CHARLES TOWN – Candidates planning campaigns for a public office in Jefferson County next year will formally begin filing in January to put their names on the ballot.
But a few hopeful candidates, including six first-time campaigners, have already submitted “pre-candidacy” notices of their intentions to run for office. Those include four people looking to compete for two of the five county commission seats and five people eyeing three of the county’s five Board of Education spots.
The next primary election on May 10 will decide who serves for four years on the school board. The primary will determine party nominations for county commission, for county clerk and for circuit clerk for the Nov. 8 general election.
The only incumbent to file a pre-candidacy notice so far is Jacqueline Shadle, a Republican hoping to serve another six years as county clerk.
Both contests for county commission so far promise voters choices between longstanding liberal Democrats lining up against newcomer conservative Republicans.
State Delegate John Doyle, a Democrat now representing the 67th Delegate District serving the areas of Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry, will vie for one of the two county commission positions. Competing county-wide for votes for the same Shepherdstown commission seat from the opposite side of the political aisle will be first-time candidate Jennifer Krouse, a Shepherdstown mom of five and recent grandmother.
A Shepherdstown resident, Doyle has served Jefferson County on and off in the statehouse for 26 years. He also served three years as a state deputy secretary of revenue. He says he’s running for county commission because the Republican-controlled 2020 census redistricting placed him in a new delegate district dominated by Berkeley County residents, a geographic imbalance he said a candidate from Jefferson County is unlikely to overcome.
Doyle, 79, says he enjoys delving into the details of public policy to solve problems. His longstanding understanding of state law, bureaucracy and programs would make him particularly effective in addressing local challenges as a county commissioner, he said.
Doyle said he wants to make county government more transparent. He said he wants to mount an effort to reduce commissioner terms from six years to four.
“We have problems with our county commission that are both serious and urgent,” he said. “In particular, we have got to open up county government so that people know what the heck is going on. The commission needs to be far more transparent than it has been, and the other problems are, for the most part, a result of that lack of transparency.”
For example, Doyle said the current commission has unwisely changed its agenda by positioning a public comment period after making most of its decisions. “There’s a lack of trust in exactly why the commission does some of the things that it does, and I think it’s all because of a lack of transparency.”
Some county agencies and operating boards also too often conduct their business without transparent openness to the public, Doyle said. He said he wants to require more prominent public notices required to be placed on properties slated for proposed developments; the currently required signs are too small for the public to see and understand, he said.
“Whether it’s a housing development or an economic development project or whatever, it’s just a white piece of cardboard with some cursive writing scrawled on it,” he said, “and it’s not big enough to be seen from the road and sometimes it’s hiding in tall grass.”
Doyle, who opposed the Rockwool factory near Kearneysville, said he would work harder to promote development growth compatible with Jefferson County’s tourism and agricultural industries. He said the county is well-positioned for more commercial development to accommodate satellite offices for government and corporations in Washington, D.C., metro area.
He said he would oppose the current county commission’s efforts to allow industrial solar farms by changing current zoning ordinances. “In particular, they changed the zoning law without changing the [overarching comprehensive development] master plan, and, in my opinion, that’s unconstitutional,” he explained.
He cited a 1980 court case from Hardy County, West Virginia, that supports his position. “I think the proper way to handle this was by conditional use permit,” he said. “That’s the clean way of doing it.”
A Christian conservative, Krouse, a 47-year-old homemaker, says she decided to run for public office after becoming frustrated with increasingly leftward-shifting political debates and public policies. She states that she and her husband moved to Shepherdstown from suburban Maryland for more affordable living, less government regulation and lower taxes. She also moved to avoid “an increasingly out-of-touch school curriculum.”
“In the past two years, I’ve watched as that leftward march has become an all-out sprint,” she wrote in an email. “Over-regulation, poor economic policy, political correctness and cancel-culture are destroying people’s lives and livelihoods.
“To top it off, our freedoms have been taken away in the name of ‘safety.’ This has occurred at all levels of government and it’s been frightening to watch. These problems were a long time in the making and they must be fixed from the bottom up.”
As a commissioner, Krouse, whose husband works for the federal government, states that she would oppose intrusive government regulation of small businesses. She wrote that she would oppose another shutdown of businesses that occurred during the pandemic.
“I will NEVER vote for a policy that decreases our freedom,” she added.
Krouse explained that she would work as a commissioner to support government programs that help people “pull themselves out of poverty, illness or addiction.”
“When we give our neighbors a hand-up rather than a hand-out, we not only strengthen them, but we strengthen Jefferson County,” she wrote.
