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1991 election

This has been an exhausting campaign season. Talking to partisans and observers on all sides makes it clear that, for the most part, we’ve all pretty much had it.

“I can’t wait for this one to be over,” one local political veteran told me a day before Election Day. “I know I say that every two years, but I really mean it this time.”

Perhaps it was the political times in which we live. Perhaps it was the presence of Measure C (and to a lesser extent, Measure D), which became the focal points for years of pent up frustration by critics of the current county government, and which ended up generating an almost equally passionate reaction on the other side.

Friendships were strained and political alliances damaged.

I’ll admit that I am pretty weary after it all, if only because of the task of refereeing the vast wave of letters to the editor that hit our mailbox. And nobody ever loves the referee.

But at least this wasn’t the worst I have seen.

For that, I have to go back to the fall of 1991, at the start of my career. I was editor of the weekly Orange County Review, just north of Charlottesville, Virginia, just turning 24 and less than two years into my journalism career. After a period of relative stability on the county’s political scene, the old guard was passing and a new generation was rising.

That year, we had 14 local, state, and federal offices on the ballot, and a whopping 37 candidates stepped up to fight for the positions.

And all of them hated each other.

The marquee race was the contest for sheriff, where the longtime incumbent, who wielded his power with all of the beady-eyed ruthlessness that makes Southern sheriffs legendary, was being challenged by one of the top investigators and interrogators from the Virginia State Police. He had the disconcerting habit of staring at you in stony silence until you confessed, even if you were not a suspect in anything.

Supporters of the candidates accused each other of all kinds of wrongdoing, from physical violence to bribing the editor of the local newspaper (and for the record, no, they didn’t).

The Board of Supervisors races featured some wild contests. In one, the incumbent and his challenger had served together in the Korean War and one had spent nearly 40 years mocking the other for coming home with a severe case of “shell shock” (nobody’s laughing these days about what we now know as PTSD, but those were different times apparently).

In another contest, the owner of an illegal garage who had been tangled in years of legal disputes with county code enforcement decided his best recourse was to get elected to the Board of Supervisors. He managed to upset a long-time incumbent. He later went on to scandalize his fellow supervisors by occasionally displaying the small pistol he habitually carried in his trouser pocket, along with a fat roll of $100 bills. He said the gun was too heavy and weighed down his pants so he needed to take it out and put it on the table as a rest during meetings.

The surprisingly robust race for county treasurer featured an unheard-of seven candidates, even more unusual since all the top candidates were women. And it appears that it was women who decided the race, picking the incumbent over a big-spending younger woman who waged an impressively energetic and well-funded campaign (topping $10,000, a political fortune in those days). Several women explained to me that they disapproved of the challenger because of her habit of wearing white hose with pastel colored shorts and preppy flat-heeled shoes. Proper Virginia ladies didn’t do such a thing, it seems.

And during the campaign season, I happened to get married. One candidate stopped by the office to offer me a check as a wedding present. He was extremely upset when I declined, and he stormed out of my office in a huff. He only much later agreed that such a gift might have looked bad, particularly in the height of a hot election season.

By the time Nov. 5 rolled around, I was thoroughly exhausted. The whole county was thoroughly exhausted. The story I wrote in the next edition of the paper featured all the superlatives and descriptors I could come up with: hard-hitting, stunning, fiery, soundly, decisive.

But as weary as we all were after such an angry and emotional campaign season, there was good news. Things calmed down fairly quickly. The victors went on to do their jobs (albeit sometimes armed with small pistols), the losers conceded and went back to their regular lives, and the divisions that had seemed so lasting and painful in September and October faded into memory by early in 1992.

These days in Orange County, it is difficult to find a trace of that election. I had to go back to my old colleagues at the paper and ask them to send me photos of the pages from that edition to refresh my memory on all the candidates and issues.

So as tough and bruising as this spring’s election has been in Napa County, I know that this too shall pass. The damaged friendships will heal and everyone will go back to their regular lives. And perhaps someday — say, 27 years from now — someone will look back on all the angry letters, breathless news coverage, and strident online posts and wonder what all the fuss was about.

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Sean Scully is editor of the Napa Valley Register. You can reach him at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.

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Editor

Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.