Leesburg Candidates Say Partisan Politics Have Changed Elections

Five years ago, when Leesburg voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to shift Town Council elections from May to November, the change fueled an increase in partisan politics in what are supposed to be nonpartisan council positions.

The council had wrestled with whether to move the spring elections, with ultimately town residents making the final decision after a successful resident-led petition drive to place the referendum on the ballot.

Those council members in favor of switching to fall balloting cited the poor voter turnout in May, usually hovering at or under 10 percent of qualified voters, as well as the savings generated from moving the elections to November’s ballot. But those who sounded caution on the change said that lumping the council races onto the November ballot could inject an air of partisanship into what are supposed to be nonpartisan posts, as well as increase the number of uninformed voters, as many would not realize when they come out to vote for the next president, that there are also council races to decide.

Kevin Wright was one of those council members who opposed the change. Two years ago, when running for re-election for a third council term, he was the lone candidate to not seek an endorsement from either local political party organization, as has become commonplace since the election date shift. He was defeated.

This year, when he decided to throw his hat into the mayor’s race, he did seek, and receive, the endorsement of the Loudoun County Republican Committee, a move he said was an effort to reach more Leesburg voters. He was defeated again, finishing second to mayor-elect Kelly Burk and ahead of current mayor David Butler. Burk received the endorsement of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, while Butler said he thought about seeking an LCDC endorsement but ultimately chose not to.

Of his decision to seek an endorsement, Wright said, especially in a presidential election year, many voters are expecting a party endorsement for candidates. The sample ballots presented at voting precincts then served as “an additional means of outreach to voters,” he said.

Butler said the fact that he did not seek a party endorsement “absolutely” hurt his campaign.

“Four years ago, it was clear that party endorsement was a factor, but it didn’t appear to drive the results,” he said. “Now that we’ve been doing this three [election] cycles, it’s clear that any candidates must seek an endorsement if they want to have any chance of winning.”

Butler also pointed Councilwoman Katie Sheldon Hammler, who finished fourth and out of the running for three council seats last week in her attempt to win a fourth council term. Hammler also did not seek a party endorsement.

“Both Katie and I were long-term council members, we were both incumbents and we both lost and Kevin lost last time,” he said, noting Wright’s 2014 council defeat. “I think it’s clear that you must have a party endorsement. It’s going to be the single, overriding factor.”

Of those surveyed for this article, no one seemed to disagree with the weight placed on the sample ballots distributed on Election Day, noting each party’s chosen slate. While not having to run this Election Day, Councilman Marty Martinez, as the current LCDC chairman, was involved this campaign season as well. He reflected back on his first Town Council race in 2002, when the elections were still held in May.

“It was not like it is today. Town elections are no longer non-partisan,” he said.

While political parties may have helped candidates behind the scenes, perhaps even given donations, party endorsements were rare, Martinez said. He said he would have preferred to have never had the elections move from May to November.

LCRC Chairman Will Estrada echoed that sentiment. He said he wished the council races would move back to May, so the Republican Party could get out of the business of endorsing candidates for a nonpartisan race. For the LCRC, he said, making endorsements of council candidates is all about “self-preservation.”

“We’re going to be making endorsements as long as the [LCDC] is making endorsements because we’re not trying to turn the Town Council into a partisan tool of the LCDC,” Estrada said.

He even went so far as to urge the Town Council to consider moving the elections back to May to help eliminate the rampant partisanship.

That would require a Town Charter amendment. However, how that could be accomplished wasn’t clear this week. The General Assembly can amend town charters, but, in this case, it would have to reverse the will of voters recorded at the earlier referendum. The state code allows a referendum to move town elections to the fall ballot, but does not spell out authority for voters to reverse that decision. Calls to the Virginia Department of Elections on what process a move back to May would involve for the Town Council were not immediately returned.

“As long as [the election] is in November there’s really no way to eliminate partisanship. You can reduce it but you’re never going to really get rid of it,” Estrada said. “There’s only one option: for the council to say ‘we tried this, it didn’t really work. Let’s move it back to May.’”

Estrada and others concede, however, that moving the elections to November is a cost-saving move for the town. If the council holds a special election next year ahead of the November general election to fill Burk’s council seat, General Registrar Judy Brown estimates it would cost about $50,000 to staff 11 town precincts and print and mail absentee ballots.

Councilman Tom Dunn was one of the most vocal proponents of moving the elections in the first place, and he, too, cited the cost-saving measure. Fresh off his victory from last week, Dunn said he believes the council needs to decide how it wants to move forward on town elections.

“We need stronger language to make it even tougher to have parties involved in local elections, or we need to quit hiding behind the veil of nonpartisan elections and truly make it a partisan election,” he said. “I would rather be straightforward to the citizens.”

Dunn sought and received the endorsement of the LCRC, as he did two years ago in his bid to unseat then-Mayor Kristen Umstattd. Like Wright, Dunn said the endorsement was aimed at ensuring extra help at the polls. He also echoed Wright’s point that, especially in a presidential election year, many residents have come to expect sample ballots for all candidates up for election.

Hammler was successful in her bid for a re-election to the council four years ago without a party endorsement, but this time found herself beaten out by other candidates who had received a party endorsement. She said she didn’t seek an endorsement because she never “neatly fit into the box” of either political party, nor has she ever been a member of a political party.

She doesn’t believe her defeat indicated she was out of touch with Leesburg voters on major issues before the Town Council, but rather demonstrated that the influence of political parties focused attention on major national issues not within the council’s purview.

“Do Leesburg voters really want [a council race] decided by a national political boss that can prioritize issues that can be in conflict with the Town of Leesburg? That’s an important principle we have to ask ourselves,” she said.

As to her decision not seek a party endorsement, Hammler voices no regrets. She has her sights set now on the special election sometime next year to fill the remainder of Burk’s council term, which she will relinquish by the end of the year to begin her term as mayor Jan. 1.

“I tried so hard doing it in what I thought was the right way,” she said. “As someone wisely said, ‘you either win or you learn.’ And I have definitely learned.”