Hillsborough voters took what opportunities they had Tuesday to move the county in a different direction. The apparent victory of Democrat Kevin Beckner over incumbent Republican Commissioner Brian Blair and the overwhelming support to extend an environmental lands-buying program mark a sharp rebuke to the commission's agenda and to the tone of governing its members have set.
Blair's undoing had less to do with any coattail effect of Barack Obama than the unforgiving nature of retail politics. He was lost in policy discussions and often openly dismissive of citizens who appeared before him. His almost unbridled prodevelopment agenda, ethical lapses and zest for denigrating non-Christians and gays tapped the anxiety voters had about his qualifications and temperament when they elected this former professional wrestler to office in 2004.
Beckner had ammunition — especially after Blair led the ill-fated attempt to gut the county's wetlands protections. But he also ran a tough campaign, and the political organization he massed could mobilize in support of his progressive agenda and for other Democrats. Eighty percent of voters supported reauthorizing the lands-buying program, despite the antitax mood and an effort by County Administrator Pat Bean to hold the referendum at a later date. Residents clearly want leadership, and they want their leaders to govern with an eye toward the future.
Blair was a caricature of the commission's excesses in waging social war and politicizing the county bureaucracy. His departure shifts the spotlight and forces Republican Commissioners Ken Hagan and Jim Norman to raise their games. Local Democrats still have no real power base, and Beckner will need to reach out to cobble a board majority on mass transit, ethics and other issues. But the opportunity is there, in part because local Republicans have started to see that ideology means little on most local issues. The party that devotes itself to solving everyday problems and giving residents a voice in their community will be the one that grows from Tuesday's election.