Article by Ray James
1996 election – November 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine
No matter who wins, Chaffee will be conservative
by Ramòn Diego
Conservatives are destined to take Chaffee County District 1 and District 2 county commissioner seats next January regardless of who wins the Nov. 5 voting. Both the Republicans (in 1, Ron Leyba of Buena Vista, and in 2, incumbent Frank McMurry, Nathrop) and the Democrats (in 1, incumbent Jim Thompson, who lives just outside Buena Vista, and in 2, Jerry Leewaye, Salida) reside on the fiscally and politically conservative wings of their respective parties.
Leyba, the youngest of the four, may be farthest to the right. Before his last minute entry in the commissioner fray he challenged Republican right-wing icon, Ken Chlouber, for GOP nomination for state Senate District 4. Leyba charged that the Leadville politician was too liberal.
Leyba, a county native and Salida High graduate, seemed to be a candidate in search of a race before settling in to battle Thompson. Starting as one of five Republicans trying to pick up Chlouber’s leavings in House District 61, he then went after the Man himself. With a late-hour registration change from his home precinct in Salida to his new home in Buena Vista, county Republicans pushed Leyba into the commissioner contest.
Chaffee Democrats went along quietly with the last-minute shift in hopes that a Leyba-Thompson shoot-out would siphon off some financial ammunition from the Leewaye-McMurry battle. Both parties are committing plenty of cash to the races. The word on the street was that McMurry’s campaign picked up $5,000 and Leyba’s $2,500 from county GOP coffers. While the Dems could only manage $500 for each of their candidates, total contributions could easily make these the most expensive county races ever.
It’s no secret that McMurry has his eye on a General Assembly seat in four years or so, and that means he can’t lose this election without damaging his political career. Likewise, the Republicans can’t risk the county board ending up with a Democratic majority because of the heavy losses that could mean in courthouse power and prestige. Early on the Republicans made Thompson a target for defeat because of his free-wheelin’, off-the-cuff style.
Despite Leyba’s home-town-boy advantage, however, (Salida gets to vote for the commissioner who’ll represent BV), in the race against newcomer and Texan Thompson, if Leyba wins it’ll be an upset. Leyba, who probably would have to leave his job at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility if elected, is running on a campaign of commitment to and vision for the community as well as his leadership skills.
Thompson, who moved to the area in 1988, stresses his hard work for the county for the last four years and the depth of his experience in forestry management and traffic engineering. Thompson says planning, growth and uncertainties over water resources are the themes he’s hearing from voters. He wants to keep working on 20-year plans for highways he sees as essential to continued growth in the county.
Commissioner McMurry agrees with fellow commissioner Thompson — one of the few times — but says that he, McMurry, is the commissioner most capable in those areas. With the born-again fervor of a convert, McMurry admits that four years ago he was weak in planning but that with heavy helpings of seminars and workshops he now sees planning as essential — and managing growth, if not controlling it, as critical to maintaining the valley’s current quality of life.
Challenger Leewaye, with typical bluntness, says that 80 percent of the people he’s talked to are basically apathetic and really haven’t thought that much about the election. Leewaye’s tenure as county assessor gives him plenty of courthouse savvy, and his work in real estate has given him plenty of experience with newcomers as well as the old-timers he’s known for years. Of the people who do have an opinion, Leewaye says, those in the rural areas complain about the maintenance of county roads in the district, and those in town worry about the loss of the railroad and its possible conversion to a trail.
So far the commissioner races have caused little excitement for the general populace, but with opinions sprouting like yard signs, that could change quickly.