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When the 2020 race to elect two of the three Douglas County commissioners kicked off, candidates were gearing up for a race focused on long-standing issues like transportation, growth, school safety and gun control.

That was before COVID-19 arrived, followed by last month’s move by the current commissioners to pull the county out of the Tri-County Health Department. And suddenly, a whole new set of political topics took center stage. 

Now, commissioner hopefuls are sparring over government mask-wearing orders, personal liberty and, most significantly, whether or not it’s time for the county to create its own health department.

“I think that’s a lot of what the election will come down to — a debate over whether the county should remove itself from Tri-County Health Department,” said Jimmy Sengenberger, a conservative radio host in the Denver area and a columnist for Colorado Politics magazine.

Many right-leaning residents in the county are increasingly frustrated by the appointed health department staff’s authority to make decisions for the community, Sengenberger said. 

“It’s really an energizing issue for the conservatives,” he said.

The Republican candidates aren’t the only ones focusing on the proposed Tri-County divorce. So are Democrats, many of whom oppose or at least question the pullout.

“I feel like the progressive candidates are taking that as one of their major selling points,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of the political-advocacy group ProgressNow Colorado, about the commissioners’ race. 

Democrats hope that what they see as widespread public opposition to the Tri-County pullout will give them a shot at winning in what traditionally has been a solidly conservative county, one with an all-Republican board of commissioners that often votes unanimously.

As of Aug. 4, registered Republicans in Douglas County outnumbered registered Democrats by 2-1 — 104,487 to 52,637 — with 109,162 unaffiliated voters and 3,823 registered to small parties.

In 2016, every precinct in the county turned in majority votes for Donald Trump except for scattered neighborhoods in Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree and the Meridian-Grand View Estates areas at the county’s north end, according to a New York Times analysis.

‘The elephant in the room’

Voters this fall will select commissioners in districts 2 and 3. District 1 Commissioner Abe Laydon is midway through his term.

Although the districts encompass different parts of the county, the commisioners are elected “at large” countywide.

District 3 Commissioner Lora Thomas, a Republican, is defending her seat against Democratic challenger Darien Wilson. And after announcing the planned split from Tri-County, she’s been defending that move on the campaign trail as well.

“Of course, the elephant in the room is the Tri-County Health decision, and it’s very clear that we have been having discussions about Tri-County for a while,” Thomas said. 

Thomas emphasized the commissioners’ issue was less with the health department’s employees — noting Executive Director John Douglas helped commissioners secure 13 “variances” — exceptions to state health rules that restricted business activities and gatherings — to reopen Douglas County amid the pandemic.

Instead, she said, the pullout plan has more to do with governance by an agency that sets public-health policy for Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams County.

Tri-County’s nine-member board is appointed by commissioners in its three-county jurisdiction but acts independently. 

“The concern was the nine-member, unelected board of health that made a decision contrary to Dr. Douglas’ recommendation,” she said. 

Douglas had said a mask mandate was not necessary in Douglas County before the health board voted 5-4 on July 8 to require masks in all of Tri-County’s jurisdiction for 90 days. The order gave communities the ability to opt out.

“We have a representative form of government and it’s imperative that our citizens have their needs recommended,” Thomas said.

‘Science isn’t partisan’

Wilson, the Democrat seeking to oust Thomas, called cutting ties with Tri-County “fiscally irresponsible and politically motivated.” 

“We have economies of scale when we share resources with two other counties,” she said. “They will have to duplicate efforts by setting up a health department here.” 

In under a year, in order to create a new health agency, Douglas County would need to hire dozens of public health managers and employees and conduct a national search for a new executive director, she said.

“Who is going to want to come work here when the leadership is pushing them to make decisions that are against evidence-based best practices?” Wilson said. “We are going to end up with someone who is highly partisan.”

Leaving Tri-County in a pandemic “is not protecting the safety and welfare of the citizens,” she said.

Wilson also criticized an argument commonly used against Tri-County Health — that the agency is run by unelected bureaucrats.

“My thinking is science isn’t partisan, and having a non-partisan scientist make recommendations based on the science (is) actually better, because they are neutral,” she said. “They don’t have an agenda.” 

