A radiant Dede Smith gladly subjected herself to a whirlwind of affectionate embraces and congratulatory handshakes last Tuesday night at Vivace Restaurant on Ivy Road, moments after the final vote tally revealed she had won one of the three open seats on Charlottesville’s City Council.
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Smith’s victory came as no surprise to the Democratic party leadership, which worked hard during the campaign to counter the public’s perception that the winning ticket of Smith, incumbent Satyendra Huja and Kathy Galvin was anything but unified. Planning and design-focused heavy hitters Huja and Galvin got the most votes, 4,608 and 4,601 respectively, but Smith finished a close third with 4,547 votes.
Now that Smith is officially a City Councilor, can her dredge-first agenda, which distances her from both Huja and Galvin, change the status quo on Council? Does Smith, who is known as a fighter, have the ability to turn into a consensus builder?
A city resident for over 30 years, it’s not the first time Smith, now 56, has had a leadership role in the community. As School Board chair, she presided over what was perhaps the school system’s biggest fiasco. Scottie Griffin, the city’s first African-American school superintendent, was brought in to make dramatic changes at a moment when the state was considering taking over the district’s budget for poor performance. Griffin arrived with big ideas but soon became embroiled in a racially charged power struggle that divided the district and eventually ended in her resignation only 10 months after she was hired. Smith stood by Griffin throughout the crisis and she still stands by that decision.
“We had a contract with the superintendent,” she said. “I think it would have been a lack of leadership on my part and on the School Board’s part to have done what we needed to do without trying to work with her.”
From this and other contentious situations, Smith said she has learned to take criticism. “I am not afraid,” she said. “I think it’s actually one of my strengths that I’m willing to get in the middle of very complex issues when I feel they are really important.”
Smith got a taste of the complexity of the city’s race relations landscape during the Scottie Griffin fight and was widely criticized for how she handled her part. When the city endorsed the creation of the Dialogue on Race as a way to find plausible solutions to racial tensions in the city, Smith wasn’t initially convinced.
“I was pretty skeptical when it started because I’ve seen it happen many times,” she said. “The Dialogue on Race has broken the mold and it really established itself as a valuable tool to discuss race.” Smith said that especially because there will be no African-American representation on Council for the first time in years, the Dialogue on Race will become even more crucial. “It’s evolving and that’s what’s important,” she said.
Dede Smith (left), pictured here with outgoing Councilor Holly Edwards, has been a vocal supporter of a dredge-first approach to the community water supply plan. In the event of a new vote, Smith hopes the Council’s outcome will be different. “The first time I objected to it, it was a completely different plan, and it’s just changed and morphed as it needed to morph…I will continue to advocate for what I believe is the best thing for the city,” she said.
In her role as director of the Ivy Creek Foundation for 14 years and as a member of Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, Smith has been a vocal and very public voice in the community water supply debate. She has tried, during her campaign, to offer a more varied political agenda, emphasizing a renewed focus on alternative transportation, the protection of natural resources and affordable housing issues. Yet, the water supply debate has followed her throughout the campaign, and there’s a good chance it will take center stage once again with the new Council.
“I don’t think we know yet what decisions will be left to make,” said Smith. Asked whether she would push for a new vote on the 2006 community water supply plan, Smith said she would if the opportunity presented itself, “I would hope we would reconsider,” she said. “The first time I objected to it, it was a completely different plan, and it’s just changed and morphed as it needed to morph. So I don’t see any reason why, should the opportunity come up or new information come up. I will continue to advocate for what I believe is the best thing for the city.”
If it does come to a vote, Smith, who has vocally opposed the construction of the new earthen dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir, will have the backing of the people who voted her into office. Former opponent and Independent candidate Bob Fenwick, who had hoped to win a seat on Council along with Smith to create a new majority that would review and challenge the current water plan’s vote, said he would look for her to resuscitate the issue.
“Dede is a fighter. She can make a good case,” he said. “She has the pulpit now.”
Smith, who says she has “thick skin,” has worked hard to shake the one-issue candidate label that stuck with her throughout the campaign. The priorities for her Council tenure won’t lie far from her core interests, i.e. protecting natural resources and planning for responsible growth, but she believes she will be able to integrate that platform with larger issues the city government will face.
“If I have one dream, it’s really to see alternative transportation to cars become a viable option in this city,” she said.
On the redevelopment of the city’s public housing sites, another racially charged and challenging issue, Smith said she is doing her homework.
“I am learning as much as I can,” she said. She added that it will be vital to get direct buy-in from the people whose lives will be affected by the decisions involved in redevelopment.
“I think that’s where we fall down sometimes,” she said. “If I learned anything on the School Board it is that I cannot possibly understand what it is like to be in the shoes I have never worn.”
Managing to win a seat on a Council many say won’t be much different than the current one isn’t likely to satisfy Smith’s ambition. How much her relentless attitude can change the conversation moving forward remains to be seen.