In the last 25 years, only one person has unseated an incumbent selectman in West Tisbury. Her name is Cynthia Mitchell, and she beat Fred Fisher back in 1990. Now she's the one fighting to keep her chair for a fifth term on the board of selectmen. Intriguingly, a central issue in this race turns out to be Steamship Authority politics rather than a village issue.
The challenger is Glenn Hearn, a land bank commissioner and a high school math tutor whose campaign trail has played out for the last six weeks on a cocktail circuit where the candidate pitches his platform to people sipping red wine and gnoshing on cheese.
His main gripe with Mrs. Mitchell is her role in steamship issues.
"It was not the right thing to do," Mr. Hearn told people last Sunday at a gathering held at Dick Knabel's house on Panhandle Road.
That's really all he has to say, yet the point seems to resound without elaboration. From the moment he filed papers last month, Mr. Hearn has zeroed in on Mrs. Mitchell's actions in December after the county commissioners voted not to reappoint J.B. Riggs Parker as the Vineyard member of the SSA governing board.
The selectman and town treasurer was at the forefront of efforts to convince state legislators to change the way boat line governors are appointed and even to reverse the county commissioners' appointment of Kathryn Roessel. With the assistance of New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire and virtually no public discussion on the Vineyard, Mrs. Mitchell helped craft an amendment to the Kass legislation.
"I didn't agree that selectmen should be spending so much time lobbying selectmen in Falmouth and Judge Kass, and going to the statehouse without really having any public forum or getting public input," Mr. Hearn told the Gazette when he announced he was challenging Mrs. Mitchell. "That was very obvious at the meeting they had at the high school. They just went overboard."
Mrs. Mitchell has felt the sting of such criticism and is making efforts to apologize, not for her involvement in SSA issues, but for moving ahead without consulting voters.
"It's clear that there is a strong, passionate group of residents in town affairs who feel keenly about an array of steamship issues," she said yesterday in an interview with the Gazette. "They have felt left out of recent actions, and that was clearly a mistake to have not brought them along, to have not consulted them."
But even with the apologies, the question is whether this mistake will cost Mrs. Mitchell a political career in town. It has certainly meant that she can not count on a vote from her own next door neighbor, Mr. Knabel. On Sunday, the driveway they share was lined with campaign signs for Mr. Hearn.
"I was very unhappy with the way the steamship business came down with regard to the whole flap over Riggs Parker," Mr. Knabel said this week. "To say I was appalled would be putting too light a touch on it."
To Mr. Knabel, who has spearheaded efforts to clean up pollution in the Hudson River and is no stranger to political activity, the boat line controversy has found some traction with voters because it speaks to a bigger problem in town politics: voters feeling left out.
"There are indications that the SSA and other issues have opened up a fault line in West Tisbury," he said. "Between the three [selectmen], they have close to 60 years total. . . . Newcomers aren't encouraged and aren't welcomed to participate."
Mr. Hearn has made the same point, and promises to make town government what he calls more inclusive.
But Mrs. Mitchell bristles at the accusation, arguing that selectmen have been "highly inclusive," appointing many advisory committees. "I've been told West Tisbury has more volunteers," she said, "than any other town on the Island."
But while the selectman talks about her board as a unit, recent events coupled with this year's election have brought some discord to the table. It was December when his fellow selectmen - Mrs. Mitchell and John Early - chastised John Alley for his vote on the county commission to end Mr. Parker's tenure.
And no matter what the election results are, it will be a board with some division. Mr. Early is Mrs. Mitchell's campaign manager, and Mr. Alley has thrown his support behind the challenger.
With 12 years as selectman, Mrs. Mitchell is junior member. Mr. Alley has served for 26 years and Mr. Early for 25 years.
"When voters say it's time for a change, while I understand it, I would say I don't feel like I'm the one to go," said Mrs. Mitchell.
As for issues outside the realm of the Steamship Authority, the two candidates have staked out different territory. Mrs. Mitchell wants to continue her work with the Dukes County Health Council, hoping to launch a health insurance plan for Islanders within the next few months.
Mr. Hearn would like to change the way selectmen's meetings are held and give the public more of a chance to share their views, rather than waiting until the end of a meeting.
"Members of the public are not allowed to speak until after selectmen have already discussed and voted," Mr. Hearn told people at the gathering on Sunday. "I want to open participation."
Both candidates are concerned about rising taxes and have proposed similar measures for tackling the issue. Both have proposed forming a committee made up of retired business leaders who now live in town.
"They could look at the books and budgeting and do it in a more efficient way," said Mr. Hearn. "As an engineer, I know how to come up with the best system at the least cost. If you work hard enough, you can get to that goal."
Mrs. Mitchell said, "We have great resources here, and we can create a budget policy people feel they can participate in."
The candidates for selectman will get a chance to share more of their views on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Howes House. The only other contested race in town is for library trustee.