Political observers are debating the impact of an Ashland political action committee after two of the moderate candidates it promoted won City Council seats, while a third is in a contest that is too close to call.
The PAC, Ashland Residents for a Great City Council, endorsed incumbent Greg Lemhouse and newcomer Rich Rosenthal, both of whom won.
They also endorsed Jackie Agee, who is ahead of Councilor Carol Voisin by 13 votes, according to unofficial results from the Jackson County Elections Office.
County elections officials still have to deal with a few thousand ballots from throughout the county that have problems, such as signatures that don't match. Those ballots could prove significant in a race as close as the one between Voisin and Agee.
Official results won't be certified until Nov. 26, said County Clerk Chris Walker.
At that time, if Voisin and Agee are still separated by one-fifth of 1 percent or less of votes cast, an automatic recount would be triggered, Walker said.
Recount results would possibly not be known until the first week of December, Walker said.
Agee said that during the campaign, some people told her that material put out by the PAC against Voisin, her opponent, had been informative.
Agee said the PAC may have helped her campaign, but she said that people who were put off by the PAC's tactics probably didn't tell her of their feelings.
The PAC has a history over several election cycles of targeting the most liberal council members, and Voisin is viewed as the most liberal member of the current council.
The PAC supports candidates it says are non-ideological and can get along with others.
"The fact that it's this close with an incumbent, when it was such a long shot for me, tells me that maybe the PAC had an impact," Agee said.
Voisin said she is hopeful that she can eventually hold on to her seat, because as the county processed more ballots earlier this week, Agee's early election-night lead shrank.
Like several candidates from all sides, Voisin said the PAC may have turned off voters and caused large numbers to not mark their ballots for council candidates.
For the three council races, an average of 2,240 voters did not mark a choice, according to ballot counts so far.
In contrast, the under-vote for the contest between incumbent Mayor John Stromberg, former Mayor Alan DeBoer and political newcomer Keith Erickson so far is 965 non-votes.
However, the under-vote on council races wasn't significantly different than in past election years, and Stromberg and DeBoer have high name-recognition.
For contested council races, there were 2,316 under-votes in 2004, 2,465 in 2008 and 1,660 in 2010, according to county voting data.
Data was not available for 2006.
Political campaign strategist Cathy Shaw, a former mayor of Ashland, said she believes the PAC harmed the candidates it endorsed.
Shaw worked on a number of campaigns this election season, including those for PAC-backed Rosenthal and Lemhouse.
Shaw said she was confident that Lemhouse would win against challenger Keith Haxton, a homeless community organizer, and "I felt it ultimately was hurting Rosenthal," Shaw added. "It was upsetting."
Shaw said Rosenthal, an Ashland Parks and Recreation Commissioner, was in for tough contest with Regina Ayars, a Homelessness Steering Committee and Housing Commission member who was attacked by the PAC.
Attorney Bruce Harrell was also in that three-way race to replace moderate Councilor Russ Silbiger, who didn't seek re-election, but Harrell wasn't targeted by the PAC.
Shaw said she welcomes competition in races and an airing of views, but doesn't like the PAC's tactics.
"I don't think that sort of thing has a place in Ashland, especially when you consider the quality of candidates on both sides," she said.
Despite her criticisms of the PAC, Shaw shares its belief that moderates are best for the council and for America.
She said Ashland, on the whole, has a left-leaning, moderate political climate, and most sitting councilors and projected incoming councilors fit that description.
"Once we had more moderate individuals join the council, like Greg Lemhouse and Dennis Slattery, we were able to get far more done on the left," Shaw said.
Slattery, a professor at Southern Oregon University and husband to the executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, has ties throughout the community. He was elected in 2010.
Shaw pointed to the council's recent decision to allocate up to $100,000 over two years to support an all-ages homelessness resource center in town as an example of progress on a traditionally left-wing issue.
Lemhouse and Slattery led that effort, while Voisin raised the most objections.
Voisin has said she favors two separate homelessness centers for youths and adults because of safety concerns.
PAC founder Bill Heimann said he doesn't know yet whether his PAC will be active in coming election cycles.
He said he stands by the group's efforts to back non-ideological candidates and said many actually lean to the left.
"People need to have an ability to hear the other side," Heimann said. "When you get people on the extreme right or left, they lose their ability to hear the other side. They believe in their ideology so vehemently."
He said the PAC succeeded in getting people to discuss key issues facing Ashland.
"It generated conversation," Heimann said.
Stromberg, who was re-elected as mayor, according to unofficial results, said if a solid moderate block does take over the council, he believes there will still be lively debate and discussion of issues.
Stromberg, who leans left, has more than 20 years of experience in organizational and management consulting, specializing in helping groups work together effectively.
He said the current moderates on council already act quite independently.
"Groups have a tendency to create differences and have different points of view relative to each other," Stromberg said. "People tend to do that instinctively."
Conflict and tension are just part of working together as a community, he said, and groups often have their most creative moments when they have differences.
"I have a lot of faith in this community that we will work through these things," Stromberg said. "Give the new council a chance."
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.