TAKING A BABY STEP INTO POLITICS - Calhoun Official Hopes First Election Isn't His Last


Jason Nettles grabbed Calhoun County voters' attention with his distinctive campaign signs this fall. Since then, the Democratic donkeys have become collectors' items. The 20-year-old still lives with his parents and he's working on finishing up college. In the meantime, he got a day job - he was elected Calhoun County assessor last fall.

Sam Tranum
Daily Mail staff

Friday February 09, 2001; 12:30 PM

GRANTSVILLE -- The barber shop prophets were right. While Jason Nettles went door to door asking for votes this election season, conversation around Bim's Barber shop had it that the fresh-faced 20-year-old would be elected county assessor when donkeys flew.

By the time Nettles was sworn in, one of the white plywood donkeys that served as his campaign signs was seen a good distance from the ground, nailed to a telephone pole.

When Nettles, a Democrat, took 70 percent of the vote to beat his Republican opponent in the Calhoun County assessor's race this fall, he might well have become the youngest elected official in the state. Representatives of the West Virginia Municipal League and the West Virginia Association of Counties could name no younger city or county officials.

The same goes for the folks in Calhoun County.

"We've never had anyone as young as Jason," Calhoun County Commissioner David Barr, 69, said. "No one even close."

"I have a daughter older than he is," said assessor's deputy Connie Boggs, one of Nettles' four employees.

Nettles doesn't try to look older than his 20 years. He just asks his doubters and critics to count his successes and failures instead of his birthdays.

With a smooth face and his hair cut in a straight line across his forehead, he wears blue jeans and sneakers. He's still working on graduating from college and in the meantime, he lives with his parents.

Nettles' small size makes him look even younger than he is. At 5-foot-6 and 154 pounds, the only thing big about him is his ambition -- and possibly the $37,500 per year he's making as assessor.

Nettles' desk, in a first floor corner office in the Calhoun County courthouse, looks like a shrine to his ambition.

A portrait of President Truman presides over the office from the wall behind Nettles' desk. He has a reproduction of Truman's famous "The Buck Stops Here" sign among the papers on his desk. His computer screen saver displays the words "Truman was a great man."

"He was a Democrat. He was a champion of the people. He farmed and he started out small and worked his way up," he said.

Nettles is a Democrat, he grew up working on his family's farm and he's starting small.

A biography of Truman sits on Nettles' desk. His bookmark places him past Part One: Growing Up.

He's getting started on Part Two: The Politician.

"Do I want to follow in his footsteps? That would be nice," Nettles said. "But I don't know if I could make it to the presidency."

Though unsure about how far he'll go, Nettles is already planning on moving up politically. First the House of Delegates, then the Governor's Mansion, he said.

The way he talks, Nettles sounds like he's been on the path to the presidency all his life. But it's not so, he says.

Not long ago, he was a student at Marshall University, headed for medical school. In an introductory political science course, his professor told stories of former students who ran for public office and won.

"So I just thought, well I'll just run," Nettles said.

He transferred from Marshall to Glenville State College -- closer to home -- and registered to run to replace the retiring Calhoun County assessor. He had two cousins who had served as assessor, so he knew what the job was all about.

Nettles put thousands of miles on his Jeep going door to door in this rural county. He passed out his plywood Democratic donkey campaign signs. He tried to convince people he could do it, that he wasn't too young.

"There was a few people that questioned my age and why I was running," Nettles said. "I just said I was capable of doing the job." The people believed him.

"He's just the right age," said Harry Curry, 67, one of Nettles' supporters. "We gotta get this young blood in there."

Now that Nettles is in, he's facing the serious business of appraising all of the county's 13,000 land properties and 8,000 personal properties with a tight budget.

"So far he's doing fine," said Michele Sear, a deputy in the assessor's office. "He's got a lot to learn of course, but he's working hard."