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Quiet on the Staunton election front

Column by Chris Graham

When nine people – yes, nine! – submitted their names for consideration for the six-month appointment to the Staunton City Council seat left open by the election of longtime Council member Dickie Bell to the Virginia House of Delegates, Mayor Lacy King had one word in mind: dogfight.

“I gauged that and thought, We’re really going to have a dogfight for this upcoming election,” said King, whose seat is up for re-election on May 4.

But the all-at-large City Council elections, which have King and City Council members Carolyn Dull and Bruce Elder all up for re-election this spring, aren’t anything resembling the crowded house that people had assumed they would be.

Only one candidate, Carl Tate, emerged to challenge the incumbents for re-election. Harrington is also running unopposed for re-election to the remaining two years of Bell’s term.

The interest in Bell’s seat in the winter and the rough-and-tumble challenges from the political right to the center-progressive status quo in 2006 and 2008 had seemed to presage a contentious 2010 election cycle in the Queen City.

So, um, what happened?

“I have given it some thought, and I can tell you my humorous answer. And that is that we’ve done such a great job that everybody is happy,” said Dull, who like Elder is running for a second term on City Council.

King, a 31-year veteran of City Hall in the Staunton Police Department and a nearly year-long stint as acting assistant city manager, now running for a third term on City Council, has another idea.

“Could it possibly be that there are a lot of people out there who were contemplating it, and then saying, Well, there are some tough challenges ahead?” King said.

Indeed, this would seem to be a less-than-ideal time to run for City Council. Erik Curren, who ran against Bell for the 20th District seat in the House of Delegates last fall, gave a run for City Council serious consideration in the winter before deciding against it in part because of the fiscal constraints that the city will have to face in the next couple of budget years.

So Curren is instead committing his free time to getting a local advocacy group named Transition Staunton Augusta off the ground with the aim of initiating steps in the private and later the public sectors toward the development of a local food and green jobs movement.

“I actually think I can be more useful outside the government,” Curren said. “When you’re in elected office, you have to be a generalist. But if you just start your own group and work with like-minded folks, you can specialize in what you really care about.”

It’s maybe not as surprising that Curren, a center-progressive, would decide to sit this election cycle out with King, Dull and Elder, all center-progressives, running for re-election. It’s more surprising to see Tate standing alone as the solitary standard-bearer for the right on the local political scene.

Conservative candidates came up just short in the ’08 elections in Staunton in what was a decidedly different political environment from what we’re seeing in the wake of the strong showings of GOP candidates in ’09 at the local level.

Tate might be reading something different in 2010. The former 20th District Republican chair seemed to want to tamp down his conservative credentials in an interview for last week’s AFP Show news podcast.

“I like to think of myself as a conservative alternative, but also more importantly as an outsider, as a fresh alternative,” said Tate, who lists as his campaign priorities job growth, economic growth and retaining the area’s youth population.

“I’m the youngest person in this race, and if I’m elected I’d the youngest person on Council. I bring a fresh perspective to this race and a fresh perspective to Council if I were to get elected,” Tate said.

I asked Tate in the interview if he felt any extra pressure being the lone voice from the right in the spring elections.

“I really don’t feel it, because I’m focused on my campaign. I’ve spoken with other news organizations who have asked me about it, and I’ve said, Well, I’m focused on my campaign, my strategy has not changed. I’m going to knock on as many doors as I possibly can, I’m going to shake as many hand as I can and get my message out as much as I can,” Tate said.

“Whether there are four people in this race or 500 people in this race, my message is going to stay the same and my strategy is going to stay the same. I’m going to get my message out to as many people as I can,” Tate said.