Has former Roanoke Mayor David Bowers hit on a winning issue for a possible comeback?
You’ll recall that Bowers —who served 16 years as mayor, from 1992-2000 and again from 2008-2016 — recently said that he was thinking about running again next year. The current mayor, Sherman Lea, hasn’t said whether he’s running again, but he’s widely expected to do so.
At the time, we looked at what a race between Bowers and Lea might be like. We pointed out:
n Bowers’ vote totals have been remarkably consistent over the past two decades but are substantially lower than they were earlier in his political career when he was first elected to council in 1984.
n Lea’s vote totals have been remarkably consistent, too — and have been distinctly higher than those of Bowers.
n Both are Democrats, so the two are pulling from a lot of the same voters. Bowers, though, has said this time he’d run as an independent, which immediately puts him at a disadvantage against Lea, who would presumably once again be the Democratic nominee. Also, even when Bowers has sometimes run as an independent in the past he’s drawn strong support from African-American voters. He likely couldn’t count on that in a contest against Lea, the city’s second African-American mayor.
It seemed clear to us that in a Bowers vs. Lea race, Lea would have the advantage. All that was before City Council suddenly decided to move council elections from May to November — a decision that is set to be ratified on Monday. That means next year’s mayoral election will coincide with the presidential election. That would seem to give even more advantage to Lea. Hillary Clinton took 56% in the city four years ago but, mathematically speaking, she was a weak candidate. Most Democratic candidates in statewide elections now routinely top 60% in the city. Any Democratic candidate for mayor or council will benefit from being on the ballot at the same time as the party’s presidential candidate, no matter who that turns out to be.
Bowers has always been an advocate for moving municipal elections to November on the grounds that turnout is much higher then. Indeed, he’s still in favor of that — except he favors municipal elections in odd-numbered years that coincide with state elections such as governor’s races rather than even-numbered ones that coincide with presidential elections. There’s a subtle but important difference between the two. All elections are partisan to some degree, but federal elections are the most partisan of all. Aligning municipal elections with them would seem to give an even greater advantage to Democrats in city elections — and serve to thwart recent trends that have seen independents winning seats on council.
Now, the number of people who care about that is likely quite small. Most voters probably couldn’t care — and would just be happy for the convenience of a November election, no matter what cycle it’s set with. Nobody’s going to win an election arguing that odd-numbered years are better than even-numbered years.
Bowers, though, has hit on what is politically the tender spot of council’s impending decision: To make municipal elections happen in November 2020, council must extend the terms of the mayor and three council members who would otherwise be on the ballot next May.
Here’s the essential question: Is this no big deal? Or is this a fundamental breach of faith with voters? Bowers sees it the latter way. Whatever you may think of Bowers, or the proper election cycle, he does have a point. Why do council members get to unilaterally extend their terms? Why is that even legal in the first place? That feels more like something that happens in countries where the rule of law is more a suggestion than a way of life. Furthermore, it means that those council members will now benefit from a pay raise that was scheduled to take effect July 1. That’s clearly not their intent, but it still looks bad.
There’s already a lot of cynicism toward politics and politicians. Do council members who abruptly vote to extend their own terms (and then benefit from a pay raise) put themselves at some electoral risk? Maybe voters simply won’t care, but Bowers is a skillful politician who might be able to make some of them care. Jim Gilmore once won the governorship with a simple three-word slogan: “No car tax!” It’s easy to picture Bowers running on “No extended terms!”
Bowers would still seem to be at a disadvantage against Lea for the reasons we cited above. But what if Bowers wasn’t wedded to the idea of being mayor again? What if he’d settle for just a regular seat on council? The three council seats up next year belong to independent Michelle Davis and Democrats Anita Price and Trish White-Boyd. Davis has already said she’s not running again, so that’s at least one open seat. Price hasn’t said whether she’s running, but there’s much speculation she won’t. If she doesn’t, that’s two open seats. And White-Boyd has never been elected. She lost the 2016 council race but was appointed in January to fill a vacancy. She came within 47 votes of winning last time, so perhaps her service on council will make her a stronger candidate next year.
On the other hand, there’s this: Under the current rules, she’d serve a year and a half as an appointee. By extending her term, she’ll serve as an unelected council member for two nearly years — the same amount of time as a congressman or state delegate, who have to get elected. She also made the motion for the plan to move elections and extend terms. If — and this is still a big if — voters come to think it’s not playing fair for council members to be able to vote to extend their own terms, she might have just created some political vulnerability for herself: Unelected politician votes to extend her own term. In a council field where there might be two open seats and a potentially controversial incumbent who was never elected, Bowers might very well be a strong candidate, even as an independent running at the same time as the Democratic candidate for president routinely carries Roanoke.
Indeed, does this create an opening for an entire slate of candidates — socially liberal enough to be legitimate candidates in Roanoke but running against extended terms on the grounds that they constitute a form of political insider dealing? Maybe such candidates don’t exist, and maybe voters don’t really care about the technicalities of how elections get moved to November. But if they do, that’s the Achilles Heel that Bowers has just seized upon.