The Road to 2012
Special Report by Chris Graham
Waynesboro didn’t go poof! into the night. There aren’t tumbleweeds running through downtown. (Not yet.) The sun did in fact come up this morning. That’s in spite of another electoral defeat for progressives at the polls in the City Council elections on May 4.
Lorie Smith fell short in her bid to win re-election in Ward D, getting outpolled by 141 votes by former State Police lieutenant Mike Harris, an ally of the libertarian-conservative blog that already had a majority on the five-member city governing body. The bloc made it a clean sweep with Jeff Freeman’s win in the Ward C race over Virginia Department of Transporation engineering assistant Robert Johnson.
So why am I feeling almost optimistic about the cause of Moving Waynesboro Forward in the face of the election carnage?
I was a poll observer for the Smith campaign at Ward D when the polls closed, and I was nervous listening to the poll workers verifying the vote counts. It hit me that I was expecting at that moment to hear that Smith, Johnson and Ward School Board candidate Kathe Maneval were going to lose and lose badly, as had happened to the progressive bloc that ran in 2008. (You might remember that I was among that slate of candidates.)
Neither Jeremy Taylor, running for the at-large seat, or me running for the Ward B seat could break 26 percent in our challenges to majority-bloc candidates Frank Lucente and Bruce Allen. (Taylor was unopposed for re-election to the Ward C School Board seat last night.) From those depths, then, we have to look at the showings of Smith and Johnson as being something of a resurgence, even as they fell short of winning in the end.
Let’s look first at Johnson, who entered the race literally at the last hour, getting onto the ballot with an hour to spare before the early March deadline. With little financial support and a bare-bones campaign organization, Johnson was able to snare 41.8 percent of the vote against the well-funded Freeman.
And now to the Smith race. One, her opponent, Harris, boasts an impressive resume with his background in the State Police and as a longtime American Legion volunteer. Two, more impressive was the level of backing given to him by state and national Republicans. Though formally running as an independent, Harris had endorsements from local Republican members in the Virginia General Assembly, Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte and Gov. Bob McDonnell, who took part in a get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of Harris via robocalls that went out to Waynesboro voters on Monday and Tuesday.
(We will expect to see a thorough accounting on the cost of that effort in the final campaign-finance reports due out next month. Hint, hint.)
So Smith was running in a city election on the heels of historic defeats by political allies two years earlier, and she was also facing the weight of the Republican Party machine with levers stretching into the governor’s office.
And she lost by 141 votes. That’s significant considering what the other side had to do to make that happen.
Silver Lining #2
That would be the triumph by Maneval, an incumbent candidate only in the sense that she had in fact been elected (unopposed, in 2006) and is finishing up her first term on the School Board. Maneval had not had experience in running a campaign in a contested race, and in facing Jones was running up against the same buzzsaw that Johnson and Smith had trying to chop them down to size.
That became apparent publicly on Saturday when voters received in the mail a postcard from the Jones campaign featuring her pictured with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, he of the lawsuit against health-care reform and the subpoena of a former UVa. climate scientist and the PG version of the Virginia state flag.
Without a post-election poll it will be hard to say with certainty what role the Cuccinelli endorsement did to derail the Jones juggernaut, but my sense is that derail her it did, and what I’m taking from that is that the majority of people who showed up to vote on Tuesday are conservative in their outlook, sure, but that majority is short of venturing into the wingnut category.
Inside the numbers
My first read of the numbers was probably in line with what a lot of people saw – that the elections were lost, or won, depending on your perspective, in Wards A and C, which, if you know Waynesboro even just a little, are looked at as the sort-of blue-collar voting wards, to the more white-collar B and D.
Diving a little deeper into the numbers, though, my thinking is evolving to the observation that while the final results indeed turned on what happened in A and C, there is a silver lining spanning the demographic divide for center-left candidates with an eye to 2012.
First, to the obvious. Harris won in Ward D on the strength of his 156-vote majority over incumbent Lorie Smith in Wards A and C. Smith surprisingly won the high-turnout Ward D by a 40-vote margin and pulled 48.4 percent in Ward B, knocking down the vote totals for her conservative opponent by nearly 10 percentage points from what conservatives Bruce Allen and Frank Lucente picked up in B and D in the 2008 city elections.
Smith also improved greatly upon what the center-left candidates in ‘08 were able to do in A and C, albeit in defeat, picking up 35.4 percent in Ward A and 39.8 percent in C. Lucente pulled 73.3 percent and Allen 77.5 percent in A in 2008, and Lucente took 68.3 percent and Allen 71.6 percent in C in 2008.
In the Ward C race, Johnson ran behind Smith but still ahead of the center-left candidates in May ‘08 in B and D (getting 41.2 percent of the vote in B and 40.7 percent of the vote in D) and was ahead of both Smith and the ‘08 slate in A and C (getting 45.0 percent in A and 43.5 percent in C).
