SNOW HILL — Although the election is months away, it’s guaranteed there will be at least three new faces on the next Worcester County Commission after Commissioner Jim Purnell confirmed this week that he will not be seeking re-election.
Commissioners Judy Boggs and Louise Gulyas have already announced that this would be their last term on the commission, leaving the field wide open.
A total of eight candidates have already filed in addition to the four remaining commission incumbents, Jim Bunting, Bud Church, Merrill Lockfaw and Virgil Shockley.
The most dramatic change to the commission is the departure of Purnell, a nearly 20-year veteran of the group. Purnell was the first black commissioner ever elected in Worcester. He defeated Republican incumbent Floyd Bassett by a margin of 744 to 659 votes in 1995. Purnell’s victory came at the end of a protracted three-year legal battle between the ACLU and the county, which at the time fought to keep an at-large voting system but was eventually forced into the current district system.
The district system resulted in Worcester’s first-ever minority-majority district, District 2, which Purnell has represented since 1995. Purnell’s departure means the district will have a new representative the first time ever.
So far, Diana Purnell is the only candidate who has filed to replace Purnell. She puts education at the top of her list for where she wants to see county funding and effort applied.
“I always like to see innovative growth within the educational system. We have excellent schools within the system, but there’s always a lot more that can be done, I think. We can always look outside of the box,” she said.
Diana Purnell singled out the Worcester Technical High School (WTHS) as one of the county’s proudest accomplishments and something she would be looking at if elected to the commission.
“I love the fact that we have a tech school. I love that tech school because we have to really prepare our young people to be the leaders of our county … Here’s another way that we can prepare our young people to be leaders in our county but not only our county but within the state and within the country because that’s one of the things that we have to prepare our kids for,” she said.
If she should win in the fall, Diana Purnell acknowledged that there will likely be a “learning curve” moving from private resident to Commissioner, but she feels prepared.
“You go in with an open mind, you go in and you research, you ask questions,” she said. “My being in business and having done those things before, I do bring that to the table.”
Another candidate who filed recently is Kathryn Danko-Lord, who will be challenging long-time incumbent Virgil Shockley for District 4. Shockley has held the seat in 1998.
Owner of Costa Ventosa Winery and Vineyard as well as president of the Worcester County Farm Bureau, Danko-Lord has a three-board platform focusing on small business, education and agriculture.
“The majority of our economic growth in this county has been on the small businesses,” she said. “We always like to see the big guys come in if we can but it’s the small businesses, I think, that keep our machines running and keep our people employed. So I’d just like to be able to do more for small businesses, more support.”
As a farmer and winemaker, Danko-Lord said that balancing business with preserving agriculture is important in Worcester. Underlying all of that is the need to keep talented individuals in every occupation in the county, or to prevent “brain drain,” as she calls it.
“It’s the whole notion that we have so many talented people, whether they’re trades people, whether they’re college educated, high school educated, whatever. Just for the talent that we have and unfortunately there are so many people that have to move away to have a good standard of living,” she said.
Besides her current experience, Danko-Lord has a long list of past careers and education, including management positions at Agri Stats, ConAgra and Perdue.
“I haven’t had experience in government but I have had the opportunity, to lead large groups of people …,” she said. “The girl that makes wine has also had some pretty in-depth experiences with leading large groups of people and working with different stakeholders.”
At this point at least one candidate or incumbent has filed for every district. In District 1, incumbent Lockfaw is currently unopposed as is incumbent Church in District 3. Dianna Purnell is unopposed in District 2 at the moment as is candidate Joe Mitrecic, a current Ocean City councilman who is seeking Gulyas’ open District 7. Danko-Lord and Shockley will battle for District 4 at this point, while in District 6 candidate Linda Busick and incumbent Bunting will have a re-match from the 2010 election.
Boggs’ open District 5 is currently the hottest race, with four candidates filed thus far, including Democrat Tom Wilson and Republicans Grant Helvey, Chip Bertino and Ray Unger.