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.”

 

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

 

 

8 thoughts on “Leesburg Candidates Say Partisan Politics Have Changed Elections

  • 2016-11-23 at 10:05 am
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    More Monday morning quarterbacking. Many of these candidates lost because they lost touch with what was important to the voters, not some political party endorsement. That is like me blaming my dog for eating my homework. Big annoying signs through town do not win elections and door knocking presents limited results. It is the actions of those that were elected to represent the town and their history that dictates who wins and loses. Look deep and hard losing candidates who were on council and you will see where you lost a grip on the issues that were truly important to the people of Leesburg.

  • 2016-11-18 at 1:35 pm
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    Speaking as a Republican, I was surprised at the results. I thought moving the election to a high voter turnout November election would hand these seats over to Democrats. Turns out, that didn’t happen. Republicans won 2 of the 3 seats on Council.

  • 2016-11-18 at 12:55 pm
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    I just looked back in my notes on the 2011 referendum and found that based on my research, once the voters move the elections to November, it cannot be undone unless the General Assembly changes the law to allow for that. It would be totally against the will of the voters to move elections to May or odd years just because a few politicians want it.
    The article neglects to note that numerous other towns and cities have moved their elections to November, including Herndon and Manassas. Christiansburg and Blacksburg moved their elections to November before Leesburg did. I consulted with these two towns prior to our petition drive in 2010-2011 and their councilmembers were positive on the change from May.
    It also should be noted that several times, the General Assembly has tried to pass laws requiring Rs and Ds next to candidates’ names on the ballot. Leesburg, thanks to help from our local delegates, has resisted that, so the elections are still non partisan and for purposes of the Hatch act and other issues, councilmembers elected in Leesburg are non partisan — just like the School Board.
    School Board candidates are endorsed by political parties and run in the fall and I do not hear anyone complaining about that.
    Finally, another point left out of the article. The Council had every opportunity to vote for odd-year elections, where the turnout is good, and attracts voters interested in state and local issues. Only Katie Hammler, Tom Dunn and I voted for that change, and so it failed with Umstattd, Butler, Wright and Martinez in the majority. Part of the reason why Council did not go with odd year elections is because the law required some members’ terms to be truncated. So, there may have been some self interest in that vote.
    Hence, Tom and I and scores of volunteers –Democrat Republican and independent — initiated the November election change drive, spent their money to put ads in the paper and copy petitions and promote the campaign. Despite opposition on the Democrat sample ballot and the Republicans taking a position, the referendum passed 75-25 by the voters in 2011.
    In the three elections we have held a mix of Democrat and GOP-endorsed candidates and independent candidates have won their seats. The results show Leesburg citizens do not just “vote the sample ballot” and make decisions based on name recognition, candidate appeal and issues.
    As far as I am concerned, November even-year elections are here to stay.

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  • 2016-11-18 at 12:07 pm
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    I have lived in Leesburg since 1994 when the town Elections were non-partisan (wink wink) and yes voter turn out was low. Now voter turn out is higher and sample ballots from both parties are used by many to decide who to vote for and yet many did not vote for any one of the people running for town council. Also two good candidates who have served the town well for years were not re-elected (Butler and Hammler) So where do we go from here? If the leaders of both major parties think we should go back to May elections let’s do it or if for some reason like cost precludes this then do not allow either party to endorse a candidate, limit the amount that any candidate can spend on the election and prohibit parties from providing any financial support- apply these same rules for school board elections.

