As legend tells it, Linda Smith entered the 3rd Congressional District race a few weeks before the 1994 primary as a write-in candidate. But she’ll be the first to tell you it really took her much longer to achieve her historic victory.
“It took a good 11 years to get to a place where I could win that write-in campaign,” said Smith, noting that she served in the House of Representatives and state Senate from 1983 until 1993.
Smith finished ahead of the two other Republicans running in the primary that year, and then unseated Democratic incumbent Jolene Unsoeld with 52.01 percent of the vote in the general election. Looking back 25 years later, Smith is still surprised it worked out.
“I told (my supporters) it wasn’t going to work,” Smith said. “Everyone was shocked when it did.”
Could history repeat itself Tuesday? A new crop of write-in candidates have declared in several municipal races. If any one of them do the unthinkable, they’ll be the first candidates in Clark County to win an election as a write-in since Smith. Most of the five write-in candidates don’t have a decade in the public eye, though, so they’ve been putting in their steps trying to get their names out.
Those candidates are:
• Current Camas City Councilor Melissa Smith and political newcomer Barry McDonnell, both of whom are attempting to unseat Mayor Shannon Turk, who is unopposed on the ballot.
• Margaret Tweet, opposing Greg Anderson for Ward 3 Position 1 on the Camas city council. Anderson is also unopposed on the ballot.
• Rhiannon Parks, running for Battle Ground City Council Position 2 against Deputy Mayor Shane Bowman.
• Josh Beck, opposing Michelle Dawson for Yacolt Town Council Position 2.
Clark County Elections Supervisor Cathie Garber and Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey both confirmed that five write-in campaigns are more than usually seen in a single election.
While those five candidates certainly have plenty of work to do to get elected, Smith said it’s not solely up to them.
“The fighting spirit needs to be in the other people,” she said. “They kept fighting when I was too tired to.”
That also helped Smith set up her life after politics. She founded the nonprofit Shared Hope International in 1998 with support from many of those same political supporters. In the last 20-plus years, Smith and her team have helped thousands around the world in their fight to end sex trafficking.
“You cannot carry on your passion without others with the same passion,” Smith said. “I could never have gotten elected as a write-in with just Republicans. I needed Democrats and Republicans to decide we had shared values. If you have passion and people believe in you, they’ll support you.”
Modern changes to write-in campaigns
The decision to have Smith run as a write-in 25 years ago was made while she was on vacation. A few of her supporters were disappointed with the crop of candidates in the primary for the Congressional seat: Unsoeld, Republicans Paul J. Phillips and Tim Moyer, and Caitlin Davis Carlson from the Gun Control Party. They decided that Smith should run as a write-in.
When she got home, the supporters pitched their plan. They showed her 30,000-plus fliers they planned to mail,letting people know there was another option. Smith recalls being worried that it would be a waste of postage. Even as word got around about her candidacy, she wasn’t sure how it would go on Election Day.
“I just kept asking myself, ‘Is this really stupid? Is this like writing in Mickey Mouse? Is this just wasting my vote?’” she said.
Things are a bit different for the five write-ins running this year thanks to social media, which makes direct access to voters a lot easier than in 1994. It allows them to get more immediate feedback. On Facebook pages around Camas, many have expressed their support for McDonnell’s campaign, or even changed their profile pictures in support of him. McDonnell has also recorded a podcast to introduce himself to potential voters.
The other write-in challenger to Turk, Melissa Smith, said she has mostly run her campaign online. Partly that is because she’s had to be home to recover from some minor surgery, she said.
“It’s been a grass roots campaign,” Smith said. “I didn’t do any fliers or anything like that; just some signs I paid for and social media. I’ve had people reach out to me. It’s been very positive.”
Tweet has also run much of her campaign online through her own personal site and Facebook.
Social media also makes it easier to see negative feedback, as Parks has discovered since announcing her candidacy. She came to local politics after voters passed Initiative 1639, a statewide gun control measure. While Parks said she isn’t a gun owner, she was opposed to “any removal of rights afforded” by the Constitution. She started attending meetings, and met Shauna Walters, a Battle Ground woman leading the local charge against enforcing I-1639.
Walters is running for a different Battle Ground council seat, and Parks started working on her campaign. Online, Parks said, she has been labeled a “puppet” for Walters and/or Joey Gibson,the founder of protest group Patriot Prayer. Gibson has vocalized his support for Walters and Josh VanGelder, another Battle Ground council candidate.
“I appreciate his support for Battle Ground and our candidacy, but in no way am I anyone’s ‘puppet,’” Parks said.
Beck has also seen some negativity online, specifically Facebook, where he said it felt like people were trying to drive a wedge between him and Dawson, his opponent for the seat in Yacolt.
“It’s been a level of difficulty not only for Michelle, but also for myself,” he said. “The both of us just want to see the community come together. It’s so weird that two people who are wanting to see unity, people are trying to play us out like we absolutely hate each other.”
Beck, like most of the other write-in candidates, preferred to spend his campaign time trying to meet people face-to-face. He’s done so much walking he’s dubbed his campaign the “Miracle Mile.” It’s been a good way to meet neighbors and hear their concerns, he said.
Why run as a write-in
All of this year’s write-in campaigns started with a tipping point. For Parks, it came in September when Battle Ground councilors voted to increase pay for councilors, deputy mayor and mayor. Parks was attending meetings and thinking about running in 2021. But after the vote, she wanted to jump in right away. She opted to run against Bowman because he voted in support of the raises, and was running unopposed.
Beck said he decided to challenge Dawson because she was unopposed. She was the only person to file during a special filing period for the seat. That was around the time Beck started regularly attending council meetings. He missed the special filing period, but was told about the possibility of running a write-in campaign. He wasn’t sure at first, but ultimately decided to give it a go.
“It’s a snowball’s chance in Haiti,” he said. “It’s almost comical.”
In Camas, the city’s bond proposal for up to $78 million to build a new community center triggered all three write-in candidates to throw their names into consideration. The bond is also on the Tuesday ballot.
McDonnell was the first to declare, saying he’s been frustrated with the closing and demolition of the old Crown Park pool and the way bond information has been presented by city officials. He said he was also concerned that Turk was running unopposed for the mayoral seat, to which she was appointed to by her fellow councilors.
One of those fellow councilors was Smith, who ran for the open mayoral seat in 2018. Smith was considering another run for mayor for a while, and decided to jump in after watching how the bond campaign was playing out.
“I still saw a lot of stuff that was being missed or not shared or communicated in a timely fashion,” she said.
Smith said that while the Camas mayor is a part-time position, she feels that it needs someone willing to work more than that. Turk has a job as a management analyst for the city of Vancouver.
“It gives a better pulse for the mayor of what’s going on in the community if they’re in there more than part time,” Smith said. “It helps take the burden off staff or Administrator (Pete Capell).”
On her website, Tweet said she opted to run as a write-in due to actions by council that were “unknown prior to the candidate filing deadline.” She would like to see more transparency and accountability from the council, prioritized spending of resources on necessary services and modifying the street tree requirement in the planter strips between the sidewalk and road.