It’s endorsement time
Written by Chris Graham
Waynesboro is going to head in a new direction after Tuesday’s city elections. Staunton is going to continue on a familiar and proven course. We can say that with certainty as different as the two election cycles have been in the sister cities.
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In Waynesboro, where two seats on the five-member City Council are up for re-election, the marquee race pits incumbent Ward D Councilwoman Lorie Smith against retired state trooper Mike Harris in a matchup that on the surface has visions of the River City’s past (in the form of Harris) and its future (in the form of Smith) firmly in the front and center.
As is the case with most things in life, the shorthand that we’ve given to this race doesn’t do the realities justice, but more on that in a minute.
Over in Staunton, four seats on the seven-member City Council are up for re-election, though one, held by Council newbie Jim Harrington, is uncontested as Harrington runs to fill out the last two years of former Councilman Dickie Bell’s unexpired term. The other three are all at-large, with incumbents Carolyn Dull, Bruce Elder and Lacy King running for re-election, and 29-year-old law student Carl Tate the lone outside challenger.
In effect, Tate if elected would serve in the role that Bell had filled on Staunton City Council for many years, as the body’s hard-right conservative loyal opposition. Which is to say, a Tate win would do little to upset the apple cart in the Queen City or do much to push a change in course for the City Council.
You could say that the same would be true in Waynesboro and make a good case for your argument in that respect. Which would be to say that a Smith win is not going to push the conservative-leaning City Council majority suddenly into progressive action on downtown revitalization, economic development and quality-of-life issues. At best, Smith, like Tate would over in Staunton, would serve as the loyal opposition, representing city residents who do want to see forward movement in policy discussions and holding the feet of the majority to the fire when necessary.
Smith is well-suited temperamentally and otherwise to the job. She has a solid working relationship with her ideological rivals on City Council and has proven to be adept at forging compromise on important issues of the day.
That’s what Waynesboro needs, and needs desperately. Despite the one-sided results in the 2008 elections, Waynesboro is a diverse community with wide-ranging perspectives, and it needs to maintain a balance in the perspectives on its governing body. Smith is eager to roll up her sleeves and continue in that job.
Her opponent in Ward D, Harris, is himself quite impressive as a candidate, and could prove to be a hard one for his handlers to manage should he be elected. The current conservative majority is much more libertarian in outlook than it is pure conservative. Harris falls more squarely into the classic conservative mold wherein policy is directed more to keeping government spending in line with an eye toward economic stimulus. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Harris could if elected form a rival power center with City Council’s other traditional conservative, Mayor Tim Williams, to the bloc of Vice Mayor Frank Lucente and Councilman Bruce Allen.
We’ve even heard it said in recent days that it’s possible that Lucente, the current power broker in City Hall, might actually at this point prefer a Smith victory on Election Day, thinking that the status quo would be more to his liking as being at least more predictable.
That’s all just speculation. What we know is that Harris promises to offer a stiff challenge on Tuesday, and what we hope is that he will be willing to serve the city after Election Day win or lose. We can see a role for him on the Economic Development Authority, and perhaps on an advisory body that we’d like to see City Council start anew come July 1 structured along the lines of the reinventing government initiative of former Vice President Al Gore back in the 1990s.
The attention in Waynesboro has been on the Ward D race with the two heavyweight candidates running for that job. The Ward C candidates seem comfortable being on the undercard. Retired basketball referee Jeff Freeman is used to being a bit player on the main stage with his years of whistles on the local high-school and college scene. Robert Johnson has had his own seat down on the edge of the dais with his two decades of work for the Virginia Department of Transportation and six years on the Waynesboro Transportation Safety Commission, an advisory body to City Council.
As hard as our choice was in Ward D with the well-qualified Smith and Harris to choose from, it is equally difficult to make distinctions between Freeman and Johnson because we know so little about the two. Generally, we have to make our distinctions based on reading the tea leaves. Freeman has the backing of the power brokers who engineered the forced departure of former City Manager Doug Walker two years ago. Johnson is loosely allied with a small faction of city progressives, though it’s hard to gauge too much about Johnson from where his support is coming from because it’s been hard to see where his support is coming from.
Our nod goes to Johnson, though our expectation is that Freeman, light on policy but heavy on organizational support from the local political machine, will win, and win big.
The resulting City Council dynamic will be interesting to get a read on. Lucente, who is expected to become mayor on July 1, and Smith will continue in their roles as power players. We would expect Allen and Freeman to loosely align with Lucente, though in truth we really know so little about where either stand on the issues of the day that there could be some room for surprise there.
We know where Williams stands. Williams has really grown as an elected official in his two years as mayor. He’s almost ready to be elevated to the stature of Lucente and Smith as the third power player on the City Council.
School Board races rarely stir much in the way of emotion, and the contest in Ward D between incumbent Kathe Maneval and challenger Jennifer Jones was playing out that way until the final days of the spring campaign.
And then somebody in the Jones camp decided that it would be a good idea to send out a mass mailer to voters with a photo of Jones and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli including an endorsement from the polarizing Republican.
We had already made the call internally to push the lever for Maneval. Cuccinelli’s idea that “Waynesboro will benefit greatly from Jennifer Jones’ conservative leadership and new vision for Waynesboro schools” only cements that.
The incumbents all have a lot to bring to the table in Staunton. Dull is the numbers person on City Council; Elder is the conscience; King the heart and soul.
That said, as we said above with our endorsement of Smith, we believe in balance, and just as Waynesboro is not rigidly conservative in its makeup, neither is Staunton entirely progressive in its worldview.
We admired and worked with Dickie Bell in his years on City Council despite our supposed ideological differences because we found Bell easy to work with (though he often had issues finding the same course with fellow City Council members) and because we felt he brought some grounding to decisions being made by city leaders.
We’d like to be able to back Tate as being a sort of heir to Bell in that sense, and maybe one day we will. What we saw out of Tate in last week’s candidates forum sponsored by the Staunton Senior Center, though, left us thinking that he still has some work to do to merit that kind of backing.
His answers to questions were almost comically short, to the point of coming across as almost outright contempt for the process at worst, or at best a simple lack of basic background knowledge on city issues.
That said, Tate is a smart guy, and would be well-advised to continue in his pursuit of a seat on the City Council by volunteering for work on City Council advisory bodies that will help him gain valuable insight on city-government matters.
That is of course given that he could persuade City Council to appoint him. In that respect, we would hope that Staunton City Council would have a more welcoming approach than its sister council in Waynesboro, and we’re speaking from personal experience there.