-making.”

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