“I once thought that there are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote.
The question that may be before Roanoke voters next May is whether there is a third act. Former Mayor David Bowers, who served two non-consecutive stints as mayor (1992-2000 and 2008-2016), says he’s thinking about running again. The current mayor, Sherman Lea, hasn’t decided whether he will seek a second term, although he says he’s leaning toward it. The news that the old-school populist Bowers is contemplating yet another comeback probably means that a lot of people in the city’s business community are right now calling up Lea and imploring the city’s second African American mayor to seek a second term. Bowers often delighted at setting himself at odds against the business community; Lea has not.
A contest between Bowers (a Democrat who says he would run as an independent) and Lea (a Democrat) would give voters a stark contrast in style. Bowers — who has never been accused of being shy — was always a highly quotable figure during his long run in Roanoke politics, although he didn’t always command a majority on the council he presided over. Lea is less prone to say controversial things in public, and more inclined toward working behind the scenes to build coalitions. The best way to understand the current mayor is to know that in college, Lea played football for Virginia Union University. More specifically, he was an offensive lineman. Linemen know they’re not there to score touchdowns; they’re there to help someone else score. Bowers was the scrambling quarterback who often had to improvise; Lea is the one throwing the key block on a scripted play.
It’s hard to know what a Bowers vs. Lea mayoral race would be about: Lea has committed no real mistakes and based on election returns in recent years, voters seem generally content with the city’s direction. Given the city’s politics, it’s a surprise that anyone would run against him, but Bowers is a sometimes larger-than-life figure who clearly misses politics. Here are some questions, the answers to which may be important:
1. How strong is Bowers politically? He’s certainly one of Roanoke’s most enduring politicians — having won six citywide elections and losing only two. It’s fair to say that even out of office Bowers might be better known than the current mayor. Nevertheless, here are some interesting numbers: The number of votes Bowers has polled has generally declined over the years:
• 1984, council: 9,025
• 1988, council: 7,440
• 1992, mayor: 10,261
• 1996, mayor: 6,620
• 2000, mayor: 4,627
• 2006, council: 4,710
• 2008, mayor: 5,968
• 2012, mayor: 4,827
Some of that vote decline can be attributed to overall turnout: The 1992 mayoral election in which Bowers peaked at 10,261 votes was a high-turnout election, relatively speaking. More recent municipal elections have had lower turnout. Still, it’s interesting to note that Bowers’ vote totals since 2000 have been relatively consistent in the 4,600 to 6,000 range: Some years (2008 and 2012) they have been enough to win, some years (2000 and 2006) they weren’t. It just depends on how many other people were voting. Put another way, Bowers seems to have had a stable base, but it wasn’t as big as it was in the’ 80s and ’90s. Bowers style of politics appeals more to older voters than younger voters. Older voters dominate in municipal elections, but even they are subject to mortality. Bowers’ base may simply be dying off. The key question is how many are still around and still with him.
2. How strong is Lea politically? This is the great unknown. Lea narrowly won the Democratic nomination four years ago in a party-run “firehouse primary,” and then was the only candidate on the ballot in the general election. He polled 5,315 votes anyway. That’s more than Bowers polled two of his last three runs for mayor, although it’s hard to equate an election in which Lea faced only write-in candidates with Bowers up against actual names on the ballot. It may be more useful to go back and look at how Lea fared in his three successful runs for council in contested races:
• 2004, council: 6,889
• 2008, council: 6,617
• 2012, council: 6,364
• 2016, mayor: 5,315
What we see there is that in three contested council races, Lea’s support was unwaveringly consistent — and higher than Bowers’ vote totals in any of his races since 1996.
Still, we can’t automatically conclude from those numbers that Lea would defeat Bowers. It’s hard to know how they’d fare against each other. Since they’re both Democrats, their bases overlap. One advantage Lea would have is that he’d be running as his party’s nominee, while Bowers would be running as an independent. However, Bowers ran — and won — once before as an independent. That was in 2008 when he ousted another incumbent mayor who had the Democratic nomination, Nelson Harris. That year, though, Bowers carried the city’s African American precincts. He likely wouldn’t against Lea. Black voters have been a key part of Bowers’ vote totals in all his elections; how strong can he run without them? That’s where the advantage shifts to Lea; he starts with a bedrock of support that Bowers can’t count on. Lea also historically has run well with white voters. That’s been part of his political strength.
3. Would a credible Republican candidate run? No Republican has been elected to city council since 2000; the city’s electorate is simply too Democratic. A contest that splits the vote between two Democrats would create an opportunity, though. Republican Ralph Smith was elected mayor in 2000 in a four-way race; then he needed just 5,368 votes — 35.4% of the total — to win. Republican Mark Lucas came close to winning in the 2012 mayor’s race. He took 4,479 votes — 47.9% — against Bowers that year. The key word in the question we posed is “credible.” A Trump-style Republican likely would not fare well in the city. A more moderate Republican, though, might prove credible under the right circumstances. Can such a Republican be found? How big a base does Bowers still have? How big a base does Lea really have? Those are the questions that may determine who wins next May’s election.
It’s also worth remembering that Fitzgerald wrote his famous line twice, in two different ways. In the other version, he wrote “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.” We still don’t know, though, whether Bowers has a third act.