Election night 2017 in Charlottesville had quite a different feel from 2016. Democrats swept statewide offices, with Ralph Northam winning the governor’s race by an even wider margin—9 percent—than pundits had predicted. And no one saw it coming that Dems would dislodge the hefty 66-34 Republican majority in the House of Delegates, and, depending on recounts, Charlottesville’s own David Toscano could end up house majority leader.
The unprecedented evening continued in Charlottesville, where Nikuyah Walker bucked the Democratic groundswell and became the first independent to win a seat on City Council since 1948. Also unprecedented: It’s the first time two African Americans will serve on council when she joins Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy on the dais in January.
Walker’s supporters—a younger, more diverse crowd than the older, whiter Dems awaiting returns at Escafe—gathered at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, where she led from the first precinct report.
“She’s the first Charlottesville native in decades to serve on council,” former mayor Dave Norris, a Walker supporter, points out. “She’s someone who’s actually experienced some of the issues facing council. She lived in Garrett Square,” which is now known as Friendship Court.
Her victory “is a rebuke to the dirty tactics of the anonymous source,” adds Norris, referring to the November 4 Daily Progress story prompted by an unnamed city official who suggested Walker’s “aggressive” communication style would make it difficult for her to work with other councilors and city staff.
Before the election, conventional wisdom predicted Laufer, who’s served on the school board, would get one of the open council seats now held by Bob Fenwick and Kristin Szakos, and the second would be a toss-up between Hill and Walker. Instead, Hill edged Laufer by 55 votes in what were extremely close margins between the three frontrunners.
“Heather worked her tail off,” says Norris. “Whenever someone criticized Heather, she would sit down and talk to them. She personally hit up every street in Charlottesville.”
The election “played out in a different way than I expected,” says Hill. “This year has been unprecedented, and there was no doubt in my mind this election was going to be unprecedented. I’m really excited to be part of this change.”
One big change for Walker: As a city employee with parks and rec, she will be her own boss as a councilor—sort of. State code on conflicts of interest says an elected official may keep her job with a government agency provided employment began before election to the governing body.
Surrounded by her son, two daughters and mother on stage at Jefferson School, Walker admitted, “I drove my family crazy.”
She said, “It’s hard growing up black in Charlottesville. I only ran because of [the late vice-mayor] Holly Edwards. She told me if I️ ran, I’d win.”
Walker said, “People told lies about me. They should have told the truth.”
And she acknowledged the broad grassroots support she had, with contributions ranging from $5 to $10,000. She urged her supporters to hold onto the “we” and stay engaged. “It’s not a temporary thing.”
Walker’s win “breaks up the total Democratic control on council,” says UVA Center for Politics’ Geoffrey Skelley. “It’s meaningful in the aftermath of all the terrible things that happened in Charlottesville” with the monument debate and neo-Nazi invasion, which some put at the feet of City Council.
“Walker was offering something different,” he says. “It’s a reaction locally when Democrats were crushing it everywhere else. It’s a reaction to local issues that have become national issues.”
In Albemarle County, the Samuel Miller District was the only contested Board of Supervisors race, and incumbent Liz Palmer handily beat Republican challenger John Lowry with 68 percent of the vote.
In county school board races, Katrina Callsen, who had opponent Mary McIntyre’s supporters grousing about outside money from a Teach for America affiliate, won 63 percent of the Rio District vote. In the Samuel Miller District, incumbent Graham Paige held on to his seat with 65 percent of the vote, fending off 18-year-old challenger Julian Waters.
Statewide, Skelley had anticipated a narrower race between Northam and Ed Gillespie. Northam’s win was the largest margin for a Democratic candidate since 1985, when Gerald Baliles won, says Skelley.
Voter turnout was up 15 percent over the last governor’s race in 2013, and in some places like Charlottesville, it was up 31 percent. In Fairfax, 23 percent more voters went to the polls than in 2013, and that increase “has got to be looked at as a response to President Trump,” says Skelley.
Democrat Justin Fairfax won the lieutenant governor’s race and became the second African American to hold that position, which Doug Wilder won in 1985. Incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring held on to his seat and gave Democrats a sweep in statewide offices.
Before the election, Skelley predicted Democrats might pick up seats in the high single digits in the House of Delegates. “I was very cautious,” he says. Several close races will face recounts, and if the Dems win, it’s possible they could have their first majority in the house since 2000.
Almost all the Democratic gains came from the 15 districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, says Skelley. “It’s not like they’re winning a bunch of red seats.”
A couple of Latina delegates, an African-American veteran, Dawn Adams, the first openly lesbian delegate, and Danica Roem, the first transgender legislator in the country, will change the makeup of the mostly white male House, says Skelley.
Roem’s win over 13-term social conservative Bob Marshall, who carried the state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and who last year carried an unsuccessful bathroom bill, is particularly significant and an outcome Skelley wasn’t willing to bet on. “Prince William County has changed,” he says. “[Marshall] didn’t change with it.”
No one was predicting an unseating of Albemarle’s three GOP incumbents—Steve Landes, Matt Fariss and Rob Bell—who held on to their seats, although Bell and Fariss did face challengers, unlike in 2015 when they were unopposed. While Dem Angela Lynn lost for a second time to Landes, this year she narrowed the margin from 32 points to 16.
For House Minority Leader Toscano, who was unopposed, the evening was particularly enjoyable. “I must admit I never really thought we could do it all this cycle,” he says. “I thought we’d pick up some seats.”
Currently the Dems have 49 seats, he says, and both sides are calling for recounts in a handful of races. He’s not speculating on what will happen if his party takes the majority—and he could potentially be elected speaker. “First we have to count all the votes,” he says.
However, even if the Democrats don’t hold a majority, with a 49-51 split, “immediately we’ll get a lot more representation on committees. Immediately we’ll make strategic alliances with Republicans to pass legislation,” says Toscano.
“The election makes clear Virginia is a bellwether election following Trump,” he says. It shows that voters like candidates engaged with their communities, they like what Democrats like Governor Terry McAuliffe have been doing with economic development, and says Toscano, “They don’t like the divisiveness and hate of Trump.”
Correction 10:22am November 9: The story originally said Walker would have to resign her job as a city employee, but apparently that’s not true if she held the job before being elected.