By Jacob Wheeler
Dave Barrons, northern Michigan’s trusted television meteorologist for nearly two decades, officially declared his candidacy today for a seat on the Leelanau County Commission. Barrons, a Democrat, lives in Elmwood Township in the county’s southeast corner. He seeks to unseat District 2 incumbent, Republican Deb Rushton, in this November’s election.
The seven-seat Leelanau County Commission has drawn rebuke from local citizens and attracted negative headlines from statewide media sources since it decided last spring to disband the county’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a move Barrons cites as his principle motivation for seeking office. Four of the current commissioners, including Rushton, march to a Tea Party-inspired drumbeat of shrinking local government. Their movement proved rough around the edges last April when the husband of a commissioner walked into the lobby of the Traverse City Record-Eagle and accosted a reporter with threats of violence. The paper’s coverage revealed that several commissioners, including Rushton, identified local economic development with a United Nations-backed “Agenda 21” conspiracy promulgated by right-wing media performer Glenn Beck. The Record-Eagle also revealed that Melinda Lautner, considered the leader of the commission’s anti-government wing, has received over $200,000 since 1999 in government wages, taxpayer-financed health insurance benefits, and public sector employment perks.
The embarrassment caused by the brouhaha, and the belief that local government ought to promote economic development and job creation, inspired Barrons to run for office.
“If you terminate the EDC, you’re saying to the world that you don’t want to be involved,” Barrons told the Glen Arbor Sun. “My opponent has said outrageous stuff about not wanting any economic development. But in the future, this community will need a mix of residents. Every school in the county needs more students, and young families with children to pay for those schools, and boost the economic health of the county. We can’t expect to survive as a county without them.”
Barrons adds that the County Commission’s hands-off attitude could attract unsavory characters when it shrugs off responsibility for supporting the local economy.
“When county government takes its voice out of economic development, even just a leadership voice, it says that we’re not watching over business development here. That could leave the county open to shady developers like those guys at Sugar Loaf. Schemers may look and see a Wild West where no one is watching.”
(His opponent Rushton and other commissioners have voiced concern about Leelanau County inspector Steve Haugen’s move to inspect Sugar Loaf resort, and perhaps condemn the long-vacant ski resort — despite local support for Haugen’s effort.)
Barrons believes his name, facial recognition and trusted “brand” make him a reputable, if not formidable, candidate for office. He worked for 19 years as chief meteorologist for 9&10 News before retiring in 2009. Before that he was a street reporter and meteorologist for TV 7&4 for 10 years.
“People, especially older voters, know my name, and when they see me on their front porch, they’ll know my face,” says Barrons, who will turn 66 this spring, as will his wife Patty. “Part of my brand is that I’m a trustworthy guy. A television viewer once told me my brand was that ‘viewers know that I will never pass judgment up on them’.” Barrons adds that while may weathermen come across as arrogant, he remembers walking off the street in 1982 to land his part-time job at 7&4. “I wasn’t arrogant. I was scared to death,” he laughs.
Barrons, who grew up in Midland, spent childhood summers in Pentwater in Oceana County and worked for the Department of Natural Resources for six years in Mears State Park. He earned degrees from Miami University of Ohio, Purdue and the University of North Carolina, and moved to northern Michigan in 1982.
His most gratifying moment as a weatherman came in the late ‘80s when Mort Neff, founder of the popular outdoors hunting and fishing show “Michigan Outdoors” invited him to speak at an engagement in Harbor Springs. Neff wrote to Barrons afterward and told him “you’ve become my weatherman!”
Though Barrons retired from television five years ago, he doesn’t sit idle. He says he’s ready to knock on 2,100 doors in Elmwood Township. Together with Mick Seymour, a business owner in Glen Arbor, he created the Sleeping Birding Trail, which guides birders to 34 recommended birding sites along Michigan’s pristine coastal highway M-22. He continues to promote community resilience through a show on UpNorthMedia public access television, though co-founder and friend, Bob Russell, passed away late last year. And he helps wife Patty with running Grand Traverse Dyslexia Services.
“One of the reasons why I’m upset about the lack of economic development is that I’m working my butt off, and reaching into my own wallet, for the future of the county,” says Barrons, who admits that he hasn’t skied in two weeks.
The Leelanau County Democrats show signs of fielding a strong crop of candidates for the 2014 elections, in hopes of neutralizing the current commission’s anti-government bent. Peachy Rentenbach, who represents Glen Arbor and Empire, is currently the only Democrat on the commission. Barrons is the first challenger to declare his intent to run, and he admits that the local Democratic Party appears more organized than usual in a traditionally Republican county.
“I think we (as a party) have a unique opportunity because the current commission has said such outrageous things,” says Barrons. “The key word here is ‘balance’. The party wants to provide balance for the county. Right now the commission is controlled by a skewed, single-minded voice, one that needs to be balanced.”
Barrons believes that the Democratic Party’s chances to make inroads in 2014 are due to potential blowback against the current commission’s choices and negative publicity and shifting demographics in Leelanau County. He sees this election as a unique opportunity.
Since retiring from television, Barrons has been an outspoken advocate for recognizing and combatting the threat of Climate Change — an issue about which he feels passionate, though he acknowledges won’t be directly part of his campaign. Nevertheless, Barrons will stand with Leelanau County fruit growers, who have faced two crop-ruining “freeze-outs” in the past decade, though farmers are typically told to expect that once in a lifetime. Early spring thaws, followed by untimely frosts, and extreme winters like the one we’re currently experiencing, are examples of freakish weather that suggest the dangers of Climate Change. If elected, he’ll do his part to promote public transportation in Leelanau County, in order to reduce carbon emissions from automobiles. The BATA bus, for example, currently runs frequent routes from Suttons Bay to Traverse City along M-22, along the coastal edge of District 2.
This extreme winter will force Barrons to wait until spring to knock on doors though, and he aspires to visit all 2,100 homes in the district. Elmwood Township is traditionally Republican, rural and residential, and it boasts no schools, churches or coffee shops as populous rally points.
“Everyone in the district needs to know that I’m running,” says Barrons. “The first thing that I’ll do is reach out to Republican friends of mine to ask for their support.”