The four incumbent members of the Flathead Valley Community College board of trustees fended off five challengers Tuesday to hold onto their seats in what grew into an extraordinarily heated race that drew attention statewide.
The challengers, all of whom are affiliated with conservative, tea party-style political groups, leveled heavy criticism at the incumbents in the weeks preceding the election, calling into question everything from how the board openings were made public to federal Pell grants to accusations that FVCC has embraced “the radical left-wing socialist agenda.”
Robert Nystuen, the interim chair of the trustees who was unchallenged in Tuesday’s election, said the incumbents stuck to a positive message that FVCC is a successful local institution and a change of leadership was unnecessary. He believes that message resonated with voters.
“This has been a campaign of contrasts between the nine candidates,” Nystuen said. “This election, I think, is a testament to the value of local governance of our community college.”
Edwin X Berry, an atmospheric physicist who runs a consulting company in Bigfork, was the first to run for a seat on the FVCC board, and notified the other eventual challengers of the trustee openings. In the days preceding the election, Berry blasted the incumbent trustees on his blog, fvcctrustees.com, for having “rubber-stamped a college curriculum at FVCC that is dumbing down American students,” embracing an “anti-Christian, Earth Worship religion,” and for having, “fallen for the communist plan to control our schools.”
Despite the harsh words, Berry congratulated the winners when reached Wednesday, and said the challengers ultimately brought more information to light about the election and FVCC.
“I’m not sitting out here harboring any hard feelings in any way whatsoever,” Berry said. “It was just doing our best all the way through to bring our positions before the public.”
Thomas Harding, who won reelection Tuesday and suffered some of the toughest criticism from Berry, said the challenges may prompt the trustees to improve how the board posts notices for openings.
“When you have criticism as harsh as what you had, we need to look at it and seriously consider what we do right and what we do wrong,” Harding said. “But we do that anyway.”
And though the incumbents won by margins doubling or tripling the vote counts of challengers, Harding noted that 20 percent to 25 percent of voters opted for the challengers.
“We need to look at what these folks think and try to show them that this isn’t how we operate,” Harding said. “There is little or no basis in fact in any of the accusations that we looked at here and I think time will prove that to be true.”
The results, released early Wednesday morning, showed Harding receiving 2,046 votes and John Phelps receiving 2,028 votes, handily defeating Berry, who received 708 votes, Roland Horst, who received 475 votes and Glenn Wehe, who received 449 votes in the district representing Bigfork, Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
In the Flathead High district, incumbent Shannon Lund received 2,529 votes, defeating Tim Baldwin’s 759 votes and Michael Hebert’s 525 votes. Nystuen, who was unopposed in the other Flathead High district, garnered 3,608 votes.
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