John Martin was a cop the last time an energy boom went bust in Garfield County. The Republican county commissioner who was re-elected by a scant 350-vote margin Tuesday says those were dark days in the 1980s, and he’s determined not to repeat them.
“I crushed a lot of families in that I served them the papers they were dreading to get,” Martin said. “I shut down businesses and boarded them up because they couldn’t pay their taxes or their mortgages, and I remember every one of their faces and I remember the heartache. You think I want that to happen with this energy boom? The answer is no, I definitely don’t.”
Running on a more pro-energy platform than his Democratic opponent, Martin was the reluctant recipient of an 11th-hour infusion of tens of thousands of dollars of attack ads paid for by 527 groups, some with ties to the oil and gas industry. And Martin says he was also the target of attack ads paid for by environmental groups.
“I don’t accept it, I don’t encourage it and I don’t condone that kind of negative stuff,” Martin said. “It’s by different organizations on both sides, and their interest is not in us as the candidates. The interest is on the control of the money flow; that’s where their real interest is.”
It was an unusually bitter election season in the Western Slope county that’s ground zero in Colorado’s latest energy boom — an eruption of natural-gas drilling that’s seen the number of wells jump by nearly 40 percent since 2000. The current boom has put tremendous pressure on the county’s infrastructure and deeply divided its electorate.
The county is mostly made up of unaffiliated voters (10,130), but Republicans (8,704) outnumber Democrats (7,144) by nearly 20 percent. Its three-member board of county commissioners has one lone Democrat, Tresi Houpt, and two Dems — Stephen Bershenyi and Steven Carter — were hoping to give their party a majority with at least one win Tuesday.
Carter, a Rifle attorney, lost to Republican Mike Samson, an administrator at Rifle High School, by just 668 votes. Bershenyi, a Glenwood Springs blacksmith, lost to Martin by 350 votes with just over 300 provisional ballots left to count Thursday.
The presidential race split exactly 11,223 apiece for Barack Obama and John McCain, and Bershenyi was dismayed that the energy on the Democratic side in a county that almost always backs Republicans for the White House didn’t trickle down the ballot to the commissioner races. He doesn’t totally blame the last-minute attack ads, although he is considering filing a complaint with the secretary of state’s office.
“If anything, it made a lot of the citizens who might have otherwise thought differently mad as hell,” Bershenyi said. “It was unheard of to have this kind of influence present in a county race, and we think they spent on the outside somewhere around $200,000, so you can’t meet those kinds of resources.”
Mostly, though, Bershenyi is disappointed he won’t able help regulate an industry that currently has nearly 5,000 active natural-gas wells in the county and is having an enormous environmental impact. He said the population is becoming polarized by the conflict between energy industry interests in the west and those who want to preserve the mountain environment in the east.
“If we don’t do something immediately to start solving some of these problems, especially with regard to air and water quality and dust control and all of the stuff around the gas activity in the west, my nightmare was that we were going to end up with two counties,” Bershenyi said. “One in the west that no one wanted to live in anymore and one in the eastern half of the county where no one could afford to live.”
Martin doesn’t see it that way. He said he tries to serve all the diverse constituencies in the county, from retirees in Battlement Mesa and Parachute to trust-funder ski bums in the eastern end to the oil and gas workers and coal miners in the west end. But mostly he said he’s looking out for middle-class jobs.
“What I say is we’re just absolutely diverse; we have all kinds of walks of lives, but is the biggest player there energy? Absolutely,” Martin said. “That’s why we have to take precautions and embrace that revenue source in a proper manner without selling our soul, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Other observers are less certain. Peter Runyon, a Democratic county commissioner from neighboring Eagle County who also narrowly won reelection Tuesday by just 516 votes, said Martin may be getting pulled in too many directions by too many interest groups.
“They’ve got a very complex thing [in Garfield County], and that may be one of John’s problems is he’s trying to serve too many masters, and at some point then you serve none,” Runyon said. “I like John Martin personally and consider him a friend, but I disagree with him politically, and I was disappointed that oil and gas money got involved in that whole political process.”
Eagle County is ski and real estate country, with very little mining or industry, and therefore much more like Pitkin County and Aspen to the south of Garfield County. Because of that, Runyon said, Eagle County attracts people from around the country with more moderate to liberal political views, and protecting public lands and the environment is now a top priority.
“My being elected four years ago on a smart-growth platform was probably the first time … prior to that everyone was on board with the concept that all growth was good without effort at putting value judgments on it,” Runyon said. “I was able to come in at the leading edge of that [movement].”
While Bershenyi laments the fact that nearly 1,200 voters in Garfield County weighed in on the presidential race without voting in the commissioner race, in Eagle County Obama clearly carried the day for local Democrats. Eagle County voters went blue in every single race from president on down to the two commissioner seats.
“There’s no question that the Obama factor helped, and it seems to me most people voted the whole ballot,” said Democratic committeewoman and Obama superdelegate Debbie Marquez of Edwards. “We certainly tried to get the word out about that [in Eagle County] and I know Garfield did the same. But it’s not unusual that a popular top of the ticket person will get votes that the down-ballot people won’t.”