Murray Bishoff: Lessons from the 1972 election
Reviewing the 1972 race for sheriff in Barry County offered a few insights into why we're not likely to see 25 people run for county sheriff again any time soon.
In his runs for state office, Jack Goodman, the current presiding judge for the 39th Judicial Circuit, showed the advantage of campaigning your colleagues not to run. Goodman seldom faced opposition, and in the process helped to solidify party unity. The strategy proved more effective than taking on a myriad of candidates in the trenches.
The idea of 12 Democrats running for anything in Barry County now seems absurd. In fact, if you find 12 Democrats in one place in Barry County, it's either a precinct committee meeting or you're at a family reunion at Rod Anderson's Monett home.
Democrats can still get elected, at least in southern Barry County, as Southern Commissioner Wayne Hendrix has proven. The Seligman and Washburn areas have remained a stronghold for Democrats, at least in name, though policy-wise there's not much difference between the two parties. There's certainly little or no party difference between Democrats and Republicans running for sheriff.
Sheriff candidate Ralph Hendrix showed a Democrat could win countywide office in modern times, taking the 1988 election with a 600-vote margin. His re-election bid in 1992 earned nearly 60 percent of the ballots, though much of that may have been an anti-Monett vote against Republican Brian Martin of Monett.
Hendrix turned out to be his own worst enemy. The professionalism of the department has grown enormously under his successor, Republican Mick Epperly, who will be missed as he retires this year.
It's a long time since 1948 when five Republican leaders in the county faced charges over taxes, resulting in sending widely respected community leaders to jail. It's been conventional wisdom that Barry County Republicans since that time adopted a scorched earth policy to purge the county of all Democratic officeholders. That formula worked for a while. By 1972, when memories of 1948 were still vivid, there were enough Democrats to mount a strong challenge for the sheriff's job, though they lacked the votes to win on a straight party line vote. A Democrat would have to woo voters from the other party to win, but it can be done.
Another lesson from 1972 was sheriff's candidates at the time could still claim they could guarantee 24-hour coverage of the county by officers as if by the wave of a wand. That's still a serious challenge, especially if you have two major incidents happening simultaneously at different ends of the county. Voters may have believed the campaign slogans because they didn't know better.
These days, county newspapers pay more attention to the pivotal factor in response time: personnel, and the money it costs to have people available at all hours. We count on the sheriff to vocally raise his concerns in the annual budget process, and to persist during the year if his officers have serious trouble keeping up.
Granted, we only pay close attention to dollars at budget time, and it can be a long, frustrating year if the department stays seriously understaffed. But the public is better educated about the dollars it takes today, and wants to hear if the county commission does not respond to crisis conditions.
We're also more attentive these days to geographic distribution of votes. Since precinct tallies were not reported in the media 44 years ago, it may have been harder for anyone except veteran political junkies to strategize how to win a countywide election. Running strong in Jenkins, Purdy or Exeter by itself, then or now, would not win for a candidate without tapping into the population centers.
It was quite clear that two major candidates from Monett in the Republican race in 1972 only divided the Monett vote, leaving little home court advantage when the race was, and still is, won or lost by the spread of the Cassville vote. Today, Shell Knob has become a real pivotal voting block. Candidates must secure a piece of the pie all across the spectrum to win. That may be even more true today.
Most of the 1972 candidates did not know how to capture votes over a wide area. The ones who did triumphed.
The ones who do in modern times had something to celebrate last night.
Murray Bishoff is the news editor of The Monett Times and a frequent Cassville Democrat contributor.