In a press conference today at City Space on the Downtown Mall, conservative activist Jason Kessler presented his case for the removal of Charlottesville Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy from office, along with a petition intended to begin the legal process, which is unprecedented in the city.
Bellamy, 30, recently came under fire for old tweets Kessler unearthed in November that expressed racist, homophobic and misogynistic attitudes. Bellamy has since apologized for the tweets, and resigned from his job as a teacher at Albemarle High School and from his position on the Virginia Board of Education, but he has remained as the only black member of Charlottesville’s elected City Council.
Kessler was accompanied by Corey Stewart, who was Donald Trump’s former campaign manager in Virginia and is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, as well as Elkton resident Teresa Lam, who read aloud a series of Bellamy’s tweets about white women, and Isaac Smith, the secretary of a new local political group co-founded by Kessler called Unity and Security for America.
Among Kessler’s complaints against Bellamy for “misuse of office” is his vote to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Park.
“He made clear that he did it to attack ‘white supremacy,’ a partisan left-wing term that most on the right construe as a pretense to attack white people and their history,” Kessler said.
“Bellamy linked his own hate speech against white people, woman and other groups from just a few short years ago to the vice mayor’s official social media page,” Kessler said (Bellamy changed his Twitter handle when he was elected as vice mayor in 2016.). “He then proceeded to attack the Robert E. Lee monument, which is of ethnic significance to Southern white people.” The removal of the statue is in violation of Virginia code, he added.
Earl Smith, a former candidate for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, knows something about attempting to remove an elected official from office in Virginia. In 2013, he led an effort to remove then-supervisor Chris Dumler from office following Dumler’s criminal conviction for sexual battery. That effort failed in court, but Dumler resigned voluntarily soon after.
“I think I’d let the courts decide,” Smith says. “Wes does generate a lot of new blood and he does do a lot of things for the community. I think his heart is there. When those tweets came out he was just expressing what kind of person he was at that time.”
Kessler spent weeks gathering signatures for a petition to remove Bellamy from City Council, incurring an assault charge on the mall in the process.
According to state law, an elected officer can be removed from office for certain misdeeds, selling marijuana most prominent among them. Sex crimes were added after the Dumler situation. A petition can be submitted to the court, which may then appoint a special prosecutor to present the legal case made in the petition to a judge.
The law states that “the petition must be signed by a number of registered voters who reside within the jurisdiction of the officer equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast at the last election for the office that the officer holds.”
Dumler garnered 2,007 votes in 2011 in the Scottsville District, and Smith says he collected more than 10 percent of that number.
Kessler has gathered 527 signatures. However, it is not clear that this number will satisfy the 10 percent requirement established by law.
Charlottesville’s city councilors are all elected at-large, which means that each member of council is elected by the entire city rather than by geographical districts or wards. Bellamy won the highest number of votes in the 2015 general election that included five candidates for three seats.
The votes are counted “for the election for the office being held. The office being held is Bellamy’s city councilor position,” Kessler says. “He got 5,270 votes. So if you’re trying to say that it’s more than that then it definitely isn’t because people were able to vote for several city councilors.”
According to an abstract of votes provided by Charlottesville Registrar Rosanna Bencoach, a total of 15,798 votes were cast in the November 2015 election, with Bellamy taking 4,688 votes.
Kessler does not believe that any votes not for Bellamy should be tallied when counting the total number of votes cast. “You count the people who voted for him,” he said.
When reminded that the statute doesn’t say “voted for him,” Kessler responded that “the number of signatures, I’m told by our legal team, is 527.”
“Who is your legal team?” one reporter asked. “Who has advised you on this case?”
“No comment,” replied Kessler.
Asked about the exact number of signatures, verified to be real people who are registered to vote in Charlottesville, that she will need to count, Bencoach demurred.
“That is for the court to decide,” she said by e-mail. A hearing has been scheduled for February 23.
Some see the move to remove Bellamy as racially motivated. According to Pam Starsia, an organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville, the allegations of racist language are not one-sided.
Kessler has an “agenda of trying to push white supremacy or white nationalism into Charlottesville’s local politics,” says Starsia, who is also Bellamy’s attorney.
“Wes has apologized for the content of his old tweets, accepted responsibility for them and, more importantly, his work and deeds in the years since show that he has worked to understand, overcome and rebuild the parts of himself that wrote those words so long ago.”