The campaign manager behind Democrat Chris Hurst’s state House victory last year is turning his attention toward two Republican-occupied seats on the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors.
Andrew Whitley, who served as campaign manager for Hurst’s win over three-term Republican incumbent Joseph Yost, who had been seen as a rising GOP star, recently filed the paperwork to form a political action committee modestly named “Vote Local.”
Whitley, a Virginia Tech alum and Chilhowie native, said his goal is to eventually raise between $50,000 and $60,000, a range that past campaign finance reports confirm would dwarf the amounts the opposing incumbents raised when they ran in 2015.
Vote Local has already received a contribution of $10,000 from Montgomery County School Board Vice Chairwoman Connie Froggatt, according to filings with the State Board of Elections.
Froggatt couldn’t be reached for comment on this story.
Vote Local is pushing for the election of Democrats to the Districts B and E seats held respectively by current board chairman Chris Tuck and Supervisor Darrell Sheppard. Tuck and Sheppard are among the four Republicans who currently form a voting majority on the seven-member board. Tuck, who has won two terms on the board, has not said if he will run again next year.
Whitley has most recently worked on Democrat Kate Marshall’s successful campaign last month to become Nevada’s next lieutenant governor. He said he got the idea to get involved in Montgomery County supervisors’ elections after attending several board meetings during Hurst’s campaign.
“It was kind of a personal project for me,” said Whitley. “It really shocked me the amount of control local governments have and can have in people’s lives.
Hurst’s victory last year stood out for a few reasons. Hurst was among more than a dozen first-time Democratic candidates in Virginia whose successes were viewed by political analysts as the result of a state and nationwide wave of opposition to President Donald Trump and politicians who shared his views.
The overall goal, Whitley said, is to ensure the supervisor candidates receive the support needed to run a professional race and to significantly improve their chances of winning.
“I think local races are not sexy, they’re overlooked. So as a result candidates are often left to fend for their own,” Whitley said. Yet a supervisors election “could be the most important election in Montgomery County,” Whitley said.
Whitley confirmed that there are potential challengers lined up for the Districts B and E elections but declined to disclose their names. He said candidates plan to announce themselves soon after the start of the new year.
Tackling the issues in Montgomery County
Some of the local topics that have grabbed Whitley’s attention are a debate about whether to hire more school resource officers in the near future – spurred by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida – and adequate funding for local schools.
The school resource officer discussion prompted the board’s three Democrats to push for a 1.5-cent real estate tax increase earlier this year. But that proposal was voted down by the board’s Republican majority out of concerns that it was an overreaction to national tragedies and would unfairly burden Montgomery County taxpayers.
Democrats also promised to address others school needs with the tax hike. Their suggestion came a year after the board’s Republicans voted down a proposed 2-cent tax increase that was promised to go toward school capital projects.
“It really has the most local impact. It’s everyday people’s lives,” Whitley said in reference to the role of the board of supervisors. “Chris [Hurst] is proud of the work we did, but Chris is one of 100 votes in the House of Delegates. A board [of supervisors] member is one of seven. Flipping one seat here, that’s huge.”
The Republicans have repeatedly rebuffed criticisms about school funding by pointing to the overall growth of the school district’s budget and the board’s decisions to often allocate year-end savings and surpluses to the schools.
Mary Biggs, a longtime Democratic member of the Board of Supervisors, said the Vote Local PAC “has probably come about because of the dissatisfaction that some of the citizens have felt over the last three years with board decisions, especially those involving 4-3 votes.”
Biggs, who was close to the Hurst campaign last year, will finish her term next year.
Those divisive decisions — some of which Biggs specifically referenced — include the sale of the old Blacksburg High School and Middle School sites, the ending of a salary supplement for Democratic Clerk of the Circuit Court Erica Conner, the suggested elimination of the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue positions and the approval of a permit for Roanoke Gas.
The sale of the old high school site to a private owner drew opposition from all of the board’s Democrats — and the Blacksburg Town Council — who argued that the site should be kept public and open space.
Tuck had said taxpayers could save money by doing away with the currently Democrat-controlled offices of treasurer and commissioner of the revenue. He had also taken issue with Treasurer Richard Shelton’s handling of back taxes and banking services, which Tuck argued was costing the county money.
The board also issued another 4-3 party-line vote on a permit for Roanoke Gas, which plans to install a tap in east Montgomery County that will provide the company’s customers with gas from the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Montgomery County Republicans hold their ground
Tuck acknowledged the board’s 4-3 splits but said that individual decisions are about more than party politics.
“Yes, party plays into it, but I think you’ve heard April DeMotts (the board’s vice chairwoman and a Democrat) talk about it,” Tuck said. “A lot of it’s geography, and we do have a diverse look at different aspects of life.”
Tuck was referring specifically to recent calls to raise taxes, an issue he said is viewed differently in different parts of the county.
Tuck said Blacksburg has a great deal of white-collar workers and Virginia Tech professors, several of whom he said may be more receptive to tax increases.
“But there’s a lot of working-class folks who live out in the county and in Christiansburg,” he said. “Sometimes, their employments can cause two different views on the subject of taxes and whether they should be higher or not.”
Tuck’s comments reflect how little of Blacksburg he and the other Republicans represent. Sheppard’s district is the only one that includes Blacksburg – the town is traditionally a Democratic stronghold – although much of Sheppard’s district is the rural areas west of the town.
On the issue of the old Blacksburg High School, Tuck said his vote on the sale was made to raise as much money as possible for the county’s school system. Turning the former high school property over to the town just for recreation would not have brought in as much revenue, he said.
“In my mind, we had made a commitment to the school board to make as much money as we could, and we fulfilled that promise,” he said.
Sheppard echoed Tuck’s point about different districts seeing tax increases differently.
“It’s just a difference of opinion,” Sheppard said. “I think a lot of people who’d like to see taxes raised have money to spend … We have to live within our means.”
A look at Districts B and E
For his 2015 re-election, Tuck won approximately 65 percent of the vote in a district that traditionally leans conservative. Sheppard got 56 percent of the vote in his election victory.
As a sign of the Republican stronghold in District B, Tuck’s predecessor, Republican Douglas Marrs, ran unopposed during the 2007 and 2003 general elections.
Sheppard’s predecessor was a Democrat, former chairman of the board Bill Brown.
During his 2015 run, Sheppard lost Precinct E3, Virginia Tech’s Squires Student Center. Turnout at that precinct, however, was low, with only 98 votes cast there.
Sheppard did win a close contest at Precinct E1, St. Michael Lutheran Church on Merrimac Road, where he defeated his opposition 454 to 409. That precinct has long been a polling place for Tech students and some Blacksburg residents.
Tuck said recently that he feels confident the two districts will remain Republican.
Sheppard offered few remarks on Vote Local. He said that next year he’ll emphasize his support for the sale of the old Blacksburg high and middle schools, run his campaign and aim for victory.