Wilson said that, if elected, she would work to stay in Tri-County — “if they would have us.”

‘It is the right time’

In the District 2 race, with incumbent Roger Partridge term limited, Republican George Teal faces Democrat Lisa Neal-Graves.

To Teal, a Castle Rock councilmember, the pandemic has generated new and heightened interest in politics among community members. 

“I really think there’s been an awakening of personal liberty. I think there are a lot of us who had never considered that before — the effect that government can have on their lives,” he said.

The pandemic also forced candidates to throw out their campaign playbooks, he said. County assemblies were held virtually. The pandemic “constrained our ability” to knock on doors. 

“You can’t have the mass gatherings of campaign supporters at fundraisers anymore,” he said. “It really redefined how the campaign went.”

Teal believes leaving Tri-County Health is the “right move. And it is the right time.”

Teal said joining Tri-County Health after the 1965 South Platte River flood devastated the area made sense. The county’s growth is one reason he supports setting up a county health department today. 

Douglas County’s population was a few thousand in the 1960s, compared to an estimated 351,000 today.

Well before county commissioners announced their intent to withdraw from Tri-County Health, the possibility of a new local health department was already brewing in Castle Rock, with support from Teal. 

The councilmember on May 19 made a motion to have town staff research the idea of creating a municipal health department. The idea was floated at previous council meetings, Teal said, and he wanted to more formally explore leaving Tri-County Health.

The motion passed unanimously, with several councilmembers expressing support for researching a municipal health department and working with county commissioners to see if other Douglas County communities had interest in withdrawing as well. 

At the time, Teal said there was no rush to leave Tri-County Health, and that the suggestion was not meant to address the current COVID-19 crisis. But it would help Castle Rock prepare for the next crisis, he said.

“I think we have an obligation to the town to plan today,” Teal said May 19.

‘It’s a 50-year relationship’

Democratic candidate Neal-Graves has taken a more cautious stance than District 3 Democratic candidate Wilson on reversing the current board’s move to break up with Tri-County. 

Neal-Graves said she would “do the work to understand what the issues” are driving that decision. She vowed to make residents aware of whatever her findings were. 

But she also said given what she knows now, “it would be really difficult to support a separation” and questioned the cost-effectiveness of a county department as opposed to the partnership Douglas County has now with Adams and Arapahoe counties through Tri-County Health.

“I just don’t know how we would actually replicate what we have with those guys,” she said. “It’s a 50-year relationship. You don’t just walk away from a 50-year relationship.” 

Neal-Graves said she did scrutinize how commissioners handled the decision, listening to a virtual meeting on July 14 in which commissioners addressed the issue with constituents.

Everyone who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting voiced opposition to leaving Tri-County Health.

Neal-Graves said residents should have had a chance to weigh in before Douglas County made a decision. 

“The call (on July 14), in my humble opinion, should have been what they did in the first place,” she said. “The people elect you as their voice but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to share their voice with you.”

‘Bleeding and cross partisanship’

As conservative commentator Sengenberger sees it, the progressive focus on the Tri-County issue fits in neatly with a liberal, national narrative that the political right doesn’t respect science, he said.

“Liberals are looking at this to highlight the idea that Republicans and conservatives are not following science and are guided by ideological ideas that aren’t rooted in science,” he said.

Even if the Tri-County divorce is the hot topic in the commissioners races now doesn’t mean it will stay that way, progressive commentator Silverii suggests.

With less than three months remaining until election day and the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic changing daily, all sorts of new issues could rise up and take the lead between now and then, he said.

“I’ve hung up my crystal ball for the remainder of this election. I didn’t predict a global pandemic virus would kick everything we were talking about out of the frame, and then I didn’t predict that racial justice protests would kick the virus out of frame,” Silverii said.

“If Douglas County unfortunately experiences a spike (in COVID-19 cases), … then I think it will have an effect.”

The question is if these issues will play out along party lines or not, Silverii said.

“I think there will be some bleeding and cross partisanship,” he said, “based on how people see this thing being handled.”