On This Election Day: Votes for the Farmers and Against the State

By JULIA WELLS

They went to the polls in large numbers on a sparkling autumn day. They said they liked two farmers best for the Martha's Vineyard Commission. They said they were unhappy with the outside meddling of the state legislature and the city of New Bedford when it came to the Steamship Authority.

They got involved.

In Massachusetts and across the nation this week much was said and written about the mood of the electorate, as voters used the ballot box to turn the political world on its head. And when it was all over, conservatives rejoiced in their newfound power and liberals shook their heads in dismay.

But on the Vineyard voters went their own way, and if it mattered little when it came to bucking the state trend in the race for governor, it mattered much more when it came to voting on issues that were directly connected to the future of the Island.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission election offered a clear choice between seasoned incumbents and candidates who believed in the core mission of the commission, and a smaller handful of candidates who were pro-growth and far less supportive of the commission and its unique powers to regulate development.

Question 4 was something of a riddle, conceived in a back room and out of the public eye by former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire and a group of Vineyard selectmen who were allied with the New Bedford grab for control of the Steamship Authority. Understanding the genesis of the question was a key factor in the outcome of the vote, and people on both sides of the question worked hard to educate voters - or confuse them - depending on the point of view.

But in the end it was up to the voters to decide, and the results speak for themselves.

"Do I think there is a message? I do indeed. I think the voters said the all-Island selectmen's group is a nice group, but it's not going to speak for us. I think they also said, ‘We've got to be careful about what we do with our land, and we don't want angry people telling us what to do here,' " said Barbara Day, a West Tisbury resident who helped spearhead the first-ever political action committee on the Vineyard before the election this year.

"I think people were interested. There was a lot of buzz and people did feel some responsibility about these local issues. They were excited about an election that could excite them. I also think people were very concerned; they were concerned that the Vineyard would indeed disappear," she added.

"I think they delivered a message to George Leontire," said Richard Knabel, a West Tisbury resident who also worked on the political action committee. Mr. Knabel was referring to Question 4, the ballot initiative aimed at changing the way the Vineyard Steamship Authority governor is appointed.

"I don't have to say anything; the voters said it all. I think the voters were sending a message that they didn't want an outside community telling the Vineyard how it should choose. I also thought they were telling the selectmen that they are out of touch with the electorate," Mr. Knabel said.

He also commented on the commission election.

"There was no way to avoid concluding that the election for the Martha's Vineyard Commission was a bit of a referendum on golf courses, but I think the message from the Island was, they want a strong commission; they support what the commission has done and they want to put people on the commission with those values. I think it's encouraging - people were seeing the Island as a broad Island and not six small towns - and they want to see an Islandwide approach to managing development," he said.

The political action committee included an ample network of people who worked in every Island town before the election. A card was sent to postal patrons a few days before the election urging them to vote for a suggested slate of candidates for both the MVC and the county commission.

The committee now plans to turn its attention to the movement in the town of Oak Bluffs to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission amid the controversy over the Down Island Golf Club.

Mrs. Day said voter education is a crucial ingredient in any election, but especially in an election that involves as many candidates and as many issues as the one on the Vineyard this year.

"These elections are also very confusing and more needs to be done to get information to people about the candidates, because people need it," she said.

Mr. Knabel downplayed the work that he and Mrs. Day put into the committee. "I think we were able to be effective, but it wasn't just us. There were a lot of people involved. We had a steering committee of 10 people who went out and enlisted people in all the towns. It was a large effort and that was the only way it could succeed. We had support from Edgartown to Aquinnah," he said.