Mea culpa

Fear and Loathing in Waynesboro column by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

“No, I’ve said repeatedly that I will not raise your taxes.”

“No, I don’t actually want Invista to close up shop.”

“I want to run Invista out of town and pave over their property for a baseball stadium? What?”

This is just what got back to me. I can only imagine what else was being said that hasn’t made its way to me yet.

Lesson learned. I let my opponents in last week’s city-council election define me. I will not make that mistake next time.

“I want to fight these guys head on,” I said more than once during the campaign, which was ugly from the get-go, when sitting city-council members Frank Lucente and Tim Williams made what turned out to be a month-long issue of an e-mail that my wife and campaign manager sent to council members Nancy Dowdy and Lorie Smith to ask about the possible availability of the city’s government access channel for use for a televised candidates forum.

I didn’t realize it then, but they already had me where they wanted me. I was about to be made out into being a “slick” politician, and this was Exhibit A in their case.

I was beat up mercilessly on the blogs on this point, and then telemarketing phone calls started going out not long after that that asked city residents in the guise of a public-opinion poll if they had any issues with electing a journalist to city council given the potential conflict of interest that this person would have.

(Of note is that the campaign that authorized these calls featured a candidate who works as a property manager for a privately held company owned by powerful development interests whose dealings have a way of finding themselves on the action agenda of the city council. Interesting, then, how the term conflict of interest could be turned to imply that a journalist whose media company does not feature significant real-estate holdings would have the conflict, and not the other way around.)

And then things got really interesting when it became apparent that I wasn’t running against an individual campaign, but instead against the breadth and expanse of the local Republican Party. The telemarketing calls, we learned a few weeks before Election Day, were originating in Richmond, and since they have yet to show up on a campaign-finance report, we have to assume that they were an in-kind contribution from the state GOP or an affiliated political-action committee. Since I was running an independent campaign, I didn’t have access to these kinds of resources – not that I would have wanted them, considering how they were used.

After hearing about the telemarketing calls, it was learned by our campaign that a local state legislator, Steve Landes, a Republican, was poised to make a public endorsement of my opponent. He later backed out of the public endorsement, but a mailer featuring Landes and Bruce Allen was dropped at the post office and ended up in thousands of local mailboxes anyway.

I don’t think so much that the Landes endorsement was what did me in, nor do I have a negative view of the local GOP ganging up on me – even if I had thought that I had developed a good reputation among local Republicans over the years for my more-than-fair coverage of their issues as a journalist and had expected the party machinery to be a nonfactor in the race as a result.

I will say that I’m not happy at the patent misrepresentations of my resume and my policy ideas that were advanced by my opponents. One of my opponent’s cronies went so far as to tell News Virginian reporter Jimmy LaRoue that the Allen election was a victory “for the common man,” dredging up again the notion that I somehow am thus an “elitist,” a description that I unfortunately became all too familiar with in the waning weeks of the ’08 campaign.

You want to talk about something cutting to the bone. I was born to teen parents and raised by a single mother in a trailer park. Somehow I rose above those circumstances and earned admission to the University of Virginia, becoming the first person in my family to go to college in the process, worked my way through and earned a degree with honors, and then came back home to embark on an award-winning career as a journalist and writer and later became successful in business.

I’ll give my opponents credit for one thing. It should have been to my great advantage that I am a pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps UVa. graduate and award-winning journalist and businessman, and that my opponent running as a fiscal conservative spent most of his adult life working for the government that he now feels is so inefficient and now pays his mortgage shilling for monied interests who make their money manipulating the government to their personal and private advantage. Like Karl Rove, like Lee Atwater, they turned things around in a dramatic way on this count, and by Election Day I was the elite liberal tax-and-spender trying to scare off our last manufacturer so I could bring a baseball team to town to feast on its rotting carcass, and my opponent was a homespun populist who just wants to keep things the way they always have been.

I said earlier that I had made it clear to my campaign team that I wanted to fight these guys head on. I regret that I let myself be talked out of doing so, but I felt the advice – that negative politics had never worked before in Waynesboro – was sound. Above all else, I wanted to be able to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, win or lose.

I’m not sleeping that well these days. And I don’t know if it’s because I feel like I let Waynesboro down by not fighting back in my campaign, or because Waynesboro let all of us down by validating the kinds of tactics that Rove and Atwater made infamous.

I’m going to be chewing on that one for a while, and on this as well. A lady working the polls for Bruce Allen came up to me toward the end of Election Day to thank me personally for having written a piece on her granddaughter for the paper a few years back. The story was that the girl’s parents didn’t have health insurance, and the little girl, then 4, needed a kidney transplant, or she would likely not make it out of childhood. Turns out that the article ended up getting carried in papers across the state, and donations poured in to more than account for the cost of the operation, which happily was successful. The woman broke down telling me what had happened since I’d last seen the family, and thanked me for what I had done.

A voter who is a close friend of mine had come up to me a few minutes earlier and asked me about my plans to raise his taxes. I asked him who had suggested that I had said anything to that effect. You can guess who he pointed to.

Lesson learned, indeed.


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