When Mayor Nikuyah Walker was elected to City Council in November 2017, she became the first independent candidate to claim a seat since 1948. A few weeks ahead of the 2019 election, another independent is making headway among prospective voters—and current councilors.
Bellamy Brown raised more than double the amount of money between July and August as any other candidate who will be on the ballot next to him in November, according to election data reported by The Daily Progress. That includes $250 from outgoing Democratic Councilor Mike Signer, donated through his New Dominion Project political action committee.
Signer has been under fire for the donation from the Charlottesville Democratic Committee, which abides by state party bylaws that prohibit members from publicly supporting opponents of Democratic candidates in local elections. In a September 21 meeting, Signer was threatened with expulsion. He says he didn’t know he was acting in violation of the bylaws and that he hadn’t heard from the committee “in two years.”
“These party rules are kind of baked in the cake and they’re so antiquated…They come from this different era, which is before what we’re looking at now when an independent candidate can win 8,000 votes,” Signer says.
Brown is running against Democrats Sena Magill, Michael Payne, and Lloyd Snook, as well as fellow independents John Hall and Paul Long. Councilor Heather Hill’s husband, Jonathan, also donated $500 to Brown’s campaign, but that’s not a violation of the party bylaws. Hill donated $225 to Magill and says she’s most concerned with identifying candidates whom she could work well with.
“The Democratic slate of candidates is strong, but there are strong candidates beyond the Democratic slate and I welcome the opportunity to work with whoever is successful in the election,” Hill says. “Each candidate brings something unique to the table that’s beneficial.”
Both Hill and Signer have expressed frustration with public outbursts at City Council meetings, and Signer has criticized Walker for not enforcing rules. Brown has called City Council conduct “shameful,” and said governance cannot succeed among disorder.
Typically, members who wish to support an independent candidate must resign from the Democratic committee in order to do so. They have the option of reapplying to the committee after the election, but can no longer retain ex-officio status granted to former officials. Former mayor Dave Norris was among the members who stepped down when Walker ran.
“I was never involved in committee matters,” Norris says. “I can’t remember the last time I attended a Democratic Party event or a committee meeting, it’s been years. So it was really kind of a moot point for me, and even when I was in office I publicly endorsed, for instance, [Chip Harding], a Republican for sheriff of Albemarle County. I’ve always voted for the person over the party.”
None of the Democratic nominees running against Brown say they were offended by Signer’s decision to support someone from outside the party, but Magill believes elected Dems have a “responsibility” to the party that helped them get elected. And Snook said he expected Signer to have the party’s back “because that’s what the rule says.” Payne declined to comment on the councilor’s decision.
When asked about their views on Brown’s platform, both Magill and Snook said they didn’t really know what it was because he’s been “vague” about specific policy ideas.
“I know that the other candidates will say that I’m vague, but to me that’s because they don’t have anything else to say,” Brown says. “They try to define me in different ways and they haven’t been successful at doing so.”
Brown, like the other candidates, considers affordable housing to be one of the most defining issues of the upcoming election, but has yet to lay out a specific plan for fixing the local crisis. He promotes “fiscal responsibility,” and has said he wants to reduce taxes and create more jobs in the area rather than rely on public funding.
“When you have to work across the board and get at least two other votes [to pass a City Council decision], you can’t go in and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go and get a $50 million bond for public housing,’ because you need two other people to do that,” Brown says. “You can be specific all you want, but if you can’t implement it, it doesn’t matter.
If another independent joins Walker on City Council, the local Democratic party will have its weakest majority hold on the local governing body in decades. Regardless, Signer hopes the committee will reconsider its role in the community, taking a more active approach by advocating for its elected members’ policies and reexamining its bylaws.
“The party isn’t proactively serving in a resource capacity to current Democratic office holders,” Signer says. “We have had real political and policy fights where it would be helpful to have back up and resources…It would be nice to know the party had our back and was there doing what parties traditionally do, which is support their office holders. And that hasn’t happened at all.”