In a stunning defeat for a bloc of Longview City Council members, incumbent Scott Vydra was swept out of office Tuesday night and Mayor Don Jensen was still losing as a result of Wednesday's updated recount. But incumbent Mike Wallin widened his slim lead over challenger John Melink.
Spencer Boudreau, who was backed by many incumbent council members, lost convincingly to Christine Schott in the race for a council seat that Ken Botero is vacating.
Melink trailed Wallin on Tuesday night by only three votes, but the late count Wednesday put the incumbent up by 85 votes.
The race between Councilman/Mayor Jensen and challenger Ruth Kendall tightened up, too, with Kendall leading by 182 votes, down from about 240 on Tuesday. Kendall still had 51.1% of the vote.
About 8,000 ballots countywide still need to be counted, but the county elections office did not know Thursday morning how many of them are from city of Longview voters.
The council could have four new faces come January and lose 32 years of council experience. In addition, the council — for the first time — could have four female members.
“It’s obviously going to change the council in a tremendous way,” Schott said Wednesday morning.
Newly elected council members will have to form new relationships and gain the community’s trust, she said.
Hillary Strobel, who defeated Vydra with nearly 53% in Wednesday's updated count, said a majority female council is important because it better reflects the city’s population.
“Women bring a lot of really unique things to the table. We like to solve problems. We like to collaborate. We like to really try to find connections between people and leverage those for problem solving,” she said Wednesday. “I’m super looking forward to working with (Councilwoman) MaryAlice Wallis and bring that mindset to City Council.”
Melink echoed her sentiment, saying in Longview’s history, there only have been eight women elected to the council and only three served in leadership positions.
“That’s an important voice that has been missing. I applaud it and I’m excited for the women that have been elected,” he said.
However, the council could have a leadership vacuum with the loss of its long-time mayor and the possible loss of its most outspoken council member: Mike Wallin.
“Don had been on the council for 20 years. Mike is extremely experienced. (Potentially losing both) those two on the council at the same time as getting multiple new members, it’s going to change the whole dynamics of everything,” Schott said. “The three remaining (incumbent) council members are going to be having to step up and take over some leadership roles.”
Nonetheless, newly elected council members said they have leadership experience from other areas and they will put in the work to learn about council matters.
And Ruth Kendall, who is leading Jensen, said losing the most assertive voices on the council may give the other, quieter members a chance to speak up and get more involved because their voices are no longer “shut down.”
Schott said she will closely watch the race between Wallin and Melink, which had Wallin leading 3,377-3,292 Wednesday night. Wallin's lead widened Wednesday to 50.4% to Melink's 49.2%.
“It’s not surprising to me. I knew all along it would be close — but not quite this close,” Melink said Tuesday night.
He said he knew Wallin was a “tough campaigner” and would be difficult to beat. But Melink said he feels “very comfortable and excited about what’s going on here.”
Wallin did not immediately return requests for comment Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
“The community is looking for change and its clear that there are things that Mike has done over his last eight years that have upset a good portion of the community,” Melink said. “They’re looking for a city councilperson that is respectful of both the city staff and of citizens. And so this is the result of that. That’s part of why I’m in this election. It’s not for the good things Mike has done. It’s for where he has betrayed the trust the voters put in him.”
The Wallin/Melink campaign was the most expensive in the city by far, with Wallin raising $20,000 and Melink raising $13,000 as of last week.
Melink is married to former Councilwoman Mary Jane Melink, who served on the council with Wallin.
“Mike is the most experienced council member and I think that with so many new people coming in, I don’t know what the council is going to be like if Mike’s not on there,” Schott said. “But at the same time, John is a really intelligent, well-spoken person that will also do a good job. I know we’re all watching that one really closely. They both will do great.”
Jensen, who is currently mayor and has served on the council for two decades, is losing to challenger Ruth Kendall by 182 votes. Kendall received 51% of the vote to Jensen’s 48%.
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Jensen, too, did not return requests for comment Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
Kendall said she didn’t know what to expect, but she was “pleased and surprised” by the results.
“I’m just really happy that I ran the campaign the way I wanted to run it, and I’m really happy to show that can work. It doesn’t take a lot of money to win a campaign. Person-to-person conversations can work,” she said.
During the campaign, Kendall criticized Jensen’s leadership, saying his actions lacked transparency and respect for city workers during recent council controversies involving the housing authority board, library budget cuts, severe weather shelter planning and interactions with city staff.
Jensen highlighted his deep experience on the council, saying there is a steep learning curve for new council members and that it takes four years to really understand the job.
Mayors are elected from within the council, so Kendall does not automatically become mayor. The council will elect a new leader in early January.
Kendall said she also was pleased to see the results of the other Longview council races.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and in many of conversations I had, many people were ready for change on the council as a whole,” she said.
The three incumbents and Boudreau were all endorsed by the Republican party, while the Democratic party backed their challengers.
Hillary Strobel unseated Vydra with 53% of the vote, or about 3,465 ballots. Vydra won 3,033 votes, or about 46%.
However, Vydra said Tuesday night that he was optimistic the remaining uncounted ballots could turn the race in his favor. He said he wasn’t surprised with the results, saying Strobel did well with Democrats, but “we need to see what the rest of the voters say.”
“We’re not talking any landslide here. We’re talking 25% of people registered to vote polled to see where they stand,” he said. “It’s a small margin of people. ... Let’s get a bigger sampling.”
However, ballot counting after Tuesday night rarely leads to significant changes in results. The countywide turnout, once all ballots are counted, will be about 42% after a flurry of last minute balloting over the weekend.
Strobel said she felt “pretty confident” going into Tuesday, but she felt like she had a “50-50” chance of success.
She was successful, she said, “because I didn’t have a ton of money, (so) I had to go out and talk to as many people as I could face-to-face. It made all the difference just to explain to people my positions, hear what they had to say and be genuine and forthright with as many people as I could be. I think that’s what paid off.”
Vydra out-fundraised Strobel by nearly $15,000.
He criticized Strobel throughout the campaign because she has only lived in Longview for two years.
Strobel, in response, has said she has a long history of professional experience with city policy.
In the race for an open seat on the council, Schott received 53% with 3,538 total votes. Boudreau won 46.5% with 3,111 total votes.
However, both seemed reluctant to call the race. Schott Wednesday morning said she felt “cautiously optimistic” about her chances, but said there were still a lot of votes to count.
Supporters cited many reasons why they voted for her, Schott said, including the fact that she’s a woman, she had life experience that her 19-year-old opponent didn’t and because she wasn’t aligned with other councilmen.
“A lot of people wanted to see a change in the City Council and I think a lot of votes came from that,” she said. “I didn’t campaign for any specific type of vote. I’m hoping to get votes from people based on my merits, not any other reason.”
Boudreau said Wednesday that Tuesday night’s returns were only “preliminary results.”
“None of these races are over,” he said.
He added that he was optimistic voters would choose the right candidate.
“I think everybody ran good races,” he said.