Island Strongly Backs County Change Amid National Election Day Tremors

By IAN FEIN

Vineyard voters in the state election this week overwhelmingly said yes to a study of their county charter and swept two new members onto the Dukes County commission, but expressing a measured mandate for change, also returned two incumbents to the regional governing board.

The decisions came Tuesday during a watershed election nationwide, where Democrats regained control in U.S. Congress and in numerous state governments, including Massachusetts. Island voters joined their mainland counterparts in reelecting four Democratic lawmakers on both the state and federal levels, and in a historic landslide sent political newcomer Deval L. Patrick into the governor's office on Beacon Hill. Mr. Patrick became the first Democrat to hold the state's highest office since 1990, and only the second African-American governor in the history of the United States.

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"It was a good day for the country," said Cong. William Delahunt, who breezed to a sixth term representing the Tenth congressional district, which covers Cape Cod, the Islands and South Shore. In a three-way race, Congressman Delahunt earned 65 per cent approval districtwide, and more than 76 per cent on the Vineyard. "America is back," he said.

In perhaps the most closely-watched race on the Island, voters handed Joseph E. Sollitto Jr. of Chilmark a sixth six-year term as Dukes County clerk of the courts. A rare Republican incumbent on the Vineyard, Mr. Sollitto outpaced his Democratic opponent, Daniel James Larkosh of West Tisbury, with 63 per cent of the vote.

"It's nice to be appreciated," said Mr. Sollitto, who has served in the clerical post since 1976. "I may have been the only Republican in the United States that had opposition and was still re-elected," he joked.

Just over 7,600 Vineyard ballots were cast on Tuesday, representing about 62 per cent of the roughly 12,400 registered Island voters. The day was cool and overcast, though rain held off until after the polls closed. Island turnout was down slightly from the last state election two years ago, when 80 per cent of voters poured out for the presidential election.

The biggest election surprise on the Island was a citizen initiative that appeared on the Aquinnah ballot. The initiative, which would have permitted alcohol sales in the historically dry town and came as a total surprise to most people at the polls, fell short by just two votes, 101-103.

In many ways a referendum on Dukes County government, the state election ballot on the Vineyard presented voters with three decisions about the future of regional governance.

Almost three-fourths of county voters supported Question Four - which will create a charter study commission to analyze the present structure of county government and make recommendations for improvement. The initiative passed by a wide margin in every Vineyard town, but had only narrow support in Gosnold - which encompasses the Elizabeth Islands and is the seventh town of Dukes County.

Further reflecting unhappiness with status quo, two outspoken critics of current county leadership were the top vote-getters among a crowded field vying for four spots on the county commission. Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel earned a four-year term with nearly 3,500 votes countywide, followed by Edgartown attorney Carlene Gatting with about 3,150.

County voters also returned two incumbent commission members to the seven-member regional board. Leslie Leland of West Tisbury garnered 3,050 votes, and Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs narrowly edged fellow incumbent Robert Sawyer of Vineyard Haven, who finished fifth in the ten-person race. Countywide, Mr. Strauss gained about 2,800 votes to Mr. Sawyer's 2,700.

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Mr. Leland said strong voter support for the charter study and the high vote count for two challengers illustrated a clear desire for change in the way county government is currently run. But he noted that voters also expressed confidence in himself and Mr. Strauss to help enact the change.

Mr. Israel said the public was well informed about issues facing the county and acted with deliberation. He was also grateful for his strong showing.

"I am humbled and honored by the trust that the Island has placed in me," Mr. Israel said yesterday. "I hope to live up to their expectations."

Because the charter study question passed at the polls, the seven county commission members will now join an elected 15-member charter study commission to begin reviewing Dukes County government. The 12 charter study candidates who appeared on the Tuesday ballot were elected to the group, along with three additional write-in candidates.

The 12 candidates on the ballot were: James Newman of Aquinnah; Timothy D. Connelly of Edgartown; Oak Bluffs residents Mimi Davisson, Daniel A. Flynn and William F. O'Brien; West Tisbury residents Richard R. Knabel, Patricia (Paddy) Moore, Linda Sibley and Ted Stanley; and Vineyard Haven residents Arthur (Art) Edward Flanders, Nora M. Nevin and Woodrow W. Williams.

Of the five candidates seeking write-in spots, Dukes County voters elected Harry (Tad) Crawford 3rd of West Tisbury and Vineyard Haven residents Jeffrey Kristal and Helen (Holly) Stephenson to the charter study commission. Ms. Stephenson edged fellow write-in candidate Thomas Rancich of West Tisbury by only seven votes, 425-418.

