In the wake of last Thursday’s primary election, I’m thinking once again about Vineyard exceptionalism. This is nothing new. I’ve blogged about it, I rant about it, sometimes I obsess about it. But first here’s how my candidates fared:
- Paulo DeOliveira won his race for Dukes County register of deeds. This is not surprising, since he’s got the most experience and was highly recommended by the retiring incumbent, his current boss. What might have been surprising is how handily he won it: garnering 68% of the vote in a four-way race is an impressive mandate.
- Marc Rivers lost his race for Dukes County sheriff to Robert Ogden. Disappointing, but not too surprising.
- In the state senate race, I wound up voting for Sheila Lyons, who lost convincingly to Julian Cyr — 38% for her, 54% for him — but this was a win-win race and I think Cyr’s going to be great. He does have a GOP opponent in the general election, however, and scuttlebutt has it that the GOP has made this race a priority. So it ain’t over yet.
- In the contest that had me watching the incoming vote tallies on MassLive all night and posting occasional updates on Facebook, Dylan Fernandes scored an impressive 48% of the vote in a five-way race, a tribute to his experience, his energy, and an inspiring grassroots campaign. He expected to take his hometown of Falmouth (which he did, with 68% of the total) and was saying he needed to run a strong second on the Vineyard and Nantucket to win. He did.
The candidates for sheriff and register of deeds all live on the Vineyard — not surprising, because these are Dukes County offices and Martha’s Vineyard makes up about 99 percent of the county. In the state senate race none of the candidates were Vineyard residents, neither the two Democrats nor the two Republicans.
Of the five candidates for state rep, however, one lives on the Vineyard, one lives on Nantucket, and the other three live in Falmouth. This is why in the course of the campaign I frequently heard the argument that only someone who lives on the Vineyard can adequately represent the Vineyard.
Once upon a time, the Vineyard had its own representative in the state house of representatives and so did Nantucket. That ended in the late 1970s when the house shrunk from 240 members to 160 and the Vineyard, Nantucket, and part of Falmouth were bound together in what is now the Barnstable Dukes Nantucket house district. This district, like all the other house districts, comprises about 40,000 people. Unlike all the other house districts, you cannot get around Barnstable Dukes Nantucket by car. It poses, to put it mildly, a logistical challenge.
Since the house was shrunk, I don’t believe the district has ever been represented by a Vineyarder, but at least since the early 1990s the rep from this district has had a legislative liaison on the Vineyard to help keep him (it’s always been a “him”) current on Vineyard issues. Once someone is elected, they tend to get re-elected barring conspicuous incompetence, which has not happened in the three decades I’ve lived here.
This year the incumbent, Tim Madden (of Nantucket), decided not to run again, so we had a real horse race to succeed him. One of the hopefuls, a genial, articulate fellow, was from the Vineyard. For many people that settled it: The best person to represent the Vineyard is the one who lives on the Vineyard, QED, vote for this guy.
I do believe that long residence on the Vineyard can make a difference. If a candidate from, say, Falmouth and one from the Vineyard seem equally qualified, I will go for the Vineyarder, the same way I’ll go for the woman, or the person of color, when otherwise it’s six of one, half dozen the other. Because a certain expertise, a certain potential, comes with who one is in the world. (This gets into the huge, and hugely contested, issue of identity politics.)
Seen from a slightly different vantage point, however — well, Barnstable Dukes Nantucket may be logistically challenging, but the issues confronting Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket counties are remarkably similar: an economy based on tourism and the second-home market has made housing unaffordable for many working year-rounders, leading to an emigration that threatens the fabric of our communities; the heroin-opioid epidemic; the fisheries and shellfisheries; and environmental challenges, including those related to climate change. Someone who grasps how these issues affect, say, Nantucket is well on the way to grasping how they affect Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth.
The remaining question for each candidate: How do you propose to keep in touch with — listen to — your constituents in the parts of the district where you do not live?
Dylan Fernandes impressed the hell out of quite a few Vineyarders by knocking on their doors down long dirt roads, handing out leaflets and listening to their concerns. No candidate had ever called on them before. The fact that the guy lived across the water was not going to keep him from representing Martha’s Vineyard. The Vineyard guy, however, lacked Fernandes’s energy and Fernandes’s experience. For this voter, Vineyard exceptionalism went out the window.