For some, it came as a shock when City Councilor Wes Bellamy announced yesterday that he would not run for re-election, especially considering his public remarks the week before that made it sound otherwise.
At his March 20 Virginia Festival of the Book event with former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, where the two politicians discussed how Confederate statues are symbols of institutional racism, Bellamy indicated he was likely to run for a second term because the best way to change policy “is through elected office.”
But a Rob Schilling report—from just a few hours before the 125 signatures needed to participate in the Democratic primary were due yesterday—cited “recent reports from deep inside the nascent Bellamy campaign” that he was more than 75 signatures short.
Then the former vice-mayor penned an open letter to the community, which said, “I love the people of this city, but I love my wife, my daughters, and our unborn child more. And because of my love for them, I am stepping aside for new energy. …Honestly, I need a break for my mental health, my physical health, and my family’s well being.”
Though city council voted unanimously to remove Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments after the Unite the Right rally, Bellamy, who has been calling for their removal since 2016, bore the brunt of the vitriol from local and faraway statue supporters and racists. Those included Jason Kessler, who dug up some problematic, years-old tweets from the only black councilor at the time, and called for his resignation.
Bellamy has publicly discussed the multitude of threats he and his family members receive daily.
“Some people will say that I’m quitting, or that I’m giving up, and that’s okay,” Bellamy wrote. “Some will say that the haters won. That’s okay, too. What matters most is not what people say, but what we do.”
Local activist and UVA professor Jalane Schmidt says Bellamy’s legacy includes bringing up the city’s difficult white supremacist history and present, a push for equity, a community presence, and an effort to connect people who’ve “been left out by the system” to city resources.
Deacon Don Gathers says he was “troubled and somewhat hurt” to find out Bellamy wasn’t running again, but he understands putting family first.
“I applaud him and I appreciate everything that he’s done and tried to do for the city as a whole and the black community, specifically,” says Gathers. “I really think that he has always had the community’s best interest at heart, and not everybody was going to agree with the direction that he took to try to move us forward.”
Gathers initially planned to run for council this term, but cited health concerns as a reason he did not officially launch a campaign. He and Schmidt have publicly supported Democratic candidate Michael Payne, who will now officially run against Lloyd Snook, Bob Fenwick, Sena Magill, and Brian Pinkston in the primary, where no incumbents will be on the bill.
Former mayor Mike Signer’s name also didn’t make the list of those in the running, and in the public statement he posted to Twitter yesterday, he also mentioned his family.
“My wife and I never intended that I would serve more than one term on city council,” he said. “Another four years would however be hard to balance with the competing demands of raising two young kids, my day job, and my work on initiatives like Communities Overcoming Extremism.”
Schmidt says it was no secret that Signer had higher political ambitions—including an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2009—before moving to Charlottesville and being elected to city council in 2015.
“There were many of us who suspected that this was a kind of stepping stone,” she says. “It seems that his aspirations were dashed by his failure to address the [August 11 and 12, 2017,] attacks.”
Signer’s leadership came under fire in former federal prosecutor Tim Heaphy’s independent review of that summer’s white supremacist events. In what was already a maelstrom of poor planning, Heaphy found that city council further complicated matters by making a last-minute decision to move the Unite the Right rally to McIntire Park, despite nearly unanimous advice that such a move would not withstand a legal challenge and spread police resources even further.
In an August 24 Facebook post, Signer publicly pointed the finger at then-city manager Maurice Jones and police chief Al Thomas for the devastating events.
And then on August 30, his fellow councilors held a three-hour closed door meeting to discuss his performance and potential discipline, where they seemingly accepted his apology—which he also read to reporters and community members who gathered in council chambers.
“In the deeply troubling and traumatizing recent weeks, I have taken several actions as mayor, and made several communications, that have been inconsistent with the collaboration required by our system of governance and that overstepped the bounds of my role as mayor, for which I apologize to my colleagues and the people of Charlottesville,” he said.
Schmidt says he’ll also be remembered for his reluctance to move the statues, support of luxury developments such as Keith Woodard’s now-defunct West2nd condos at a time when affordable housing was a pressing need, and his “foray into public consciousness,” when he became president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association just as it was starting to gentrify, she says.
Though Gathers was one of Signer’s more vocal critics, especially in the fallout of August 12, he says he wishes him success in all his future endeavors.
“As he exits, I’m certainly not going to take shots at him,” he says. “I’m sure that he did the best that he thought he could, and what he felt was best at the time.”
Though Fenwick is once again in the running, the departure of Signer and Bellamy—along with Kathy Galvin, who’s running for the House of Delegates, instead—means there could be no remaining councilors on the dais who called the shots during the Summer of Hate. Is Charlottesville turning over a new leaf?
Updated March 29 at 2:37pm.