The Washington County Commission elected Suzy Williams to replace recently-resigned Katie Baker as the second of three commissioners from its fourth district Monday evening. The resignations of Baker and David Tomita during this term (Tomita left when he became mayor of Johnson City) mean the voters of the fourth district elected only one of their three commissioners, Lee Chase.
To call Williams’ victory a surprise would be an understatement. “I didn’t even know I was going to be running until about four days ago,” she told reporters. “I’ve been active in Republican Women and they all stepped up and said, “We need a candidate. I was horrified, but am glad I came through.”
The Republican women knew two things. There would likely be a backlash of some sort at the polls next year if the commission finished its term with zero female commissioners (Baker had been the only one). Jodi Jones was also in the running and is a progressive-minded professor from the Tree Streets neighborhood. She led the South Side Neighborhood Organization against the proposed sale of the General Mills property to an apartment developer a couple of years ago.
Generally, when a commissioner is forced to step down by family circumstances, as Baker said was the case, his or her recommendation for a replacement is given some weight. This is not always the case. Baker supported Jones, and Jones more clearly aligned with Baker’s own sensibilities than did the other three candidates. Jones then, by definition, was a closer fit to what the district’s own voters voted for when they elected Baker. As chair of the Health, Education and Welfare Committee, Baker oversaw an attempt to make the city and county school systems work together that was doomed before she ever got it going. The support she thought she’d have from several quarters never showed up.
What was surprising was the inclusion in the race for Baker’s seat of Williams and Tracy Teal. Jones and Josh Culbert had publicly announced their intent to seek Baker’s seat. Teal, backed by the old Ferguson/Rutherford machine, ran a campaign targeted directly to the commissioners. Rather than reach out to voters in the district (why should he? They didn’t get to vote in this election.), Teal’s supporters ran a phone campaign targeted at key commissioners. One told me he’d had 50 calls for Teal and none for any of the other candidates.
And while Culbert had the support of the budget-oriented commissioners, the addition of Williams to the ballot took support from both him and Jones, who would likely have gotten some votes by virtue of having been the only woman in the field had Williams not run.
A few things became clear by the time Williams raised her hand to take the oath of office.
Jones will need to be voted in by the citizens of her district if she is ever to sit on the commission. This was her second unsuccessful run for an unexpired term.
Jones ran on her knowledge of issues facing the commission, Teal emphasized his faith. Culbert emphasized his financial acumen and youth. Williams admitted she had not planned to run till less than a week before. None of that mattered.
The Rutherford-Ferguson group continues to do its best to climb back to relevance.
Culbert will be back. He’s bright, well-thought-of, and will be well-funded.
Williams’ only pointed comment of the night was that she would not use the seat as a political stepping stone to future opportunities in the political arena. Two of the five Johnson City commissioners may exchange glances (or texts) upon hearing that.
Williams will likely be a solid commissioner. She has years of experience on the Johnson City School Board, the Mountain States Foundation and on boards of community organizations including the Johnson City Symphony. The board was fortunate, as Commissioner Larry England said, to have had four good candidates from which to choose.