Despite the refrain from all quarters that the defining issue of this year’s City Council election is housing, this election is a referendum on the status quo.
In what feels like hundreds of candidate forums, the five candidates in the Democratic primary for City Council have spent more energy agreeing with one another than setting themselves apart from the field. Their answers to many of the questions posed to them by community groups and neighborhood associations have started to blend together, a nearly indistinguishable blur of progressive generalizations.
All five candidates agree that we have a housing problem. They’ve all voiced support for funding local schools and closing the achievement gap. They all agree that the Lee and Jackson statues are lightning rods for hate that don’t belong in downtown Charlottesville. They all agree that improvements should be made to public transit, even down to the details of establishing a regional transit authority, making stops more frequent and regular, and erecting more bus shelters. They’re all committed to the noble, if nebulous, idea of equity.
In our small blue city, the Democratic primary is the de facto election. There are no Republican candidates. As a state with open primaries, that means our Democratic candidates can coyly court Republican voters. So it’s worth examining the candidates’ messages more closely.
Lloyd Snook is running on a platform of a return to civility. Snook says he decided to run because of the “chaos and disorder” of City Council and what he sees as “decisions not being made intelligently.” He later clarified that he was not referring solely to “what goes on on Monday nights” at City Council meetings, but when asked at a Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association-hosted forum, he was unwilling to articulate specifically what sort of bureaucratic and departmental reforms he envisions pursuing to “get the government to work right again.”
There is a general belief, particularly among people who do not attend them, that City Council meetings are chaotic. While there have been several meetings I would certainly characterize that way, those have been traumatic exceptions.
Outside of the meetings in the immediate wake of a terrorist attack that killed a member of our community, the only time in the past two years that a recess has been called because business could not be conducted was due to armed members of a neo-Confederate group threatening other members of the audience. The idea that City Council cannot conduct its business because of ongoing disorder is a myth that could easily be put to bed by regularly attending what are, in fact, very mundane meetings.
This myth persists because it feels true. It has a kernel of truth, and believing it facilitates the larger narrative that we need to return to how things were before, before people who traditionally did not engage with politics started showing up, before advocating for racial and economic justice became mainstream talking points, before anyone started talking about making the wealthiest among us pay their fair share to make this city livable for all its residents.
Shrouding regressive politics in the language of order and gentility is not new. And in an off-year primary for a local election, much of the electorate is not engaged enough to listen beyond what feels true. It’s easy to say, as every candidate has said throughout this campaign season, that you support finding solutions for our affordable housing crisis. But listen carefully to the solutions on offer.
Sena Magill has campaigned on reforming the regulations on and incentivizing construction of accessory dwelling units. Michael Payne is pushing for fully funding resident-led public housing redevelopment and investing in new affordable units. Bob Fenwick has focused on what he views as the misuse of special use permits, and Brian Pinkston has committed to few specifics.
Snook, while in favor of making it easier to add accessory apartments, also said, “We don’t have room for 4,000 new units in Charlottesville.” Despite being corrected during that April 30 forum by Payne, who clarified that the housing study indicates a need for 4,000 “interventions,” rather than newly constructed units (a fundamental difference), he repeated the claim at a May 13 forum, stating “We’re not going to build our way out of this problem.”
Snook’s plan for affordable housing is regional, which is another statement that, on its surface, sounds reasonable enough. What he’s shared of that plan is the belief that affordable housing should be built on less valuable land, land in the county. His commitment to better regional transit, then, seems to be for the primary purpose of busing people his housing plan would displace into the county back to the city for their low-wage jobs.
At a May 24 student-led climate strike, Payne had this message for the youth organizers: “There will be people who push back, people who tell you you don’t know how politics really works, that you’re being uncivil. I’m telling you, don’t listen to them!”
We are a small city facing big problems. General platitudes that amount to ‘Make Charlottesville Great Again’ won’t solve our housing crisis or mitigate the coming climate disaster. It’s time to face the reality that Charlottesville hasn’t been great for many of its residents throughout its history and move forward, however uncomfortable that might be.
Conger is co-chair of the Charlottesville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which voted May 13 to endorse Michael Payne for City Council.