The following is an InsideNOVA article from October 30:
Presidential election could boost turnout for Democratic slate in Manassas City Council race
In any other year, a bid by three Democrats to wrest control of the Manassas city council from Republican hands might look like the longest of long shots.
It’s been more than 30 years since two Democrats have even served on the council at the same time, yet a key electoral change in the city could give the challengers a leg up in their bid to seize the three council seats up for grabs away from the GOP.
Following the success of a November 2012 ballot measure, Manassas voters will cast ballots for local elections at the same time as they help pick a new president for the first time ever, which should drastically boost turnout in the city and alter the composition of the electorate. The shift away from holding elections in May to November meant that turnout for the 2014 race dwarfed the figures from 2012 — the city recorded roughly 11,000 additional votes cast in the 2014 council race compared to the previous election — and even installed one Democrat on the governing body in Ken Elston.
“It’s just about coming out the closet in this community,” said Rex Parr, a Democrat and former CEO of Didlake, Inc. “We learned through two Obama campaigns, Tim Kaine and John Warner and Terry McAuliffe, there are a majority of Democrats here. We’ve simply made it OK to stand up.”
Indeed, Parr is hoping that by teaming with school board member Pam Sebesky and incumbent council member Mark Wolfe (who flipped his affiliation ahead of the election after spending eight years on the council as a Republican), the party can present city voters with the chance to build a “new majority” on the council. But to do so, they’ll have to best a pair of entrenched incumbents in Vice Mayor Jonathan Way and Ian Lovejoy, in addition to Republican Theresa Coates-Ellis and Independent Michael Youlen.
“I think even the moderate Republicans recognize the need for a change because they see the ineffectiveness of the Tea Party caucus,” Sebesky said. “That’s frustrating to them as Republicans as well, because they really believe their party isn’t effective as they can be.”
A spending dispute
Comparing any local politician to the strident limited government strain of the GOP is quite the accusation to level, but the claim is at the heart of the Democrats’ pitch to earn control of the council. The changes to the election could bring an inherent boost to the challengers’ chances, but they’re hoping to primarily make the contest a referendum on how Lovejoy and Way have managed spending on public services in the city.
“You can’t have a community that’s driven by being the lowest cost provider of goods and services,” Wolfe said. “All you’ll get then is the people who can afford to live there.”
From funding for new construction projects to city schools to first responders, the Democrats charge that the GOP’s hamstrung the city by failing to adequately invest in services as Manassas has emerged from the Great Recession. But for the incumbents, those claims just don’t ring true, particularly given their focus on keeping tax rates low.
“I have a unique perspective, as opposed to a challenger, in that I’ve actually have the responsibility of being a steward of the taxpayers money,” Lovejoy said. “I’ve had men who are old enough to be my father standing on the other side of that podium, crying because our tax rates have pushed them out of the city.”
Way agreed with that assessment, noting that he believes the council succeeded in “not just rushing out and throwing debt” around to meet the city’s needs. In all, Lovejoy believes there is some need for council to “carve out” a certain amount of tax revenue for capital improvement projects, but he charged that “it’s easy to make a wish list, but not tell (people) how much it costs and how much you’d have to raise taxes to pay for it.”
But Wolfe sees that sort of thinking a shortsighted, and feels that his colleagues fail to grasp the bigger picture surrounding spending.
“To do more, costs more — I get that,” Wolfe said. “But I also know that if you don’t invest in the community, you don’t establish the conditions that will lead for the business side to come in and expand the tax base and you’re eventually going to end up with a spiraling tax rate. To be honest, you’re going to be Manassas Park.”
The Democrats believe the council’s inaction on building a new fire station on the south side of the city is prime example of the GOP’s refusal to invest in the community. As a nurse, Sebesky said she’s particularly disturbed that the council’s delay in adding a new station and cutting response times is endangering lives.
Lovejoy countered that money for the station is already included in the city’s budget, and noted that “right now, we’re picking a spot and designing a building.” Yet Parr feels that characterization is duplicitous.
“It shows up in the capital improvement plan and everybody votes, ‘Yes,’ but then when it comes time to approve a tax rate that’ll fund that plan, they all vote ‘No,”” Parr said. “And so the can gets kicked down the road, down the road. They’re telling us, ‘Yes, it’s in the budget,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s funded and guaranteed.’”
Wolfe even pointed to Lovejoy and Way’s decision back in May to vote for council member Marc Aveni’s (unsuccessful) motion to delay the station’s construction by a year as further proof that the incumbents aren’t serious about spending money.
Those criticisms aside, Republicans charge that electing a slate of Democrats would give them license to push through any initiative they choose, given how closely they could hew together as a voting block on big spending projects.
“Running for three seats, I thought three diversified candidates would be better than three cookie-cutter candidates,” Coates-Ellis said. “There’s no diversity at all. As a voter, I’d want to have different people.”
But Sebesky is confident that, as three professed “fiscal conservatives,” the challengers won’t be rushing into runaway spending projects anytime soon.
“I don’t think that they’ll find that all of us will agree with everything,” Sebesky said. “We haven’t agreed on things just today.”
As an Independent, Youlen sees the race differently still. The former police officer feels the rancor at the national level proves that people aren’t happy with the “status quo,” and he hopes to see new blood on the council regardless of party affiliation.
Yet Virginia politics observers like Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, feel the conditions of a presidential race could indeed help tilt even races far down the ballot in the favor of Democrats. Considering that voters in presidential years tend to be “browner, younger and more urban/suburban than suburban and rural,” Kidd expects that any GOP candidate faces an uphill battle in presidential cycles.
“The effect is what we see, Democrats have done well statewide in the last decade and Republicans have struggled,” Kidd said.
Kidd said he’s even seen substantial shifts in local races when they’ve coincided with presidential races. He pointed to a resolution approving a light rail system in Virginia Beach as a prime example of the effect the change can have locally — in 2009, he said it “failed miserably,” but when it popped back up on the 2012 presidential ballot, it passed with 63 percent of the vote.
He feels that’s a direct result of putting the question to a wider audience, though he admits there’s plenty of challenges to such a decision.
“It’s sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Kidd said. “If you have an election on an off cycle, you can barely get enough attention on the cycle to inform voters, but if you have it on a federal cycle, you’re so drowned out by the top of the ticket races that you really can’t get a lot of attention.”
For his part, Way is particularly upset with the change, considering the “zoo-like chaos” at the national level, as evidenced by his own party’s controversial nominee in Donald Trump.
“We got kind of a double whammy with the shift to November and the insanity of the federal situation,” Way said.
All of the candidates also lamented that the shift has made the race considerably more expensive, a feature Lovejoy fears is crowding out more diverse candidates.
So far, Coates-Ellis, Parr and Sebesky have all raised at least $7,800 in the race, while Way’s pulled in about $3,400, according to state campaign finance records. Youlen isn’t accepting outside contributions, while data for Lovejoy and Wolfe isn’t currently available online (though Lovejoy previously said he expects to spend around $15,000 on the race).
Yet the Democrats feel that, even if the change doesn’t help them tip the scales in Manassas, it’ll ultimately be good for the city.
“It’s a lot more work and a pain the rear,” Wolfe said. “But I can’t fathom a situation where you tell me, ‘It’s better to have 3,000 people vote than 17,000.’”