  • 2016-11-17 at 6:24 pm
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    Supposedly, 62% of Leesburg residents voted and there were 1,459 blank votes for Mayor (1 vote cast for three candidates) and 15,472 blank votes for Town Council (3 votes cast for 6 candidates). The numbers are very, very disproportionate as the numbers loosely round to 1,500 per vote cast and 5,000 per vote cast. (Lawgh – going back to a comment of yours while retrieving the numbers above, I’m sure if the residents had the opportunity to vote for the sidewalk widening project directly, knowing that Michael O’Connor, the one who benefitted exclusively from it, the one who hosted Kelly Burks Mayoral victory party for free, the one who is truly good friends with Kelly Burk and Gwen Pangle (and Kristen and other liberals) the one who owns Palio’s, the Leesburg Diner, many other businesses and is extremely affluent and generous to his liberal friends in our government (just don’t ask him to install historical windows), and one who is influential within our government and has ties to other Leesburg Restaurants who hosted similar functions for “Hollywood” Democrat meetings prior to the National Election, I bet they would have considered it a MASSIVE CONFLICT OF INTEREST and rejected any idea of the sidewalk. I guess that’s why Gwen seems to keep drumming up these ideas (sidewalk widening, other development or her family opening a restaurant) through the EDC (her free marketing through government) and her DBA (all her downtown business friends) then mysteriously either her friends or she financially prospers (through her private real estate firm or her daughters/son in laws restaurants and many bestfriends who own similar type businesses).

    What the numbers really tell me, is that on a local level, most people vote along party lines, but some just don’t vote as they are probably rather ignorant and really don’t know anything about our government (like most of my friends – they can’t tell you one name of our elected officials, never attend any meetings nor watch online meetings, go to the government website to only check the yearly parades sadly mainly to avoid them, and not the financials or other major documents, etc.).

    Dave Butler (and Hammler) has and will be one of the few honest Democrats serving Leesburg and I hope that Ron Campbell welcomes him as temporary Council Member and he considers a runoff for the extra spot, if that is how the legal process plays-out. I have major issues with the Good Ol’ Gal Network (Kristen and her annointed ones Kelly Burk and Gwen Pangle) and they are besties who have previously joined forces to provide preferential treatment to Leesburg businesses.

    The problem with Dave is he didn’t want to ruffle feathers within the “team” and wanted to play nice in lieu of hitting hard, which is what I would have done at the forums. Dave – you know exactly what has been going on in our local government….. Why don’t you come forward and profess some of the underlying issues of “ethics and moral lapses with certain individuals”. I know what I know, and I know that you know more…. It will clear your conscience regardless if the elections stay put….

  • 2016-11-17 at 4:46 pm
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    Everyone has a right to be endorsed by, or endorse who ever they like, but in the local arena, it shouldn’t be on the ballot. Just list the names and try to keep it clean.

  • 2016-11-17 at 3:35 pm
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    Funny, isn’t, that the Leesburg Town elections were changed for political reasons (then Mayor Umstattd kept winning, and those who did not like that thought a change to November would result in her losing) saw then Mayor Umstattd outpolling every candidate on the ballot, both Town and Federal elections (including presidents and senators and congressional candidates), on November elections. So, it seems no coincidence that some now grumble and want the elections changed back to May, when then Mayor Umstattd is now on the Board of Supervisors. What ever happened about the claims that it was all to insure the most voters, or about wanting to let the residents of Leesburg decide. All that seems to have gone out the window, which clearly means they were never the real reason for the change. Keep it in November. It works just fine there.

  • 2016-11-17 at 11:25 am
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    Once again Martinez is not being truthful. The Democrat party has been endorsing candidates for years. He was endorsed every year he ran. And if this year was partisan it was in his power to stop it. Not only did he not stop it, he went out of his way to cut Butler out of the Mayor endorsement over Burk, and he ensured a full slate of candidates. He also gave Party donations of cash and in-kind to candidates. He is the most partisan of all Council members. Yet he always claims to be in favor of non-partisan elections in Leesburg. This is a blatant effort to decisive the public. He will never stop pushing his ultra liberal agenda. Having the elections in May or any other month will not remove party politics. But what May elections do is put power in the hands of only a couple thousand voters. Then deceptive officials like Martinez are only accountable to a few hundred voters instead of the many some odd 18,000 voters.

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