The week before the election, the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney race exploded with lawsuits, threats of suits and last-minute retorts in ads between the campaigns of incumbent Denise Lunsford and challenger Robert Tracci.
“The good news is that we have some excitement in local races,” says Richmond Sunlight creator and longtime local political observer Waldo Jaquith.
First was the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by a Richmond attorney October 29.
On October 30, the Schilling Show reports that a Lunsford television ad uses images of Albemarle police officers, including Colonel Steve Sellers, without their consent and implying their endorsement. That ad is edited to include the text “no endorsement implied or intended.”
That same day, Lunsford’s campaign manager, Thomas Cross, writes Tracci to demand that a television ad be pulled for a “false and defamatory statement” that Lunsford “intentionally” withheld evidence that exonerated Mark Weiner, who spent two and a half years in jail before his conviction for abduction was set aside. The letter also notes that Lunsford has retained powerhouse law firm McGuireWoods in the event Tracci does not edit or remove the ad.
Undeterred, Tracci campaign manager John Darden fires back October 31 with a missive pointing to widespread media coverage of the Weiner case, including excerpts from Slate and C-VILLE, which detail how Lunsford successfully kept out testimony about cell towers that Weiner supporters believe would have demonstrated the woman who accused him of abduction was likely at her mother’s home rather than in the abandoned house where she claimed Weiner had taken her. Darden says Lunsford’s claims are without legal merit and an attempt to stifle public debate.
By November 1, Lunsford releases another ad that accuses Tracci of basing his campaign on a single case—presumably Weiner—and running a “false and defamatory” ad that disregards a court record that affirms her actions in the case. And she points out that Tracci has never been lead counsel in a felony trial.
“It’s not just one case, Ms. Lunsford” declares the November 2 press release from Camp Tracci, which says although it might just be one case for Lunsford, it was much more to Weiner, who lost his freedom, home, savings and time with his family.
Jaquith says he’s not seen the threat of a defamation suit in local elections in the past 20 years. “What’s unusual in the commonwealth’s attorney race is that they’re both attorneys,” he says. “I wonder if the threats of legal action bolster one’s credibility as an attorney.” But to many voters, he says, “I have to imagine at this point it seems like a silly spat.”
If Tracci’s point is to raise concerns about Lunsford, says Jaquith, he’s been successful. “If you want to run for reelection as the steady hand, having all this chaos thrown in the final days of the campaign” is not helpful, he says.
Tracci says he had nothing to do with the FOIA lawsuit, the timing of which looks suspect, says Jaquith, who predicts that the lawsuit will disappear after the election.
Will the last-minute attack ads sway voters? “With a local, low turnout election,” says Jaquith, “the actual number who can be influenced is quite small.”
C-VILLE goes to press November 3 before election results will be in.