Eleven weeks from today, Roanoke voters will choose three members of City Council. Well, they’ll be chosen by the handful of voters who bother to come out for a spring election, anyway.
May 1 may seem a long way away. Pitchers and catchers have yet to report for spring training; by election day the baseball season will be more than one-fifth done. Still, it’s not too early to pose some overarching questions about an election that will either confirm the course that the region’s largest locality is on — or alter it somehow.
* Is this the field? So far we have five candidates for three seats and might have six. Incumbents Bill Bestpitch and Ray Ferris are seeking re-election. They were originally elected as Democrats but now are running as independents. Democrats are fielding three candidates — Joe Cobb, Robert Jeffrey and Djuna Osborne.
Cobb is the former pastor of Metropolitan Community Church and is now community outreach coordinator for Highland Park Elementary School. Jeffrey is owner of Jeffrey Media and publisher of ColorsVA magazine. Osborne is a social worker who last year was an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Delegates against Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County.
Meanwhile, Grover Price, who operates the Hope Center on Eleventh Street Northwest, and Shawn Hunter, who founded the Peacemakers group, have said they intend to run as an independents— although neither has yet to file the paperwork. Candidates have until March 6, so there’s still time for them— or potentially other candidates. Will there be any?
Roanoke hasn’t elected a Republican to city council since 2000 when Ralph Smith won the mayorship and Bill Carder won a seat on council, so it’s not surprising we haven’t seen any come forward. Will we see any other independents, though? In the past we’ve seen Democratic incumbents — such as Bestpitch and Ferris — run as independents for various reasons. Two years ago, though, we saw two candidates run — and win — as independents from the get-go, Michelle Dykstra and John Garland. Will anyone try to replicate their success this year? Right now, it looks like the answer to that is “no,” which is somewhat surprising.
* What kind of mood are voters in? The 1990s and early 2000s were turbulent times in Roanoke government, as the city wrestled with some big, direction-defining issues, such as what to do with Victory Stadium and whether to build an amphitheater. However, voters haven’t kicked an incumbent off council in a decade, when they ousted Nelson Harris and Brian Wishneff in 2008. In every election since then — 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 — Roanoke voters either re-elected incumbents, or elected newcomers who aligned with the incumbents. Put another way, Roanoke voters seemed very happy with how the city was being governed and opted for “stay the course” candidates. Do they still feel the same way?
If voters are still happy with the city’s direction, they have two obvious choices — the two incumbents, Bestpitch and Ferris. That raises the question of who the third choice would be: Which of the other candidates comes closest to fitting the current mood on council?
If voters are unhappy with the city’s direction, then they have three (maybe four or five) newcomers to choose from. That assumes, of course, voters are unhappy in a way that electing three Democrats would rectify. If voters are unhappy in a conservative way, they’re really out of luck unless an additional candidate comes forward. This sets up a potentially interesting dynamic; will the three Democrats try to campaign together or will one or more of them try to separate themselves from the slate in hopes of appealing to the potential Bestpitch-Ferris-Candidate X voter?
* What other dynamics will be at play? Because Roanoke elects council members at large, it rewards candidates who can run well city-wide. We saw that two years ago when Trish White-Boyd ran strong in northwest Roanoke, but could not add enough votes outside there. By contrast, Anita Price placed in the top three in all but two precincts — and wound up leading the balloting to become vice mayor.
Which candidates this year are best positioned to run consistently well across the entire city? That potentially gives an advantage to the two incumbents, and to Osborne, who has name recognition from her House bid. Of note: She won 2,316 votes in the city. Even if she got all those votes again, that still would not be enough to put her in the top three in any council election in the past two decades. So even Osborne will have to expand on her base; Cobb, Jeffrey and any others will need to identify one and mobilize it.
* What will the big issues be? Or will there be any? Over the past decade or more, council has pursued a policy of investing in quality-of-life amenities as a way to attract economic development. Bestpitch and Ferris represent that philosophy and there are some obvious wins to point to: The successful competition for the Deschutes Brewery — and its follow-up, Humm Kombucha. There’s also the city’s celebrated transition “from train city to brain city,” driven in part by the medical school and research institute. Roanoke has reversed negative demographic trends and is now gaining population once again. It’s even gaining young adults. The Wall Street Journal has twice now described Roanoke as having a “trendy downtown.” Roanoke is in a very different place than where it was two decades ago.
There’s always been a belief in some quarters that Roanoke spends too much on downtown and not enough in neighborhoods — although a series of new libraries and school renovations would serve as a pretty potent counterweight to that argument. In the absence of a polarizing issue, what will guide voters in making their decisions?
The biggest issues facing Roanoke are hard to reduce to a bumper sticker slogan and even harder to fix: First, despite all the good economic news of late, there are still large parts of the city where that good economic news isn’t being felt. There may be lots of reasons for that, but one big one is certainly this: The new economy rewards people with specific skills. Meanwhile, sales tax revenues are not keeping up with projections. Why? Because more people are shopping online, which means fewer sales taxes collected at local retailers.
Fixing the skills gap can be expensive, yet city finances are getting squeezed even in good times. It would be useful if the candidates could spend at least some of the next 11 weeks talking about that.