Doyle and Krouse will run to serve a six-year term in a Shepherdstown District seat on the county commission. A strikingly similar contrast of a liberal and a conservative candidate marks the second race for a Charles Town District on the commission.
Retired teacher Dale Manuel, 72, who has served nearly 30 years in elected positions as a former county commissioner, state delegate and school board member, is running as a liberal Democrat. He is seeking a third term on the commission. Manuel lost a 2016 re-election to the commission after serving two terms.
Clare Ath, 25, who was appointed in May to serve an unexpired term on the commission, is a conservative political newcomer mounting her first election campaign to retain her seat. Before earning a master’s degree in public policy last year from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Ath interned for Young America’s Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates conservative ideals on college campuses, and worked as a campus program manager and outreach coordinator for the National Review, the magazine founded by the late William F. Buckley Jr.
In the school board contest, George Holland of Harpers Ferry is among four people running for a four-year term on that public education body. Joyce Smith of Harpers Ferry, Tiffani Sheppard of Charles Town and Andrea Elliot of Harpers Ferry are other first-time declared candidates. Barbara Fuller, a Republican, is pursuing a second school board bid after coming up short in a crowded field during the last 2020 primary election.
A former Russian linguist and intelligence analyst for the federal government, Holland, 63, currently works as a sales team manager for a high-tech company. A county resident for about 25 years, he has two adult daughters who graduated from Jefferson County Schools. He served as a volunteer board member of the Jefferson County Development Authority about eight years ago.
“I think school boards are really important for the future of the county and the country,” he said. “I’m just really worried that the kids just aren’t getting the type of education today that they did back then” when his daughters attended the public school system several years ago.
“I’m just a big transparency buff,” he said. “And I hate people on both sides who kind of try to spin what they’re trying to do. Just be honest and say this is what we want to do, this is why we want to do it, this is what we’re going to spend, and this is what you’re going to get.”
Strengthening all students’ learning and academic achievement would be Holland’s primary focus as a school board member. He wants the school system to invigorate and sharpen its focus on the “hard skills” of math and science.
He also wants the school system to adopt more “transparent accounting” and more detailed budgeting reviews to direct resources to teachers, classrooms and effective academic programs.
Holland said Jefferson County has lots of local resources and is well-positioned to prepare its youth for successful careers in the robust job markets in Washington, D.C., and its surrounding suburbs. He said an academically strong school system—including one with a vigorous vocational skills program—will also create opportunities for job growth and economic development in the county.
“If you don’t give people the responsibility and make accountable for all those dollars that are spent, I think you’re in trouble,” he said. “And I think you’re short-selling our students, but we’re also short-selling our businesses and our future.”
Holland said he’s approaching his school board campaign as a nonpartisan citizen. “I think the whole point of education is to open people’s minds and get these kids to think critically to go through the data themselves and then to come to their own conclusion,” he said. “And my fear is that today’s academics is really taken over by a pretty deep, left-liberal bent. … I just really think we should keep politics out of the classroom.”
For state-level offices, Jefferson County voters will cast primary and general election ballots for a West Virginia Senate seat and for four House of Delegate seats. The county is represented by three delegates; the 2020 Census redistricting process carved out a fourth delegate district to represent the county.
Susan Benzinger, a 64-year-old Shannondale resident who recently retired as a pension plan attorney, is running as a Democrat for the newly created state delegate District representing Jefferson County. The Delegate District 100 extends from Shepherdstown through Shannondale, following the eastern edge of the county.
Benzinger, who has lived in the county full-time for a decade but grew up in Northern Virginia, said seeing unaddressed local needs prompted her to run for public office for the first time. “It just came to the point that we’re watching hungry kids get on school buses without coats,” she said. “How can you learn to multiply if you’re hungry and cold? You can’t.”
She and her husband also started a scholarship program to help students attend Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in Martinsburg.
A priority issue for Benzinger would be helping to bring high-speed internet to Jefferson County and other parts of West Virginia. She said she would work to maintain safe and sustainable natural resources, including the water in the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. She said she would work to inform other lawmakers in Charleston that Jefferson County has as much need for government services and funding as other areas of the state.
Saying she would serve as a delegate as if it were a full-time job, Benzinger said it was time for her to get directly involved in serving her community and neighbors after observing local and national politics in retirement.
“We keep saying, ‘Geez, what’s going on. It’s time to stand up for democracy,’” she said. “The time has come for everyone to stand up and say, ‘Wait a minute. Where are we going with all this?’”
“America is a wonderful place, but there shouldn’t be hungry kids getting on a bus going to school,” she added.