Also on the ballot Tuesday were 11 candidates for the nine elected seats on the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which is separate and distinct from county government. Because each of the six Vineyard towns must have one elected representative on the 21-member regional planning agency, but cannot have more than two, the only candidates who faced a contest on the ballot this week were the four from Oak Bluffs.

Of those, Vineyard voters chose current commission member Mimi Davisson and former commission chairman Richard Toole, who outpaced challenger Daniel Flynn by roughly 200 votes (3,050 to 2,850). The fourth Oak Bluffs candidate, Paul Strauss, currently sits on the regional planning agency as the appointed member from the Dukes County commission, and is expected retain his position because he was reelected to the county board.

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Mr. Toole said he looked forward to returning to the commission after a self-imposed two-year hiatus. "I'm glad that the people remembered who I was," he said yesterday.

Though running without contest, commission member James Athearn of Edgartown received the most votes Islandwide (more than 5,000), followed by Andrew Woodruff of West Tisbury (with about 4,400 votes). The Vineyard farmers have now been the top two vote getters in all four Martha's Vineyard Commission elections since they were first swept onto the regional planning agency in 2000.

Mr. Athearn on Wednesday said voters have consistently supported his position that the Vineyard must start seriously limiting development - something which he believes the commission thus far has failed to take on for politic reasons.

"From the start I have said that I'm deeply concerned about the pace and amount of development on the Island, and that I favor limitations," Mr. Athearn said. "I think there's a mandate to do it. We have to establish limits on how much we're going to develop this Island."

Along with Mr. Athearn and Mr. Woodruff, other Martha's Vineyard Commission candidates elected without contest include: Katherine Newman of Aquinnah, Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark, Christina Brown of Edgartown, Linda Sibley of West Tisbury and Peter Cabana of Vineyard Haven.

Vineyard voters on Tuesday also solidly backed Cape and Islands state Sen. Robert O'Leary, one of the framers of the Cape Cod Commission, modeled after the Island planning agency. Senator O'Leary outpaced his Republican opponent Ricardo Barros with 63 per cent of the vote districtwide, benefiting from strong support on the Vineyard, where he had roughly 78 per cent approval.

In a rematch from a 2004 race, Island voters this week stood behind incumbent state Rep. Eric T. Turkington, who sailed to a tenth consecutive term representing Falmouth and the Islands on Beacon Hill. Challenger James Powell, Republican of West Tisbury, earned only 30 per cent of the vote districtwide, and 34 per cent of the Vineyard vote, dropping in the polls slightly from his previous attempt at state office two years ago. Echoing comments he made after that defeat, Mr. Powell on Wednesday blamed an anti-Republican sentiment for his loss. He said he was considering changing his party status, and pledged to run again for state representative in 2008. "Why not?" he asked.

Representative Turkington on Wednesday said he was enormously grateful to his many Vineyard supporters. "I know the argument for an Islander [as state representative] is a compelling one," he said. "And I appreciate that most Islanders have faith in me."

Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Turkington will likely benefit from a state Democratic party that made further inroads across the commonwealth this week. After losing three seats to Democrats on Tuesday, Republicans in Massachusetts now hold only five of 40 state senate votes, and 19 of 160 in the house. It marks the least Republican representation on Beacon Hill since the commonwealth began keeping records 150 years ago, according to the Boston Globe.

Most significantly, the Republican party lost control of the governor's office for the first time since 1990. Governor-elect Deval Patrick, a Democratic civil rights attorney and political newcomer, defeated his Republican opponent, Lieut. Gov. Kerry Healy, by more than 20 percentage points statewide on Tuesday, 56 to 35 per cent.

Mr. Patrick earned 63 per cent approval on the Vineyard, compared to 28 per cent for Mrs. Healy. Aquinnah was among the best towns in the state for Mr. Patrick (with 83 per cent support), and among the worst for Mrs. Healy (with only nine per cent). The two other gubernatorial candidates - Independent Christy Mihos and Green-Rainbow candidate Grace Ross - polled in single digits statewide and on the Vineyard.

On the national level, Democrats this week regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years, and were poised on Thursday to take the U.S. Senate as well. Massachusetts voters handed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy another six-year term in the senate, where he has served since 1962. Senator Kennedy earned 69 per cent of the vote statewide, and 77 per cent on the Vineyard.

Because the entire Massachusetts delegation is Democratic, federal lawmakers from the commonwealth are expected to assume the chairmanship of a number of influential congressional committees when the offices change hands in January. Congressman Delahunt, who is currently the senior party member on the investigations and oversight subcommittee, said he expects to have several attractive committee chair options.

"Clearly the change will have a significant impact for Massachusetts, as well as the entire country," Congressman Delahunt said. "There will be discourse, there will be oversight, there will be transparency."