The craziest, costliest political races are the ones you’ve never heard of

Most Americans aren't paying attention to the 2014 midterms. The Pew Research Center reported last week that 16 percent of the public is following the elections closely at this point. When you're a tree warden candidate, such apathy makes campaigning even harder.

This is why races for obscure elected positions are also some of the most entertaining elections in America. Unless you cut an ad about peeing on an electric fence, get the FBI involved or cover the county in billboards explaining how you can help dead residents, voters aren't going to end up playing eeny-meeny-miny-mo when your race appears on the ballot. And these candidates are especially good at courting attention -- even though it's not always on purpose.

Here is an appreciation of some of the less-than-glamorous elected positions, and the people who decide they'd like to put them on their résumé.

 


A poll worker rips "I Voted" stickers from a roll at a polling place in Oklahoma City on June 24.  (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Drain commissioner

In 2012, the drain commissioner race in Ingham County, Mich., pit incumbent Pat Lindemann — who had held the position for 20 years — against Mark Grebner, a Ben Franklin-lookalike who had been county commissioner for 32 years. Grebner decided to get in the rest because he thought Lindemann was wasting money. “Among other things, one of the invoices is for repairing his iTunes library, which apparently developed some problem,” Grebner told a local public radio station. “Now, I don’t know why a drain office needs an iTunes library, but his does.” Grebner lost and retired, but he hasn't ruled out running in 2016.

Grebner also created the best telephone-number list in Michigan -- which federal candidates rented many a time in the pre-email list age of campaigning. He may also be the father of RateMyProfessors.com. In the 1970s, he published the booklet, “Grading the Profs,” after surveying his fellow students at Michigan State University -- a feat he repeated while attending law school at the University of Michigan. He sold the books for 95 cents.

A New York Times article published in 2000 said of Grebner:

Calling Mr. Grebner eccentric is too obvious.

A man with stringy shoulder-length hair and baggy jeans slipping from his hips, he works from 2 p.m. until 4 a.m. Home is a lilac house on Lilac Street, shared with a mutt named Babs (after Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California) and a pot-bellied pig named Ruby (inspiration unclear) who is battling a weight problem.

It wasn't the first time Grebner had received national attention for his local campaigning bona fides. In 1987, Harper's Magazine excerpted a letter he sent to constituents, announcing his re-election campaign.

I was hoping to make the best of it by proposing a sort of lawn sign nonaggression pact with my opponent, turning mere laziness into the appearance of statesmanship. Unfortunately, he had already purchased his signs before [ got
around to calling him. As a result, I've adopted the equivalent of unilateral disarmament.

Like every politician, [eternally hope for an easy race, one in which my opponent despairs early and puts forth only a token effort. I'm beginning to think the fact that I'm as vocal and colorful as I am precludes such good fortune - I inevitably make at least one person angry enough to circulate petitions and run. Anyway, my opponent this year is a twentyfive- year-old named Eugene Joseph McCarthy. [He calls himself Joe.] The only contact we've had was two years ago when he interviewed me on behalf of MSU Bible Study; he was encouraging the members to become more involved in local politics. (No, I didn't receive their endorsement.) For my part, I regret to say that voters can look forward to a vigorous contest; Joe has already raised over $1,000 from his friends in MSU Bible Study, and he's out knocking on doors. Me too, I suppose

Tree warden

If you're voting in Massachusetts, chances are that you have the lucky opportunity of election your local tree warden.

What is a tree warden? According to the Massachusetts Tree Warden and Foresters Association, "A tree warden is a person in charge of shade trees on public town lands." Every city and town in the state has been required to have one since 1899.

These unpaid positions often don't inspire exciting elections. Incumbents often have no challengers, and sometimes it's hard to even find a candidate to run.

Fence viewers

A few New England towns also elect fence viewers. According to the Amesbury, Mass., Web site, "Fence Viewers help reviews and assists with settling disputes regarding fences." Since that sentence is designed to do nothing but pique curiosity, the city describes its noble fence viewer's duties in greater detail.

The Fence Viewers advise lot owners prior to constructing a fence. The height of the fence can be no higher than six feet except near intersections. Lot owners at intersections cannot erect a fence nor shrubbery closer than five feet to allow good visibility. A fence or shrub near there must be no higher than three feet.

Spite fences erected to annoy neighbors are illegal. The Fence Viewer has the power to order such fences changed to be inoffensive. If hostilities escalate, the building inspector is asked to become involved. His word is final.

In "Our Vanishing Landscape," written by Eric Sloane in 1955 (the book's Amazon blurb notes, "This book takes readers on a leisurely journey through a bygone era with fascinating accounts of canals, corduroy roads, and turnpikes, waterwheels and icehouses, colorful road signs and their painters, circus folk, and more. Brimming with anecdotes about people and the times, this delightful narrative remains a milestone of Americana."), the author reports, "There is nothing for fence-viewers to do today, yet many towns still elect them and pay for them in office. Whether it is done with a Yankee sense of humor or not, the election of fence-viewers in Vermont is still a celebrated custom."

Coroner

There are almost 1,600 counties around the country that still elect county coroners. Who knew? The races often feature intense campaigning.

