County Commissioner Boyd Britton waved over a group of kids to his booth at the Grant County Fair on a recent warm Wednesday afternoon.
“Would you like a mustache?” said Britton, handing each of the youngsters a fake bit of facial hair.
His volunteers came up with the campaign trademark because Britton has arguably the most recognizable handlebar mustache in Grant County — it's long and thick, with two distinctive curls he shapes carefully with wax each morning.
Britton, a county commissioner for 13 years, was at the fair asking citizens to vote no on a recall against him. In some ways, the effort to recall Britton is the latest symptom of the divided spirit in Grant County. Two recent events — the Canyon Creek Fire and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Harney County — have caused unrest in the community.
Britton voted for
. He also voted against sponsoring a county-led investigation into last year’s Canyon Creek Fire, which some believe was mishandled by the U.S. Forest Service.
Related: An Occupation In Eastern Oregon
“Over [the] last several years there’s been a huge disconnect between the commissioner and the citizens,” said Jim Sproul, one of the leaders of the recall effort and a former candidate against Britton in a primary campaign. Sproul was upset with all three of the county's elected leaders, known as the county court, for voting not to investigate the fire that destroyed 43 homes and thousands of acres of private timber lands.
“There was an overwhelming, overwhelming bunch of people that wanted an investigation,” Sproul said. “The court just blatantly refused to pay attention.”
Britton and the other county leaders said it wasn’t the county’s place to lead such an investigation, and Britton said he saw a greater need to escape the trauma of the fire.
“I just felt we needed to start healing and move forward,” he said.
Britton isn’t the only leadership figure that Sproul and others wanted out.
“The initial push was to recall all three,” said Sproul, who also emphasized that he’s not a fan of recalls, generally.
In May, incumbent County Commissioner Chris Labhart lost in a primary, replaced by Prairie City Mayor Jim Hamsher. Sproul and the other recall supporters did consider a recall against Judge Scott Myers, but decided against it after realizing that if they were successful, Myers’ replacement would be chosen by Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat.
Prairie City resident and retiree Frances Preston helped collect the 490 signatures necessary for the recall petition against Britton to move forward.
“I’m just excited about the new eyes and ears and new approaches, and new ways of doing business,” Preston said. “And just having new people in there mixing it up with their ways and views and approaches.”
Britton said he believes he’s been targeted in part because he’s not shy about taking positions. But he also characterizes his leadership as open-minded.
“I am not this all-knowing wise, son-of-a-gun,” he said. “I do good just to open up a book sometimes. But I do work hard at it, and I do listen to the other side."
Prairie City resident Janine Goodwin supports Britton in the recall, despite having campaigned against him in the past when a more liberal candidate ran against him.
“I have always respected his work and his willingness to engage anyone in discussion,” Goodwin said of Britton. “I don't always agree with his decisions, but I respect them, and he explains them with a clarity that proves he has considered the issues thoroughly.”
But despite how the recall has split the community, Britton said it’s also been a sort of blessing.
“Since this has happened I’ve had such a variety of people come in,” he said. “From the logging community, the ranching community, the education community. The Democrats, God bless ‘em, are coming to to my rescue.”
The recall effort isn't just about Britton; it's also about deeper disagreements over federal management of public lands. It comes less than two months after a similar,
, who was an outspoken critic of the refuge occupation. Britton’s campaign is even using Grasty’s recycled “Vote No On Recall” signs.
Prairie resident Lindsay Rausch believed the Malheur occupation invigorated some people’s frustrations in Grant County.
“You know I think there was some unrest with the fires," Rausch said. “I think that unrest was given a permit, it was let loose by this business at the refuge.”
Rausch said she appreciates Britton's approach to federal agencies. He's known for convening the Forest Service, loggers, and environmentalists in a collaborative that increased timber harvests and helped keep the last local mill open.
“His leadership is the characteristic that makes him stand out,” Rausch said. “And I speak specifically to his efforts with the collaborative.”
But to Sproul and other recall supporters, Britton’s relationship with the Forest Service is too close.
“He’s a firm believer that if the federal agencies says something that’s just the way it is,” Sproul said. “That’s not in the best interest in Grant County.”
Petitioners also say Britton should have recused himself in county decisions involving local agencies, because he does work with those agencies as a welder.
Sproul believes Britton should disengage from “any decision where he has a financial interest,” including those about Forest Service policies or relationships more generally.
But Britton supporter Lindsay Rausch says that’s unreasonable: “You cannot point to a single business in this county that doesn’t do business with a political figure, or school board members, or Forest Service employees.
"I mean, that's how it works in a small town."
Ballots for the recall election are due Tuesday, and the results could be the next signal for where Grant County is headed as a community. In November, voters will also decide who they want for Grant County sheriff. Incumbent Sheriff Glenn Palmer has been both criticized and praised for being outspoken about what he sees as federal overreach. His opponent, former Undersheriff Todd McKinley, says Palmer does not represent the majority of the community.
If there's one thing that both sides of this most recent recall effort can agree on, it's that this election issue represents an ideological split between those who feel Grant County should work with federal agencies, and those who want county leaders to push back against federal authority.
“It’s about the soul of Grant County,” Britton said. “It's about what kind of community we’re going to be.”