With the high profile supervisorial seats all taken in June's primary, one of the few local contests saving Humboldt from being a complete electoral snoozefest was the contentious race to represent Eureka's second ward. The main players: incumbent City Councilmember Linda Atkins and challenger Joe Bonino.
The mood at Democratic headquarters on election night went from optimistic to stoked before reaching all-out giddy as a couple of dozen party die-hards munched Halloween-colored corn chips and cheered the results coming across the TV screens. The revelers moved in and out of rooms plastered with lefty campaign signs, sipping chilled bottles of Alleycat Amber and joyfully heckling villainous Republicans as they went down to defeat.
Just 14 minutes after NBC called the presidential election for Barack Obama, igniting squeals and hugs, applause and tears of joy, Atkins bounded through the front door and hollered, "We got the Supreme Court!" And then, with a little jump, she added, "Woo hoo!"
Atkins had come from the regular Tuesday council meeting at city hall, and she was completely unaware of how her own bid at reelection was going. The lone progressive voice left on the council, she had spent months campaigning against a likeable and well-funded Republican challenger. But hours before most of the votes would be tallied, she already felt victorious.
"I won because President Obama won," she effused. "The Supreme Court is absolutely the most important thing this election."
The good news kept rolling in. "We have a lesbian senator!" Atkins cheered a few minutes later, referring to Tammy Baldwin's victory in Wisconsin, which made her the U.S. Senate's first out lesbian. More cheers erupted as Maryland and Maine became the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. And the good cheer continued as Obama kept racking up states and those Electoral College votes.
Bonino's event across town at Babetta's was more subdued. Anticipating the late hour that local election results usually start rolling in, the gathering was scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m. -- well after the presidential suspense had been played out. The man of the hour, looking debonair in a blazer, tie and bright red, white and blue starred scarf, chatted cordially with supporters and guests.
"You want some pizza?" he offered one reporter who failed to resist. "Pepperoni or sausage?"
The earliest results, released as the polls closed, showed Bonino with an early lead that he seemed to take in stride.
"I walked most of the city and got a pretty positive response," he said. "I feel like my message resonated with people."
If there were any question about the rift that exists on the current Eureka City Council, note that all four of Atkins' fellow council members were in attendance at Babetta's Tuesday night. Roll call? That would be Marian Brady, Mike Newman, Lance Madsen and Melinda Ciarabellini. All of them came to the party directly from Eureka's City Council meeting.
"I didn't like how she used pictures of the council in some of her ads," councilmember Newman said, listing his colleague's latest transgression. "She took credit for doing a lot of things. I understand she's campaigning but it's a team effort."
Newman had heard that President Obama won reelection as he was coming out of the council meeting earlier in the evening. While he might have preferred a different outcome, he remained positive.
"God's in control. He knows what He's doing," he said.
Also in attendance was freshly forged supervisor Rex Bohn, who has been a vocal public supporter of Bonino, a man he's known for over two decades. Bohn rejected the notion -- put forward by Atkins' supporters -- that having a fifth conservative voice on the council would be a bad thing.
"You want to have a cohesive city council. I think they can all be friends," he said. "They have a great council now ... except for Newman." The named council member, well in earshot, briefly looked up from checking election results on his phone and chuckled.
Brady, too, looked to poke holes in the conventional wisdom that Atkins' is the council's needed dissenting voice.
"I have voted the same number of times against the majority as she has!" Brady said. "How does that make her the independent vote?"
Bohn left early, noting that he'd promised Carolyn Crnich, the county's registrar of voters, that he'd drop by later to see if the office needed any help. Maybe she'd have him go pick up some ballots.
"Seems like an archaic system, doesn't it?" he said with a smile.
The evening progressed back at Atkinsland. The first report from the county elections office had Atkins down by 50 votes, but when the local media descended on Dem headquarters she calmly told first KHUM DJ John Mathews and then KIEM TV's Dana Griffin that she wasn't worried -- those are just the absentee ballots, which tend to break conservative.
Chatting with a supporter, Atkins characterized her opponent's backers as a well-oiled pro-development machine. "They piled so much money into this [election]," she said. "This is a test to see if we could do it all grassroots and still beat those guys."
The next Eureka City Council will have some important tasks to handle, including hiring a new city manager and a new police chief, as well as updating the city's general plan. Pam Service, a member of the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, said that while Atkins is already outnumbered on many issues, her presence on the council is important.
"It's just a city council race; the world won't end. But Eureka will change without a voice of dissent," Service said.
As the evening wore on, people started heading home and the buzz started to wear off. Shortly before 10 p.m., Atkins sat down at an abandoned laptop next to a TV that was being half-watched by a couple of people. She called up the county's election office website and clicked the button to refresh the results. No news. "It's gonna be a long night," she said to no one in particular.
And it was. When the second report came in at 10:09, Atkins went from 50 votes down to 66 votes up -- a tenuous lead with fewer than half of the county's precincts reporting.
Back at Babetta's, someone handed the challenger a small slip of paper with scrawled second wave of results called in from the election office. The candidate initially took the numbers as good news -- "Wowie! All right!" -- until a supporter clarified.
"Oh. Uh oh, that's not good," he said. "Well, we've got a long way to go."
"What's an under vote?" unopposed city council candidate Melidna Ciarabellini wondered aloud while analyzing her numbers. "Is that when people don't vote at all?"
(A good number of Eurekans decided to leave her box uncolored.)
"Because they know you're going to win anyway," Brady reassured her. (Plus, those boxes take forever to fill in with a ballpoint pen, amirite?) Brady confessed that she probably took longer than the 12 minutes allowed by the spot she parked in when she visited her polling place earlier in the day.
The crowd slowly petered out. With the race seemingly too close to call as the 11 o'clock hour approached, Bonino paid his tab and got ready to leave.
"Kennedy didn't stay up late to see his election results either," the candidate said in parting. "He went to bed an average citizen and woke up president. So I'm in good company."
In Wednesday morning's wee-est hours, the county board of elections filed its final report. With all local precincts reporting, Atkins appeared to be squeaking toward a win -- 3,935 boxes filled in for the incumbent (50.75 percent) to 3,727 for the challenger Bonino (48.07 percent), and just 35 votes for write-in candidate Charles Bean. Countywide, more than 7,000 votes remained to be counted, but it was unclear how many of them were left in Eureka.
Barring a swap, Kennedy stands alone.