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Battle for Berea: Will Greg Lakes Challenge Larry Combs for Magistrate?

04.25.09 04:40 PM – Andy McDonald
There’s been some talk lately about whether Berea City Councilman Greg Lakes will challenge incumbent Magistrate Larry Combs for a position on Fiscal Court.

Combs supporters, in case you’ve missed it, are already posting messages of support on the message board of this Web site, stating it would be a waste for Greg Lakes to get into the race.

Those folks are raising an interesting question well in advance of the 2010 race: Can Greg Lakes run a competitive campaign against a long-time incumbent?

Recent trends in local elections say Lakes could indeed make it very interesting.

In the crowded fields of the Berea City Council races, Lakes has garnered the most votes two elections in a row. That’s especially significant in 2008 because he took the most votes despite an especially bitter campaign season when voters punished Berea incumbents.

Lakes, along with other council members, voted for the restaurant tax, insurance premium tax and the increase in property tax rates, yet he suffered no political consequences. That’s remarkable. You’ve heard of the Teflon president? Lakes could make a legitimate claim to being the Teflon councilman. Nothing sticks to him.

So what makes Greg Lakes a Teflon councilman? One theory is that Lakes is especially well liked because of the business he his in. As a funeral director, Lakes is in a position to lend a hand to people when they are at a very low point in their lives – following the death of a loved one or friend.

The death of somebody you know and the events surrounding it tend to leave a deep impression. As such, if the guy in charge of the arrangements does his job well, if he demonstrates grace during a difficult time, that tends to be remembered.

Lakes is also fortunate enough to be chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department Committee – a body that has made some very good strides in recent months. Neither does it hurt Lakes that he has a child in youth sports, giving him the opportunity to interact regularly with local residents.

Larry Combs, meanwhile, parried two stiff challenges in the 2006 election, first from Larry Todd, who is well liked, and from Republican Howard Evans, who lost by a respectably thin margin.

Combs won those races, I think, because he’s very skilled at playing the advantages of incumbency. When you call him for something, he delivers.
Combs is also an effective campaigner, and with his health restored, he promises to be even more formidable in 2010.

But one disadvantage of incumbency is that with credit, you also take the blame, and if Madison County voters are fed up with government – federal, state and local – Combs could have a fight on his hands.

But here’s where it gets really interesting:

As one prominent public official recently pointed out, Lakes could mitigate his political risk by running against Combs in the Democratic Primary.

If Lakes runs in the primary and loses to Combs in May, Lakes still has time to re-file for Berea City Council in August, and most likely, retain his seat. That could weaken Combs, who would have to dump a bunch of money in a primary fight with a likable opponent.

But if Lakes doesn’t run as a Republican, he could miss out on riding a wave of voter discontent if the economy continues to worsen. If the economy turns around, however, and people are content with government, Combs is looking pretty good.

But that’s the thing with Lakes – with the currency of his reputation in the community, he is one of the few guys who could run as either a Republican or Democrat and still do very well.

Meanwhile, if Combs faces opposition, he has an interesting tactical choice before him:

He could tout his accomplishments in helping to provide a growing list of services to southern Madison County voters, but again, he could risk doing so when voters may be getting sick of taxation and government control.

On the other hand, Combs can become the Fiscal Court’s Mr. Thrift, and if you notice in recent months, when projects come up, Combs is one of the magistrates who raises questions about the cost to taxpayers.

Lakes, meanwhile, is playing things cool. We actually don’t know if he even wants to run for magistrate. He’s patient. I get the sense that Lakes will take his time listening to people, then plot his course.

It’s all speculation for now, but if Greg Lakes does step up to challenge Larry Combs in 2010, it could be even more interesting than the 2006 race for first district magistrate. That is really saying something.

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