"We did 14 parades," coroner candidate Eric Warner told North Country Public Radio. "And either I took my horses, which are black Clydesdales, or I took our John Deer 420."

In a Louisiana coroner race in St. Tammany Parish, two candidates both spent more than $100,000. One of the candidates ran nine ads. They were fighting to replace a coroner who resigned after being indicted on conspiracy charges. He had taken public funds to purchase accessories for his boat and plane, and had raised his salary to around $200,000.

A few counties around the country also elect cemetery commissioners. Based on this description, they are basically fence viewers for the dead.

Agriculture commissioner

Texas has lots of commissioners that have odd titles and lots of power. There are railroad commissioners -- who regulate the oil and gas industries in the state, not watch over trains -- and Texas land commissioners and agriculture commissioners, all of which often need to spend gobs of money to win their races. The races are big enough that they tend to attract a few familiar faces or names every once in awhile.

During the 2014 Texas primary, four Republicans were competing to be the agriculture nominee. The Democratic primary featured musician and eternal name on Texas ballots Kinky Friedman, a rancher and cattle farmer Jim Hogan, who won.

Sid Miller, a former state rep (he authored a 2011 bill that required women to obtain a sonogram before getting an abortion) and lobbyist, became the Republican nominee. He also won the contest for most entertaining campaign ads in the race.

However, his ads aren't that special, truth be told. Texas commissioner races tend to be a magnet for amusing campaign ads. Here's one from Roland Sledge, a potential Charles Dickens character and former railroad commissioner candidate.

1990 agriculture commissioner candidate Rick Perry's ads seem to have provided the inspiration for 2008 presidential candidate Rick Perry.

Prothonotary

This elected position sounds like something paleontologists dig out of the ground, but really, it's just Pennsylvanian for "first officer." The Web site of the Philadelphia Office of the Prothonotary declares,

In a society as litigious as ours, where the issues brought before our Civil Courts range from action in divorce to a personal injury for serious bodily harm, the need for accurate, efficient record keeping is paramount; for in the law, if it is not proper and timely filed, it doesn't exist. It is the goal of the Prothonotary to improve through innovation and technology the art of record keeping.

In other words, being prothonotary is an art. But it on occasion inspires dramatic elections, too. In the 2013 prothonotary race in Bucks County, one candidate gave the Patriot News a few "West Wing"-worthy quotes about the race. “Let me tell you, I work in the county court house and I part the seas when I walk in there." “I know who's on my side and who's not on my side. And everyone has made that very, very clear to me.”

We don't even know what she's talking about, but it sounds exciting, no?

Soil and Water Conservation Board

What a cast of characters: The embattled incumbent who defied his party, now fighting for his political life. The young turk aiming for bigger targets. The college student who got into the race on a dare. The candidate who promises that, if elected, he'll eliminate his new job. And the daughter of G.Gordon Liddy. A race for governor? The state legislature? Maybe even Congress? None of the above. One of the hottest -- and oddest -- campaigns in these parts this pall is for none other than the North Virginia Soil And Water Conservation Board.

That's the lede of a Washington Post dispatch on the Water and Soil Conservation Board race in 1993. The board has no taxing or regulatory powers. Its budget in 1993 was $287,000. One local told reporter Peter Baker, "Only in Fairfax County could you have a controversial conservation board election."

School board

If you thought school board elections were the tamest of all elections, you would be wrong. School politics are among the most terrifying in history (have you seen "Mean Girls"?), and school board elections often follow suit. These are races where the voters often know the candidates personally or have children attending said school, and the community always sees the stakes as incredibly high.

In Donna, Tex., a school board election last year led to an FBI investigation and several vote-buying charges. In the Rio Grande Valley, politiqueras -- paid election workers who get voters to the polls in close races -- are an essential part of local politics. As the Texas Observer describes the tradition,

Politiqueras are typically older women with deep ties in the community. They meet with seniors at nursing homes and adult daycare centers and residents in colonias to advocate for their candidates. They come bearing barbecue plates or Mexican pastries and offer voters a ride to the polls, none of which is illegal. But over the decades intense competition in an impoverished region for a limited number of jobs and the power to decide who gets a government contract or a lucrative-paying job has pushed some candidates to cross the legal line and offer cash for votes. “The competition for access to [government] contracts has become intense,” says former Edinburg state Rep. Aaron Peña. “Politiqueras have been pushed further and further to perform in a system that has been corrupted.”

One Texas mayor  -- "who is also the city’s volunteer fire chief and the school district’s director of custodial services" -- told the New York Times, “In South Texas politics, you have to have them. There are good ones that really are sincere and try to really help, but the majority of them are leeches. They get ahold of you, and they know how to play you.”

The three election workers who plead guilty to the Justice Department's vote-buying charges were paying $3 to $10 per vote. Sometimes the politiqueras would give potential voters beer or cigarettes. The area is one of the poorest in Texas.

A month after the FBI arrested the three election workers, the school board president committed suicide.

Across the country, many school board races are also getting more expensive. In 2013, Los Angeles had the most expensive school board election in United States history. It cost $3.2 million.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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