A vigorous effort to try to give Democrats control of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors was not successful last month — but plans remain to continue that push in upcoming years, according to organizers.
Republicans Darrell Sheppard, an incumbent, and Sherri Blevins won their respective races on Nov. 5, ensuring that the GOP’s 4-3 dominance of the governing body remains in place for at least another two years.
The pair of Republican victories were over Democrats who had access to the services of a roughly year-old local political action committee called Vote Local. The committee raised $27,914 by the end of the latest available reporting period, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit that aggregates and publishes a wide scope of campaign finance figures on its website.
Blevins and Sheppard raised substantial war chests of their own.
Blevins, who won the District B supervisor seat, raised a total of $20,434, according to VPAP. Sheppard, the District E supervisor, raised $16,422.
Still, each of those recent campaign war chests — including Vote Local’s — far exceeded fundraising from any of the supervisor election cycles between 2015 and this year. Not counting 2019, Sheppard held the next highest spot with the $6,819 that he raised for his successful 2015 race against Democrat Michael Abraham.
Although Vote Local was created to try to put Democrats in the seats Sheppard and Blevins won, Brian Lawson, who lost to Blevins, said he declined the committee’s aid early on due to concerns about possibly alienating certain voters.
“I did that on purpose,” Lawson said. “Just looking at the dynamics of the district, in this heavily partisan world, you have to be careful about that kind of stuff.”
Andrew Whitley, who formed Vote Local, said he wasn’t completely surprised at the turnout, particularly in District E where Democrat Robbie Jones ran against Sheppard. He said that district has historically been a swing district.
“I guess the only thing surprising about the results is that [precinct] E-3 on campus, we didn’t get the results we needed there,” Whitley said, referring to the Virginia Tech-based precinct. “Robbie worked, knocked on every corner of the district.”
Part of District E falls in Blacksburg, which is a Democratic stronghold.
Prior to Sheppard, District E was represented by Democrat and former supervisors’ Chairman Bill Brown.
District B has long leaned conservative. Outgoing Supervisor Chris Tuck, who currently represents that district, is a Republican and has been in the seat since 2012.
Tuck’s predecessor, Republican Doug Marrs, ran unopposed during the 2007 and 2003 elections.
Of the $21,719 Vote Local spent, $18,450 went to pay Whitley and other campaign worker Michelle Moffit, according to VPAP. They each received separate monthly payments that ranged from $550 to $1,500.
Vote Local’s single-highest expense was a $2,500 payment to Mad Dog Mail for a campaign literature drop.
Whitley said the campaign work involved sending out mail in District E and financing yard signs and other literature. He said the group worked with mail vendors “to have at least what we thought was the right message in District E.”
Whitley concedes there were some challenges. He said his other priority was his work with the Democratic Party of Virginia to flip control of the General Assembly.
Also, Whitley said Moffit’s main job this year was working on the successful re-election of Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, who in 2017 unseated former multi-term Republican Del. Joseph Yost.
Whitley was Hurst’s campaign manager in 2017. Whitley was also recently picked to become the executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
“I think we underestimated the time we needed to spend on this,” Whitley said.
There are plans for Vote Local to again work on local campaigns, Whitley said. Next time, the committee might bring on an additional staffer to primarily focus on Montgomery County, he said. The committee will also try to raise more money, he said.
“If I could do it again, that’s what I would do,” Whitley said. “If we could have had, like, an organizer, to be on the ground, to be the point person so that candidate could go to them to ask questions.”
The contest between Sheppard and Jones was the more competitive of the two contested supervisor races. Sheppard won by just over 200 votes, while Blevins clinched her race by 550 votes.
Sheppard said the plan he immediately formed upon learning about Vote Local was to simply get out and speak to voters.
“I felt like if I just got out and talked to the people,” he said. “And I’ve lived here all my life and I know so many people.”
Whitley said Jones still did a good job campaigning.
“I don’t think I could have been put out there any more,” Jones said.
Jones said one of the biggest hurdles was probably some of the literature Sheppard put out in the period leading up to Election Day. She said the flyers claimed that she had over the years — as both a concerned citizen and candidate for office — called for numerous tax increases. She said she only recalls asking for a tax increase twice, with one of those times being when supervisors passed a massive 12-cent hike to help pay for the new Blacksburg High School.
Jones, who’s a custodian at Christiansburg Middle School, said she generally supports occasional increases of just one cent every other year as a possible solution for helping school needs. She, however, said she doesn’t view tax increases as mandatory for addressing county needs.
Sheppard said his flyers were based on research performed by the local GOP.
“To me, it was all factual,” said Sheppard, who is a staunch opponent of raising taxes. “It was something I felt if people didn’t know, they’d be blindsided.”
Blevins said it was somewhat daunting when she first learned about Vote Local’s plans to raise tens of thousands of dollars.
“I was concerned because I’m a new candidate and I didn’t know if I had that ability or could raise that type of money,” she said. But “I just started working my butt off, convincing people that I was the person they needed to support. It wasn’t a deterrent. It made me work harder.”
Vote Local targeted this year’s contested supervisor races due to concerns about how the Republican-controlled board had handled issues such as funding for schools.
The committee’s biggest donation, $10,000, came from former Montgomery County School Board member Connie Froggatt, who stepped down just weeks ago and less than two months before the end of her term due to health issues.
“Certainly as a school board member, I can’t say I’ve been totally satisfied with what the board of supervisors have done to fund our schools,” Froggatt said. “On top of that, I think we need a little more vision and planning going forward with what we are going to fund. I just felt it was going to take some changes for that to happen.”
The school board and supervisors have battled over the years over whether to raise taxes to fund a variety of school needs, including capital projects and teacher salaries.
Republicans have argued that raising taxes is not easy, as many taxpayers may not have the means to comfortably deal with such increases. They have also said that Montgomery County is home to many residents who live on fixed incomes.