The improvements shown by Smith and Johnson in A and C could be residual effects of what we saw in those two wards in the November 2008 presidential election, in which Democrat Barack Obama rolled to a 54.9 percent-to-43.7 percent victory over Republican John McCain in Ward A and lost by a scant 48-vote margin to McCain in C.
(Obama registered 39.5 percent in both B and D, in line with the voting trend from May 2008 and with what Johnson received in B and D in May 2010.)
That Johnson was able to mount any kind of serious challenge to his well-funded conservative opponent, Freeman, was a shocker, given his late entry into the race and his difficulties in building a campaign organization. His 41.8 percent showing could be said to set a new floor for center-left candidates, then, with Smith and her 47.4 percent at the midpoint of the curve, and the upset win of Maneval against Jones in which Maneval scored 53.9 percent being the ceiling.
Maneval won majorities in three of the four voting wards, falling short only in A, which Jones won by a 58.6 percent-to-41.4 percent tally.
What we see across the board is a general improvement from May ‘08 to May ‘10 in the white-collar Wards D and B of 10 percent for the center-left candidates and a general improvement from May ‘08 to May ‘10 in the blue-collar A and C of 15 percent for the center-left candidates.
Now you see why I’m saying there’s a silver lining for center-left candidates with an eye to 2012? But that’s only part of what I’m seeing. Because it’s also obvious from the numbers that even as Smith, Johnson and Maneval improved in A and C in particular over what their ideological brethren were able to do in May ‘08, they still fell short of what Obama did in the wards in November ‘08.
The numbers suggest a reason why – there was significantly lower voter turnout in A and C relative to overall voter turnout in May 2010 as compared to November 2008. The quick math on it has turnout in A and C in November 2008 at 34.9 percent of the overall voter turnout citywide, with the turnout in A and C in May 2010 at just 25.4 percent of the overall turnout citywide.
An argument could be made that a large proportion of the voters who went to the polls to vote for Obama in November 2008 did not venture to the polls in either May 2008 or May 2010 to vote for local center-left candidates.
As to the potential impact here: More quick math puts the impact on overall voter turnout at the higher rate of turnout in A and C at around 280 votes, which would have been more than enough to turn the election in the Smith-Harris race, and would have the Johnson-Freeman race much closer for comfort for the eventual winner.
The trick, then, for those candidates with center-left leanings and with an eye to 2012 will be to figure out how to get those voters in A and C who vote in November but don’t vote in May to the polls two Mays from now.
And yes, that is easier said than done, but the effort seems worthy from my look at the numbers.
So May 4 wasn’t as bad as it seemed. That’s what I’m trying to sell you. Johnson and Maneval had almost nothing going in the way of campaign organization, and Johnson was able to improve upon the showing of his political allies from ‘08 by 15 points, and Maneval pulled off what has to be considered a major upset in her win over Jones. And Smith was thisclose to defeating a well-funded challenger who also happened to have the governor and a powerful congressman, among others, on his side.
Looking forward, the progressive side has its work cut out for it if it wants to build on the momentum of 2010 to achieve electoral victories in City Council in 2012. I think the key will be to start today with a comprehensive effort to lay out an agenda for what we see as the steps to Moving Waynesboro Forward.
Two years with the libertarian-conservative bloc in charge has saddled us with unemployment approaching 10 percent and stagnant wages for those who have kept their jobs. We have a school system with more than 60 percent of our children able to qualify for free and reduced lunches, putting enormous pressures on teachers and administrators to not only teach but also deal with issues involving the quality of their students’ personal lives.
We can do better.
We’ve got a West End fire station promised 24 years ago and demanded in 2007 by city voters via referendum that is nowhere close to being on the books. We’ve got stormwater-system improvements also approved in that ‘07 referendum that are just now limping to the starting line.
We have to do better.
Before we can get our city working to do better, we have to do a better job communicating our vision to the people of Waynesboro. We can’t accept the results from yesterday in Ward A and Ward C, largely populated by working-class and middle-class families whose majority support for Harris carried him to victory over Smith in their tight race. The mantra of tax cuts and zero-based budgeting at the centerpiece of the Harris campaign will not serve to benefit more than a few in A and C, with the paltry couple of dollars per month that some in those areas could see in the form of tax cuts being more than offset by the continued cuts in city services and schools funding affecting their day-to-day lives and their children’s futures.
Their way of doing things is to tell you that they’ll give you a couple of extra dollars at the end of the year that you can spend any way you see fit, but we all know that we can do a lot more with that couple of dollars if we pool it together to improve trash pickup and snow removal and to improve roads and bridges and pay for first-class schools.
We will do better.
I’m committed to that.