Local Politics: Ready to RockDem in Harrisonburg, Rockingham County
The Top Story by Chris Graham
The ballot in Harrisonburg on Nov. 4 is mighty crowded, with two dozen or so names covering races from the White House to Harrisonburg City Council promising to keep voters inside the curtain for a minute or two or more on Election Day.
The crowding means that you won’t see a D beside Richard Baugh’s name (photo right). And he’s not all that happy about that, actually.
“We were sort of halfway joking about how, you know, doesn’t it hurt us to not have our party affiliation on the ballot this go-round? And then I said when that came up, Do you realize that this is the first time that any of us has ever said this? Every other election that we could have run in since we’ve been here, we would have said, Boy, if they put a D next to my name, will that put me in too much of a hole to try to dig out of?” said Baugh, one of the three Democratic Party nominees for the three open seats on the at-large City Council in Harrisonburg hoping to get a ride on the coattails of presidential nominee Barack Obama and Senate nominee Mark Warner, both of whom are expected to run well in The Friendly City themselves.
Baugh, a former Harrisonburg Democratic Committee chair, said The ‘Burg was “never more than 55-45 Republican at the lowest point for us, so it was never so one-sided that a good local Democratic candidate couldn’t win.” In recent election cycles, though, the voting trend has come closer to a 50-50 split among the major parties, giving Baugh and fellow Democratic nominees David Wiens (photo left) and Kai Degner that things might be poised to go their way.
“From a strategy level, I absolutely wanted to jump in this year because of the excitement with the federal elections. When I made the decision, it was right in the throes of the primaries. We had record turnouts for Democrats in the primaries all across the country. And I’m excited to be a part of it, and I’m excited to be on the same ticket as the Democrats who are running, Mark Warner, Sam Rasoul, Barack Obama,” said Degner (photo right), whose day job has him running the Harrisonburg-based Arts Council of the Valley.
Two other local Dems are running for constitutional-office jobs in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County that are being contested this fall due to what you could call extenuating circumstances. Retired businessman Bill Ney is running for the Harrisonburg city treasurer job left open by the resignation of Becky Neal earlier this year at the head of an investigation into the misappropriation of public funds that led to her conviction. Penn Laird resident Esther Nizer (photo right) is running for the Rockingham County commissioner of the revenue post left open by the October 2007 death of long-time commissioner Richard Connellee.
Nizer could have something of a leg up in her race in that she was running against Connellee last fall when he died in the weeks leading up to the election. Connellee’s name remained on the ballot, and Nizer scaled back her campaign efforts before losing by 2,200 votes. Nizer hopes the attention being put on the presidential and Senate races this fall can give her a boost with the expected higher voter turnout over last year’s local election. “I think it draws attention. Because this race will be on the same ballot as the presidential race and the Senate race, I’m hoping that people will start looking at the position differently,” Nizer said. “In the past, I think it’s been same thing, same thing. But particularly being on the same ticket as the Obama campaign, and because they have energized so many people, particularly young people, because of that, I’m kind of in the mix, if you will. Whenever Sam Rasoul is here speaking or Mark Warner is here speaking, I’m usually here speaking, and I may not have had that opportunity, and I certainly would not have had the audience that I have had because of the Obama campaign and the Warner campaign and the Rasoul campaign. So that’s helped me get the word out about the commissioner of the revenue race and my campaign,” Nizer said.
Ney (photo left), for his part, doesn’t have to worry as much about the name-recognition thing. He was the owner of the popular B. Ney’s clothing store for many years, and as I told him when I talked with him for this story, the catchy jingle that ran on local radio stations advertising the store is still wired in my memory bank. “Everybody is very upset about the previous term of office, and they want to bring honesty and integrity to the office. But it needs a lot more than that. Its whole image needs to be customer-friendly, because the customers are the taxpayers. It needs an overall change in image at the moment. I’ve got 30 years of experience in giving customer care and customer service and personal-management service. I realize that the treasurer’s office has certain ways that it has been doing things, and the law says certain things have to be done. But it shouldn’t take too long to learn them,” Ney said.