In a regular campaign season, the four Republicans vying in Tuesday’s primary for the nomination to oppose incumbent Democrat Janet Thompson for Boone County’s Northern District commission seat would have spent a lot of time walking.
There would be parades, festivals and fairs. And door-to-door campaigning through the Columbia neighborhoods and rural communities.
This year, however, all of that changed because of COVID-19. There was no Centralia Anchor Festival, usually held Memorial Day weekend, or Boone County Fair, annually set for July.
And when they have attempted door-to-door campaigning, the candidates said in interviews last week, they have not been welcome. Some people have locked their gates, candidate Sam Boyce said.
"Nobody wants me on their porch," said Brenndan Riddles, who is making his second bid for the office. Riddles won the 2016 Republican primary with 62.7 percent of the vote.
"I knocked on every door in Hallsville, every door in Sturgeon and a bunch in Centralia, well more than half," Riddles said of his 2016 race.
Thompson, an attorney, is unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary as she seeks a third term in office.
The Republican primary for the Northern District seat on the Boone County Commission is the only contested local race for any of the five political parties certified to nominate candidates by primary. There are choices in the Republican and Democratic parties for governor and lieutenant governor, a Democratic primary for attorney general and Republican and Libertarian primaries in the Fourth Congressional District.
None of the contests has seen significant spending and no incumbent officeholders have seen major challengers emerge.
The Northern District contest is one where personal contact with voters can make a big difference in the outcome. In 2016, only 4,513 votes were cast in the Republican primary in the district, up from 3,889 in 2012.
With turnout uncertain, and many voters choosing absentee ballots, the four-way contest could be won with as few as 1,000 votes.
In interviews last week, all the candidates pledged to back the primary winner in the fall campaign.
To make up for the limits imposed by the pandemic, the candidates are using social media, and each has a Facebook page devoted to their campaigns.
It is a different kind of campaign, said candidate Tristan Asbury, who got his political schooling working to help his father, former state Rep. Randy Asbury, in elections for the Missouri House and Senate.
Asbury has raised the most of the four candidates – $10,065 – including a $4,000 loan from himself. He is the only one who also has a campaign website in addition to social media accounts.
The most difficult part of campaigning through the internet is the loss of subtle clues to personality that occurs in person, he said.
"We are doing our best to put a face with a name right now but no two conversations are the same," he said. "So, unless you can stand in front of that person and respond to them, directly to the question asked, it's tough."
Jim Musgraves, a retired Navy officer, said he’s been working to expand his reach on Facebook and "it has made it more of a challenge whether you have ran before or if it is your first time around. A campaign like this is better for younger folks who lean on social media more than people in their 50s like myself."
The Northern District, officially Associate Commission District 2, includes the towns of Harrisburg, Sturgeon, Hallsville and Centralia as well as much of the eastern half of Columbia.
West of Highway 63 to the north of Columbia, the boundary is a line extending from Prathersville to Howard County. The line turns south and within Columbia, it runs along Range Line Street north of Interstate 70, and, except for a small section, Providence Road to the south of I-70.
The boundary turns east at Rock Bridge Elementary School and continues almost unchanged to the Callaway County line.
Riddles, first on the ballot Tuesday, is an electrician who cites his experience in construction projects as a plus for the commission.
In the 2016 general election, Riddles received 46.9 percent of the vote against Thompson. He’s running again, he said during a public event in Harrisburg last week, to support infrastructure and law enforcement.
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Musgraves, who is next on the ballot, retired from the Navy in 2019 after a 31-year military career, including four years as associate professor of naval science at the University of Missouri.
While in the Navy, he said in Harrisburg, he rose from an enlisted rank to an officer. It gave him the leadership experience needed in the organization of county resources, he said.
"I learned how to successfully build teams, large team and small teams, and I learned deploy them successfully in a variety of different environments," he said.
Boyce, a developer, property manager and farmer, is third on the ballot and making his first bid for office. He said in Harrisburg that his background in business and rural life will guide his priorities.
The smaller communities in the district don’t get the attention of the commission, he said.
"They don’t get the support, the money support or anything else that they need," he said.
Asbury filed last and will be the final candidate on the ballot. He’s the communications director for the Missouri Association of Realtors and said he has the understanding of development to help propel the growth of the county.
In a questionnaire for the Boone County Republican Party, Asbury wrote that the commissioner should be someone who "not only understands how to communicate with the public, but market the assets our county has to offer."
To make up for the lack of public events, Boone County GOP Chairman Mike Zweifel organized a handful of joint appearances for the candidates, with varied results. Only a couple of people who were not connected to candidates or the media attended an event Tuesday in Harrisburg.
As each candidate gave their personal pitch, they also found a common theme: whether the commission is transparent enough in its actions.
The three-member commission is the administrative body of the county, approving the county budget each year, managing departments not assigned to other elected officials and considering applications for developments that need zoning changes.
It has no authority other than through the budget over the operations of other elected officials. The budget itself is managed and written, under authority through state law, by County Auditor June Pitchford, with commissioners amending and approving the document.
For Musgraves, the lack of public knowledge of those functions — and the limited powers commissioners possess in policy areas — is a major part of the problem.
The commission cannot, for example, write an ordinance mandating rental inspections such as those regularly conducted by Columbia.
The one area residents could cite as a county commission responsibility is roads. "And they are not happy with the roads," he said in an interview.
A remedy, he said, would be to conduct regular town-hall meetings through the district, taking questions from whoever shows up. He praised state Reps. Cheri Reisch, R-Hallsville, and Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, for conducting meetings about legislative business.
The meetings would be after regular work hours, he said.
"People can't go and sit in on meetings during the day when they are working," he said. "It is my job to bring issues to them or hear from them."
The transparency issue for Asbury is about whether voters can trust Thompson and Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill, both Democrats, to include Southern District Commissioner Fred Parry, a Republican, in decisions.
In early May, when there had been few new COVID-19 cases in Boone County for several weeks, the county was in the first phase of reopening after the stay-at-home order issued March 24. Some business owners were pushing for a faster loosening, with support from Parry.
A meeting of the county’s elected officials with Atwill and Thompson, with Parry not invited, was canceled minutes in advance of its start time after the Tribune questioned how it met the requirements of the Sunshine Law for public notice.
"To try to hold secret meetings makes every Boone County taxpayer question their government," Asbury said. "Transparency leads to accountability."
The underlying issue, the health orders and how they were written, also needed more openness, Asbury said.
Columbia-Boone County Health Director Stephanie Browning has stated she consulted medical providers, business leaders and other government officials in writing the orders. Some of those discussions could have been done in a public manner so people understood how issues of economic viability were balanced with health concerns, Asbury said.
"There is confusion, and it is unfortunate, but there could have been a better job done on it," he said.
Boyce also said the attempt to meet while excluding Parry is an example of the need for greater transparency. He also said his opponents need to practice transparency with voters.
The Republican Party questionnaire asked each candidate for a statement about whether windmills for energy production should be approved for an area near Harrisburg.
Boyce is the only one who took a firm stand — he opposes the idea — and noted in an interview that only one other candidate, Musgraves, addressed it at all. Musgraves wrote in his answer that he is concerned about noise and other issues but remained open to the proposal.
Transparency begins in the campaign, Boyce said.
"Give a firm answer, putting politics aside, and whether you are going to help yourself or hurt yourself shouldn’t matter," he said.