To the beat of their own drums: Leaders discuss nonpartisan nature of city-council elections in Staunton, Waynesboro

The Top Story by Chris Graham

City-council elections in Staunton and Waynesboro are not strictly nonpartisan – but they are so nonetheless.

It might not matter to most people one way or the other – after all, most people won’t be voting in today’s elections.

For the one in three who will be, though, there won’t be a clue at all on the ballot or anywhere else as to the partisan affiliations of the candidates running for office.

Here’s a question for you – Is that at all significant?“It is unusual. Just about everywhere else, it seems, it’s Democrats and Republicans at every level,” said Dee Schumann, the chair of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee and a long-time resident of the Milwaukee, Wisc., and Orlando, Fla., areas.

“It’s difficult getting used to the fact that you don’t see that here, since I’ve seen it everywhere else I’ve been,” Schumann said of the lack of party identifications on ballots.

“You need to know who you’re voting for,” said Kurt Michael, the chairman of the Augusta County Republican Committee, which nominated candidates in each of the seven races for seats on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors and three of the four constitutional-office positions contested in last November’s county general elections.

“If you vote Republican or Democrat, you do get a sense of where the person is going to stand on most issues,” Michael told The Augusta Free Press.

“With an independent, you don’t know where they’re coming from, really. They don’t answer to anyone or to any particular creed.

“And you don’t know what special interests they might be aiming to serve, either,” Michael said.

 

Independence

To say that county elections are partisan affairs and city elections in Staunton and Waynesboro are not is not wholly accurate.

Republicans and Democrats have been involved for decades in nominating candidates for constitutional-office positions in the twin cities.

It’s not as if having that major-party label has meant the difference between winning and losing in those races.

“We have seen the constitutional officers run as Republicans or Democrats here for some time,” said Waynesboro Mayor Chuck Ricketts, who is running for re-election to the at-large seat on Waynesboro City Council in today’s voting.

“But even then, look at last year’s circuit-court clerk race. You had a Republican nominee, but an independent won,” Ricketts said, pointing to the upset win of Nicole Armentrout in the Waynesboro circuit-court clerk race over Republican Bruce Allen.

Ricketts could also have pointed to the surprise win of independent Chuck Ajemian over Republican Matt Dullaghan (who had an endorsement from and a joint campaign event with gubernatorial candidate Jim Gilmore) in the 1997 Commonwealth attorney’s race as another example of the strength of political independents in local elections.

“I just think that voters look at local candidates more for their qualifications than they would at what party they might represent,” Ricketts told the AFP.

“Living in a small town, we have that one-on-one with residents that they might not get as much in Richmond and certainly in Washington. We live here in the community. I don’t get too many calls one way or the other on issues, but when people see me at the grocery store or the department store, sometimes people will come up and say what’s on their mind,” Ricketts said.

“It’s almost always positive and respectful. They just want to share their thoughts on something the city has done, or ask a question about something that’s in the news. But the fact is, they can do it, because we’re here. It’s not the same as going to Rowe’s in Staunton and seeing Bob Goodlatte every six months,” Ricketts said.

Staunton Republican Committee chairman Cliff Fretwell has experience on both sides of this issue. In addition to his current service with the city GOP, Fretwell ran for Staunton City Council in 2002 – as an independent with the official endorsement of the Republican Party.

He told the AFP that he believes now that the best course of action for candidates is to go it alone.

“When you’re talking about the local level, I’m not so sure that nonpartisan isn’t the best way to go,” Fretwell said.

“The issues in local government aren’t ideological. They’re more provincial. You’re dealing with issues related to fire departments and police departments and schools and public works. There isn’t much room for partisanship there,” Fretwell said.

“It’s when you go to the state and federal levels where ideology and party play a bigger role. That’s where it might mean more to say that our guy is a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat on issues involving taxes and spending on social programs, what have you.

“What matters more in a local election is that the person who lives next door or down the block or across town is somebody that you think can get the job done, not if they’re a Democrat or Republican. Partisan politics just don’t play an important role,” Fretwell said.

Pastures Supervisor Tracy Pyles, who won his third election to the district’s seat on the county board of supervisors in November, said he thinks “we’d be better off if local elections were nonpartisan.”

“To be fair, it is easy for me to say that, since I’m in the minority party. If I was a Republican, I might feel differently,” Pyles told the AFP. “But trying to be objective, if you’re voting for Staunton City Council, it’s more important to know who John Avoli is or who Rita Wilson is and where they stand on the issues than to know if they’re Democrats or Republicans.

“The issues at the state and national levels are more philosophical, or maybe emotional, than the issues that we deal with at the local level. Here it’s more nuts and bolts. It’s more about getting the job done than about philosophy,” Pyles said.

“I don’t see it as a big deal either way. It might matter to some people. If they’re 50-50 on who to vote for, they’ll go with the party. For other people, it’s about the person. Either way, it doesn’t matter much as far as getting the job done,” Pyles said.

 

Advantages, disadvantages

Ricketts said the nonpartisan nature of Waynesboro elections “keeps the element of partisan politics out of local affairs.”

“Because of the way we’ve done things here, you don’t see the same kinds of issues that pop up in state and national politics playing a role in city government,” Ricketts said.

“With parties, you have issues with things like committee assignments, and who gets assigned to the plum committee spots and what you have to do to put yourself in a position to get one of those spots. It can make a difference,” Ricketts said.

The mayor’s opponent in today’s elections, former city councilman DuBose Egleston, is also a fan of nonpartisan local elections.

“It takes the politics out of the equation,” Egleston told the AFP. “I’m an independent in every respect. I vote for the person when I go to the polls. I try to see where the candidates stand on the issues. I think that should matter more than what party you’re in.

“I can see where it could be an advantage to have a party backing,” Egleston said.

“Getting the help in terms of campaign volunteers, for example. Having the organization behind you,” Egleston said.

“But that can be a disadvantage, too. Look at what happened last year when the Republicans nominated a candidate to run for the circuit-court clerk job. A lot of people were concerned that they didn’t nominate the best candidate, and they ended up losing the election.”

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