Rutherford, left, and Eldridge, right.
Incumbent Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge bested challenger Mike Rutherford in Tuesday’s Republican primary by a nearly 3-1 margin, regaining the county’s top executive seat.
Rutherford was Eldridge’s sole Republican opponent, and the mayor is not being challenged this year by any other candidate. That means barring any mysterious misfortune, he will roll through the Aug. 7 county general election as a formality and begin his second, four-year term on Sept. 1.
Eldridge captured 8,988 total votes, or about 72 percent to Rutherford’s 3,453 votes, or about 28 percent.
“I’m very appreciative for the support that voters showed me today,” Eldridge said while celebrating the victory following the election. “ I think what we’re seeing right now is the county heading in a different direction. From the perspective of local politics, we’re headed in a different direction, and I think you’re going to see a different kind of leadership in Washington County.”
Rutherford, the county’s zoning administrator, said during the campaign he has grown tired of “bickering” and “gutter politics” and that his disappointment over a lack of communication from Eldridge to other county bodies and to the citizens spurred his decision to run.
Zoning administrator is just one of Rutherford’s titles. The former county commissioner also is the county’s flood plan and stormwater administrator, chief general welfare officer, planning coordinator and building code enforcement director.
“It was worth every dollar and every sacrifice,” Rutherford said. “I will not rule out another run. I meet the public every day. But during this campaign I got to meet them one-on-one on their doorstep. It was a wake-up call, and I still feel I relate to citizens in a way the mayor doesn’t. I will continue to be more of a watchdog.”
Rutherford has called Washington County government “fractured” and full of miscommunications. He also maintains that public opinion of county government is at an all-time low.
Eldridge chose not to comment on Rutherford specifically.
“I see what’s happening in this primary and recognize we’re at a turning point,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge was elected to his first term in 2010, besting Don Arnold and James Reeves when longtime mayor George Jaynes decided to retire.
He helped orchestrate the sale of the Downtown Center that facilitated an agreement with Northeast State Community College to locate a campus in Washington County to enhance educational opportunities. He also was at the forefront of disaster relief after a 2011 tornado and a 2012 flood in the Dry Creek community.
The county has, in the past several years, increased funding to schools, with an additional $600,000 in instructional funding resulting from the elimination of capital purchases from the operating budget. The county also funded four additional Sheriff’s patrol officers, the first patrol expansion since the 1990s. And four additional detention center officers were added, including a training officer position.
Eldridge said he is proud of the county’s financial fitness and the fact that four years after assuming the role of county mayor, Washington County has the highest fund balance in its history.
The total early voting and absentee votes cast this year was 6,210, with Eldridge capturing more than 70 percent of that number. The total number of election-day votes was 6,889 bringing the unofficial number of total votes cast at 13.099.
The number of active registered voters in Washington County for this primary was 60,801, down from 62,279 registered voters in 2010. That’s a drop of 1,478 voters, or about 2.4 percent.
Pre-primary financial disclosures showed that Eldridge and Rutherford had received a roughly equal amount of contributions, with Eldridge at $17,470 and Rutherford at 17,400. However, Eldridge spent $24,681 while Rutherford has disbursed $15,787.
Eldridge has taken some heat from county commissioners on several issues.
He has been accused of stifling the courthouse’s planned second-floor renovations and putting commissioners’ taxpayer-funded health insurance benefits at risk by using that money to pay for the work. That matter was put to rest when a majority of commissioners voted not to use the funds for that purpose.
It’s worth noting a majority of County Commission challengers this year included in their platforms the promise not to take county health benefits.
Eldridge also was confronted by District 7 Commissioner Roger Nave, who claimed Eldridge was trying to block state legislators from going forward with an annexation bill that would allow property owners to vote in referendums to determine their own destinies.
During the final week of the campaign, Rutherford ran an ad in the Johnson City Press that contained a letter from state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Hamilton. It was Carter’s annexation bill, which included other elements, including those of Rep. Micah Van, Huss, R-Jonesborough, that ended annexation by ordinance and now requires referendums.
In the letter, Carter said he was asked to relate his discussion with Eldridge concerning “the people’s right to vote on annexation.
Carter says he was “repeatedly told” that Eldridge’s was “working hard to defeat the annexation bill.”
The Press has covered the issue extensively, speaking with Carter when the bill passed, as well as city and county officials throughout the process. Eldridge has never expressed to the Press a desire to keep property owners from voting.
“That was in the context of a maybe three-minute conversation we had,” Eldridge said. “They had one issue on their minds: annexation by referendum, which I’ve never opposed. And Mr. Van Huss -- he has never contacted me about this. Not one time.”
Eldridge maintains that legislators should not mandate annexation laws that do not consider the varying dynamics of each locale. On the other hand, if not for Eldridge’s push to insert language in the bill exempting farmland from annexation, the fate of agricultural property -- one of the hottest issues to come out of Washington County -- would have been left unguarded.
Eldridge grew up in Jonesborough, graduated from David Crockett High School in 1978, and earned a bachelor’s degree in construction technology at East Tennessee State University before entering the telecommunications industry.
In 1990, he started a company that became a national leader in wireless communications infrastructure, before selling it and leading several residential and commercial development projects in Washington County. He also owns an angus cattle farm, serves in various leadership roles in local business, higher education, finance and agricultural organizations, and serves as a deacon at Boone Trail Baptist Church.
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