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What explains even split in mayor's race?

Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola, left, and challenger Tim Matthes are in a tight race. Updated election results released Monday show Matthes with a 1,429-1,427 lead. - Tim Kelly/Staff photo
Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola, left, and challenger Tim Matthes are in a tight race. Updated election results released Monday show Matthes with a 1,429-1,427 lead.
— image credit: Tim Kelly/Staff photo

Plenty of people have expressed surprise that the mayoral election in Port Orchard is a cliffhanger.

“I was amazed,” said Bob Geiger, a preeminent figure in local politics who served 45 years on the City Council and operated a downtown pharmacy even longer.

On a recent afternoon at Rick’s Barber Shop, Geiger and shop owner Rick Wyatt, who served 12 years on the council along with two stints on the city’s planning commission, discussed why they think the mayor’s race is so close.

Both said they had expected Mayor Lary Coppola, who got nearly 70 percent of the vote when he was elected in 2007, to win re-election to a second term. But his challenger in this year’s race, Tim Matthes, holds a two-vote lead with most of the ballots counted, and a recount seems all but certain.

Wyatt attributes that primarily to what Coppola did during his first term, based on what he’s heard in many conversations at the barber shop he’s run for more than 40 years.

“What I’m hearing from a lot of folks, is he won the election and within months he immediately wanted a raise,” Wyatt said, referring to the controversial decision by the City Council in 2008 to make the mayor’s position full-time and triple the salary to $62,000.

“I think that’s one of the biggest reasons right there,” for half the voters in the city not wanting to give Coppola a second term, he added.

It wasn’t just the big salary increase, he noted, it was also the timing — the recession was creating economic hardships, which continue to affect many families.

“It didn’t go over too well with a lot of people in our community,” Wyatt said.

Another past controversy that may have influenced voters, he said, was Coppola’s arrest on a DUI charge a year and a half ago.

“A barber listens,” Wyatt said, “and I think it’s safe to say for folks in here, particularly among older voters, it may have been the DUI.”

Geiger and Wyatt both speculated that another factor in diminished support for Coppola may have been the annexation of McCormick Woods into the city, a decision they both said they would have opposed if they had still been on the City Council.

When Coppola was elected by a wide margin in 2007, there were 1,641 votes cast in the election. This year the vote total is more than 2,800, and the McCormick Woods area probably accounts for many of those additional voters.

“All the studies (on the McCormick Woods annexation) … said don’t annex it, you’re not going to gain as much as you think you will,” Geiger said.

He also noted there were contentious issues over water rates associated with the annexation.

The issue of higher water rates for all city residents was hotly debated at hearings this summer, and even though the City Council sets water rates, the issue may have been a factor in the mayor’s race.

It was one of the issues — along with the mayor’s salary and the city’s crime rate — listed on anti-Coppola fliers mailed to voters late in the campaign by the political committee People for a Better Port Orchard.

There’s no way to accurately gauge the effects those attack ads might have had, whether influencing voters to support Matthes — who has said he had nothing to do with People for a Better Port Orchard, though it was funded by some of his supporters — or possibly causing a backlash against him among voters turned off by the negative approach. But when an election turns out so tight, any factor that swayed even a few voters is magnified.

“I think it was quite unusual,” Geiger said of the fliers. “We hadn’t seen much of that type of thing.”

Wyatt, for one, didn’t like the negative campaign tactics.

“Win or lose, you want it to be clean,” he said.

Still, he said the extremely close race might yield some positive effects, because whoever emerges as the winner will have to be mindful that the voters were evenly split on who should be mayor.

“I think it’s good for a lot of reasons,” Wyatt said.

If Coppola winds up winning a second term, “I believe it’ll make a better mayor and a better person out of Lary.

“I know that sounds pretty strong and pretty bold, but I think sometimes it’s a good thing if something comes out pretty close.”

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