In Charlottesville, incumbency is no guarantee of retaining a seat on City Council, even if you’re vice mayor. Just ask Meredith Richards, ousted by her own party in 2004, or Julian Taliaferro, who didn’t get the Dems’ nod in 2009.
It happened again June 9, when Vice Mayor Dede Smith was edged out by Wes Bellamy, Mike Signer and incumbent Kathy Galvin in a primary race that drew in some of the biggest fundraising bucks ever, led by Signer, who raised almost $40,000, nearly three times the amount raised by the second-largest fundraiser Bellamy, according to Virginia Public Access Project’s report of filings made through May 27. Final filings are due July 15.
“I don’t love that [the race] was influenced by really, really big money,” says Smith. “It was unprecedented in Charlottesville.” She notes that many of Signer’s donors are developers, and says, “I think it’s important people understand to follow the money. Candidates need to be accountable.” And if a developer who’s a donor comes before City Council, “it should be disclosed,” says Smith.
“Anyone who thinks I would be influenced by a donor doesn’t know me very well,” says Signer, unapologetic about his war chest. “It was a crowded field with two incumbents.”
And he attributes his win not to cash on hand, but to shoe leather. “The reason I won the race was because I spent over 250 hours knocking on doors and calling people,” he says. During the course of the race, Signer says he contacted over 2,000 people and claims, “At the polls, everyone voting for me, I’d personally met.”
The amount of money raised for a City Council primary troubles citizens like Betty Mooney, a Smith supporter who was concerned by the money that came in from out of state and from Albemarle County residents. “When we see $40,000 to unseat an incumbent, that is very disappointing.”
Mooney notes that when city Democrats held caucuses, very little money was spent, and she wonders if reasonable limits should be set for primary spending.
Signer says he’d like to see public financing. Two years ago, he ran the Dems’ City Council campaign with a goal to raise $35,000 to elect two candidates. “We didn’t raise that much,” he says.
And will his fundraising set a new bar for those considering a council run? “I have no idea,” says Signer.
Nor does Charlottesville Democratic Party chair Erin Monaghan. “People obviously ran very different campaigns on different amounts of money,” she says.
And the cost per vote, based on amount of money candidates spent as of May 27 divided by the number of votes they received, according to Virginia Public Access Project, ranged from $2.71 per vote for last-place Lena Seville to $14.98 per vote for second-place finisher Signer.
Monaghan denies a persistent perception among Smith supporters that the Dem hierarchy targeted Smith. “The Democratic party did not target anyone,” says Monaghan. “The party was neutral.” The whole point of the primary, she says, was for the party to stay out of it and let voters pick the candidates.
Mooney says Smith asked hard questions that not everyone appreciated. Smith, in discussions with the county, “was a tough negotiator to get what was best for city residents,” says Mooney. “It appears that some of the other councilors would put cooperation with the county and developers above what is in the best interests of city residents.”
“My role in this community is to ask uncomfortable questions,” says Smith, even when that wasn’t the smartest move politically, she admits. She isn’t blaming her loss on party insiders. “I don’t know that I would pin it on them per se, even though I’ve never been their favorite.”
Smith, who pulled in 1,613 votes, says, “One out of every two people who voted, voted for me.” But with three votes per voter, that wasn’t enough.
The race brought 3,245 voters, up from 2,561 in the primary two years ago when Dems were picking candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, says Electoral Board member Rick Sincere. What brought the increased turnout? “My best guess is it was a candidate like Wes Bellamy bringing in people who don’t normally vote,” says Sincere.
Sincere notes one thing unusual for the recent race: “I’ve never seen TV commercials for a City Council primary before,” he says.
Next up in the electing of city councilors: Bellamy, Galvin and Signer face Republican candidate Anson Parker and independent Scott Bandy in November.
Dede Smith is out. Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin and Mike Signer advance to the November ballot.
How much does it cost to win the Dem primary?
CANDIDATE Spent NUMBER of votes Cost per vote
Mike Signer $27,796 1,855 $14.98
Wes Bellamy $7,117 2,483 $2.87
Dede Smith $6,691 1,613 $4.15
Kathy Galvin $6,209 1,835 $3.38
Lena Seville $1,769 651 $2.71
Source for amount spent as of May 27 and number of votes: VPAP
Clarification: The numbers used for the amounts candidates raised and spent are based on a May 27 filing. Those numbers could change after the final filings July 15.
Correction: The original story omitted then vice mayor Julian Taliaferro, who also lost his party’s nomination in 2009.