Chatham County voters sent a mixed message in last week’s Democratic primary, choosing one winner from each of the slates vying for two commissioners’ seats in a race that has left both sides dissecting the results a week later.

The Chatham Coalition, a citizens’ political action committee, pushed challengers (and the group’s former leaders) Sally Kost and Jeffrey Starkweather as a unified team. The PAC urged voters to replace two incumbents who also ran a joint campaignand who were elected with the PAC’s support four years ago.

For the District 1 seat, Kost easily ousted incumbent Patrick Barnes, earning 60 percent of the vote to Barnes’ 40 percent. But in District 2, a three-way race between Starkweather, incumbent Mike Cross and a third candidate, Armentha Lee Davis, Cross withstood the challenge, earning 43 percent of the vote and beating Starkweather by 10 percentage points. Davis garnered 24 percent.

(The five commissioners, three of whom were not up for re-election, all have to live in their districts but are elected by voters countywide.)

Kost cited her background as a budget director in both Orange and Wake counties as a strength that helped sway voters concerned about the drain Chatham’s recent building boom is causing on its public resourcesparticularly education.

“People realized we didn’t have anyone on the board of commissioners with budgeting experience, so my experience counted a lot,” says Kost, who will become the only woman on the board if she is successful in the general election. “Schools have got to be the No. 1 priority for Chatham.”

Starkweather, a co-founder and former president of the grassroots coalition, was the architect of the PAC’s landslide victories in 2006, when three candidates the group supported and helped fund swept two incumbents out of office and claimed an open seat to command a majority of the board. That success came two years after Barnes and Cross were also elected with Coalition backingsupport which has since eroded.

“I listen to them, but their opinion of listening to them is doing what they saythat’s why they ran against me,” says Cross. “I hear other people, too.”

The PAC, which formed around growth issues in response to a land boom and a development-friendly commission, targeted the two incumbents with a lengthy and scathing “report card” (PDF, 32 KB) on Feb. 13, two weeks before Kost and Starkweather announced their candidacies.

“When the Coalition first started, it was doing the right thingssomething needed to change in Chatham,” says Cross. “But them taking the approach of that report card made a lot of people angry.”

Coalition Chairwoman Jan Nichols, meanwhile, attributed negative attacks for Starkweather’s failed bid.

“There were people actively working against our candidates,” Nichols says. “It got personal about Jeffrey.”

However, Nichols acknowledged that Starkweather’s strident advocacy over many years may have alienated some voters.

“He has really worked hard for the county for 35 years, but there’s a perception of him as divisive,” Nichols says. “There’s no question we did underestimate some of the negatives. We’re going to be analyzing that and figuring out how not to repeat that mistake.”

Chatham Coalition leaders are waiting for the county elections board to sort the one-stop voting results into precincts before undertaking a detailed precinct-by-precinct analysis, Nichols says.

In the meantime, however, both Nichols and Kost cited the Independent‘s endorsements of Kost and Cross as a major influence in voters’ decisions at the polls. Nichols noted that Starkweather fared much better in early voting, some of which took place prior to the endorsements being published and where he garnered 40 percent of the vote, than he did on Election Day.

Starkweather declined comment on the outcome of May 6 except to say: “I am proud of the campaign that we ran. We ran on the issues and we didn’t make personal attacks, and I believe if people had voted on that we would’ve won.”

After looking at the numbers, the Coalition members will regroup to support Kost and work for its school board candidates in the fall, Nichols says.

Kost faces Republican newcomer Jeanna Bock in November. Bock has pledged to raise and spend less than $3,000 in the campaign, and so has not filed any campaign finance reports. She is a political unknown who has not returned repeated phone calls and e-mails from the Independent and failed to submit a candidate questionnaire before the primary.

Cross faces two challengers, Republican Andy Wilkie and an unaffiliated candidate, Bob Knight, who submitted 2,000 signatures to get onto the fall ballot, according to Elections Director Dawn Stumpf. Knight’s signatures have been verified by the elections staff, Stumpf says; his candidacy will likely be officially approved by the Board of Elections next week.

See all election results in Chatham County.

Correction (May 14, 2008): Starkweather was the architect of the PAC’s landslide victories in 2006, not 2004.