With the Democratic primary looming June 9, several former councilors offered their prognostications on who will get the nomination for three open City Council seats. And historically a primary win means the election is a done deal in November in this majority Dem town—although Republicans are offering wild-card candidate Anson Parker in hopes of changing that trend.
Incumbents Kathy Galvin and Dede Smith are seeking reelection, and Mayor Satyendra Huja, opting not to run again, leaves an open seat. Wes Bellamy ran for council two years ago and lost in a five-vote squeaker. Mike Signer sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2009, and more recently the Fifeville Neighborhood Association president tried to relocate the West Main ABC store. And Lena Seville is an activist who’s served on multiple local boards.
Several former councilors see the race as a clash between incumbents Galvin and Smith, although the women themselves say it’s a debate on different policies, not personalities. Others watching the race see a coalition between Galvin, Bellamy and Signer.
Former mayor Dave Norris, a Smith supporter, said the challengers have a tough road ahead. “It’s hard to unseat an incumbent,” he said. “They have the advantage.”
But former vice-mayor Meredith Richards, who’s supporting a Galvin-Bellamy-Signer ticket, doesn’t necessarily see the incumbency as an advantage for the people who think City Council is dysfunctional. “People are looking for a change,” she said. “I can’t say what that will mean for incumbents.”
Norris predicts Bellamy will be the top vote getter. “He’s handled himself well,” he said. “He was a graceful loser last time. He’s built up his credentials and he’s built a lot of bridges.” Norris thinks second and third place will be close between Signer, Galvin and Smith.
Seville, said Norris, has brought up important issues, like environmental policy. “I don’t see a groundswell of popular support for her candidacy, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if there was,” he said.
How much support Seville has garnered depends on who you talk to, she said. “I’ve been going door-to-door and complete strangers are telling me they’re supporting me,” she said. “Some people like new candidates. Some people like talking about environmental issues.”
In fundraising, Seville had raised the least money—$1,416—of all candidates at press time. “I made a purposeful decision to go to the voters instead of going to power brokers,” she said.
The top fundraiser is Signer, who had $17,545 in donations, including $10,000 from New Dominion Project, his political action committee, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which did not include candidates’ most recent filings.
The $10,000 donation is “very atypical” for City Council, said Richards. “Generally council campaigns are run on a shoestring.”
Said Signer in an e-mail, “I’m grateful that the New Dominion Project PAC’s donation has allowed me to spend less time on fundraising and more time meeting voters and holding our campaign’s ‘Solutions Sessions’ on topics including economic opportunity, education and the environment.”
Galvin, who said she’s raised around $12,000, pointed out that running for council was cheaper when the Democratic caucus picked the candidates. “It got more expensive when we went to the primary system,” she said. She’s using the same graphic designs from her race four years ago. “That is the beauty of being an incumbent,” she said.
Sometimes raising a lot of money can backfire, said Norris, who pulled in $5,000 for his last City Council run. “It can look like you’re trying to buy the race,” he said. “[Signer] sees this as a springboard for statewide office. He’s willing to spend a lot of money.”
Signer did not respond to a question about future statewide office seeking. Nor did he answer questions about allegations that he sent an e-mail about the 2011 arrest for cocaine distribution of Raymond Mason, his adversary in the West Main ABC store debate.
Last fall, Signer gathered a petition with more than 350 signatures to relocate the ABC store, and Mason collected more than 500 signatures to not move the store. The ABC decided to keep the store in its current location.
City Councilor Bob Fenwick said he received an e-mail about Mason from Signer. “I was kind of surprised,” said Fenwick, who said about 10 or 15 minutes later, he got an e-mail retracting the original.
Calling the mailing “retaliation,” Mason said, “It was a real low blow to take my past addiction and drag it through the mud.”
“I think it was a poor move on Signer’s part,” said Norris, who said he was told about the e-mail by someone who received it.
Wes Bellamy declined to comment on the particulars of the mailing, but said, “If Mr. Signer did, that’s unfortunate. If he didn’t, I’d like to hear him say so. I’d like both of them to sit down and hash out their issues.”
Former mayor Blake Caravati is a Signer supporter. “I think Mike has a lot to offer,” he said. “I think he’ll be a very calming force on City Council.”
Said Richards of Signer, who is an attorney and author, “I think he brings intellectual power to the board. Certainly he’s the ultimate professional.”
Galvin said she’s not running on a ticket with Bellamy and Signer, but she and Bellamy were planning a get-out-the-vote event. “We’re probably dipping into the same volunteer pool,” she said.
“I think she’s formidable,” said Norris of Galvin. “She’s savvy. She does her homework.” People who vote against her will do so because of her record on issues such as voting against a living wage, against a resolution to not prosecute pot possession and championing the controversial Ragged Mountain Dam, opined Norris.
It’s the latter issue that Caravati thinks is Dede Smith’s Achilles heel. Smith opposed the dam. “She never really let it go,” said Caravati. “You have to be open to varying points of view. Being a true believer is going to swat you.”
For Smith, her and Galvin’s differences on issues like the dam are an advantage and bring broader perspectives, especially for the current all-Democratic City Council.
A fascinating aspect of this campaign, said Smith, is the use of press conferences, with candidates lining up to announce positions, particularly on the ever-popular education and the environment. “I’m thinking of having one on something no one else has done,” she said.
Smith said she’s running on her 30 years experience, and notes her record as an environmentalist. “I haven’t liked being a minority vote on environmental issues,” she said. “I don’t feel threatened by someone else saying we should be concerned about the environment.”
She’s less thrilled with another trend: “I worry about the amount of money you need to run for council,” she said. Smith was the second-lowest fundraiser with around $5,000 showing on VPAP. “I don’t think it’s healthy for Charlottesville to get into big money in elections.”
Smith declined to predict who the top vote getters will be. “Everybody asks me that,” she said. “I’m not going near that.”
The man who many see as the top vote getter, Bellamy, refuses to call his nomination a shoo-in. “Two years ago I raised the most money, knocked on a lot of doors and then lost by five votes,” he said.
He said he’s running an independent campaign. “I have relationships with all four candidates,” he said. “I think Dede is going to be difficult to beat.”
Bellamy had raised $8,200, according to VPAP records at press time, and he had 75 donors who gave less than $100. “Our campaign donations are a reflection of the grassroots support we have throughout the community,” said Bellamy.
Correction: The original story said that Mike Signer tried to close the West Main ABC store. His petition was to relocate the store from its present location.