It wasn’t your typical launch party. Supporters of local activists Don Gathers and Michael Payne gathered at Kardinal Hall January 8 for the official tossing of the hats into this year’s City Council races. But Gathers made a different kind of announcement: A doctor’s visit three hours earlier had convinced him to postpone his campaign start.
Gathers still has recurring issues stemming from an October 14 heart attack, and said that because of those, he needs to delay the announcement of his campaign, to focus on taking care of “the temple the Lord blessed me with.”
The health advisory threw a bit of a wrench not only into the already printed “Payne Gathers” signs, but also into the unveiling of a new PAC, Progressives for Cville, led by Jalane Schmidt, a UVA professor and Black Lives Matter organizer .
“My concern was for Don,” says Schmidt, citing Gathers’ contributions to the community through his church, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, and the Police Citizen Review Board—from which he resigned following the launch. “I want him to thrive and be healthy.”
The political action committee came about because “there’s a lot of money that flows into a lot of races for entities that have business before City Council, like developers,” says Schmidt. “We can trace a line between donors and their businesses getting favorable hearings,” both on a local and state level, she says.
Progressives for Cville is looking for small donors to support candidates who align with progressive policies and goals, specifically racial inequity and affordable housing, says Schmidt. She’s not sure how much it’s raised so far, but on the ActBlue page set up last week, there was one $500 donor.
And the PAC is looking at candidates by platform rather than party, says Schmidt. Both Payne and Gathers are running as Democrats. And although Mayor Nikuyah Walker won in 2017 as the first independent to get a seat on council since 1948, Democrats “are the biggest platform in town,” says Schmidt.
There have been other offshoots from the main Democratic party trunk. Kevin Lynch and Maurice Cox were elected to council In 2000 as members of Democrats for Change. “It was frustration with the status quo” that had made the party the establishment, recalls Lynch. Dems for Change had a lot of living wage supporters, environmentalists and architects like Cox, who thought the city’s growth plan was “antiquated.”
And in 2017, a group of Dems that included two former city councilors launched Equity and Progress in Charlottesville, which supported Walker’s independent run.
Payne, 26, grew up in Albemarle and graduated from Albemarle High. He’s is a frequent commenter at City Council meetings—he recently asked the city to divest from fossil fuel holdings—and says the affordable housing crisis spurred him to run. Payne works for Habitat for Humanity Virginia.
And while he refrains from saying who he’d like to see replaced on a council where Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin, and Mike Signer are all at the end of their terms, he says, “Given the events of the past three years, new leadership is needed.”
Gathers, 59, points out that a “high level of toxicity” existed in the city well before 2017, when white supremacists targeted Charlottesville with the KKK and Unite the Right rallies.
“That poisonous tree of racism just branches out into so many areas,” he says.
Gathers says he hopes to get his health concerns worked out before the March 11 deadline for filing signatures with the party for the June 11 primary.
Another candidate came forward the next day. Sena Magill may be best known as the wife of Tyler Magill, the UVA librarian and WTJU radio host whose confrontation with Jason Kessler became a meme, and who suffered a stroke after being assaulted that weekend. She announced her run January 9 at City Space, at an event attended by Councilor Heather Hill, former councilor Dede Smith (who denies rumors that she’s running), and yet-to-announce candidate Lloyd Snook.
Magill, 46, grew up here and spent 16 years working with Region Ten and PACEM. She says she’s running because “I’m tired of seeing my home in the news for all these negative reasons.”
She listed climate change first on her platform, and wants to tackle it on the local level with solar panels on government buildings, electric buses, and better bike paths to make the city “carbon negative,” which drew applause from attendees.
Schools and affordable housing are also on Magill’s platform. She cites Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that puts food and shelter foremost before any other issues can be addressed.
The question many have asked her is, who in their right mind would want to sit on City Council given the current tenor of the meetings where those standing before—or on—council can be jeered by attendees and sometimes by those on the dais.
Magill compares the meetings to a pressure cooker where steam needs to be released and says she won’t take it personally. “I expect to cry if I lose the election and I expect to cry more if I win,” she jokes.
So far, none of the council incumbents have revealed their plans for reelection, but the race seems destined for a Democratic primary June 11, when councilors traditionally secure their seats—unless there’s a wild-card independent like Walker.