Monthly Archives: August 2011

Wait, there’s an election on November 8th?

It’s that time of year again.  Campaign season.

Well, to tell the truth, campaigning has been going strong for months.  But it’s first in August, when vacations are ending and school start dates magically (and, if you’re a student, often tragically) appear on the calendar, that people are suddenly awake to the fact that summer will, indeed, eventually end.  And those of us who give a damn about local politics can only hope that their next thought is something along the lines of gee, I guess I should vote this year…

Of course, it isn’t.

If half of the people we wave signs at and call day and night to Get Out The Vote actually do make their way to the polls, I would call it a miracle. See for yourself: Loudoun’s average turnout the last time we had a Board of Supervisors race in 2007 was 33%, and 2008’s voter leap to 78% isn’t likely.  But that’s the way we work as a society: we’re all just fumbling around with our faces to the ground, unaware of the pillars that build up around us until we bang blithely into them.  Then we might be motivated to make a change.  Then again, maybe not.

Still, I like to think voter apathy is not a sign of a national crisis of faith in the system that governs, but a sign of an overabundance of faith – that everything will work out fine because the people in charge obviously got there due to their high qualifications, first-hand knowledge of our national experience, ability to differentiate between right and wrong, and constant cogitation that saves from rash mistakes.  I also believe that birthday cake is an acceptable replacement for salad.

And then, of course, there is the other side.  Perfectly intelligent people who forget the other 24 letters of the alphabet on Election Day, who scan the ballot for a D and an R and dutifully make their mark. I do believe that it is important to place faith in your political party, but a deserved faith adapts to/is impervious to scrutiny, not immune from it. Vote for the best candidate, not the best party.  Be open-minded.  Do not slam your door in the face of the opposition (or it’s canvassing representatives – I still have a welt on my forehead from a walk card that was thrown back in my face).  This refusal to do something silly like learn about both candidates is what has led us to the sort of ongoing stand-off in Washington that has the rest of us anxiously chewing our fingernails, waiting for the other shoe to drop (Update, August 7, 2011: the shoe has dropped.)

In the end, I guess the only thing to be said is that politics are messy.  And still, somehow exciting.  With the number of races and traveling campaign managers that somehow found their way into Northern Virginia at the same time, one could say that the circus is in town and really not be far off the mark.  And in these campaign strategies, political affiliation is Aesopian language for either friend or enemy, depending on the letter behind a candidate’s name.  At the same time, the majority of our county population is relegated to the margins because it doesn’t vote, and the numbers that strategists target as ultimately responsible for deciding who leads us are only in the hundreds.  As an independent youth with a less-than-stellar voting history, I have been written completely off by both parties as someone who won’t make a difference with my vote (and they wonder why the American youth isn’t motivated.  Some prophecies fulfill themselves).  But our two-party system is capable of more than this, more than the two extremes of complete apathy and mechanical loyalty.   We just have to give people a reason to pay attention.

 

Oh, and if that doesn’t work, I call for a multiparty system.  Here are a few good examples of the chaos that will ensue.

 

Sticks and stones

From the Department of Republican Embarrassment come the following two not-unrelated events:

First, contrary to that annoying buzzing sound coming from the anti-Muslim opportunist crowd, it seems that American Muslims are far and away the most likely among us to unequivocally condemn violence directed at civilians. A Gallup poll released on Tuesday lays out the truth rather starkly.

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Unenforced Campaign Finance Laws

I have the nerdish habit of surfing around the Virginia Public Access Project website from time to time. It’s an incredible resource, and completely funded by donations from wonks, politicos and like minded organizations. VPAP publishes campaign finance data that is publicly reported in an interface and format that is a lot friendlier than that which the State Board of Elections makes available.

(And while I’m at it, let me also promote Waldo Jaquith‘s brilliant brainchild Richmond Sunlight.)

Doing some research on VPAP, I discovered some interesting things. Like the fact that Ken Reid’s campaign is fully one-third financed (so far) by real estate interests. Or that some of Scott York’s top donors declined to provide their legally-required occupational data.

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I thought that, perhaps, VPAP just had insufficient information, so I took it upon myself to give the State Board of Elections a call. Talking to the harried, but very helpful staff at the State Board of Elections was extremely illuminating. I was informed that the State Board of Elections, having seen its budget cut quite aggressively during this year’s state budget negotiations, no longer reviews campaign finance disclosures for accuracy. Indeed, when asked what recourse I, as a citizen, might have to get missing occupation information about donors who gave more than $100 (for example) I was told that I really had none.

The entire SBE budget, you see, is focused on the job of planning and executing the August primaries and November elections. And that is as it should be. Administering elections is the primary job of the SBE. Enforcing campaign finance laws is a secondary objective, and when budgets are slashed, secondary goals are often sacrificed in the process. It does beg the question, however, as to how many campaign finance shenanigans are going unnoticed in this unsupervised environment.

It also does a grave disservice to the voters, who have a right to know who is funding campaigns for offices throughout the Commonwealth. I would think that voters in Richmond, for example, might want to know if one or another candidate for School Board is receiving a lot of money from people in the charter school business. That seems, to me, to be a perfectly reasonable criteria for a voter to consider when evaluating his or her choices in November.

Perhaps even more interesting is that, so far, none of the major media who cover the Commonwealth’s elections have noticed these campaign finance discrepancies (even as they notice others) and made the same phone call to the State Board of Elections that I did this week. A local sheriff doing a favor for a major campaign contributor is definitely news, but isn’t the breakdown of the very system of full disclosure that makes such a story even possible a more important tale to be told?

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IS SMART GROWTH STILL AN ISSUE?

[Promoted by Liz. I'd like to see where this discussion goes. I also edited it so that the links work. And I added a link to Burton's opponent]

We may believe that “money can’t buy you love” or possibly even happiness (although more are beginning to doubt this), but we obviously do believe it can buy you an election. So much so, in fact, that campaign effectiveness is often judged almost solely on who has raised the most money in the shortest amount of time. Is that true? Should we just add up the total amount raised and declare the winners without going through all the bother of stuffing envelopes, “dialing” phones, and knocking on doors in 100 degree weather? (Receipents of those annoying robocalls are probably shouting “yes!” at this point.)

Maybe. Maybe not.

Large contributions do convey a message: In the Blue Ridge District of Loudoun, the Republican challenger had not only raised $44,730 as of June 30 (including in-kind donations), but had already spent $34,300 of it. www.loudoun.gov/Default.aspx?tabid=344&fmpath=/Electoral%20Board/2011%20Campaign%20Finance%20Reports. She obviously must be expecting much more to come in; November is still a long way off. Almost all of these contributions are from real estate developers, brokers, agents, builders, contractors, financial management, attorneys and insurance — many of whom are located outside the District: (There is one Round Hill contributor listed as “farmer,” but when I looked up the name and address, an entity appeared on the web as “Financial Management Services.”) Three donors are from outside the County: Herndon, VA, Alexandria, VA, and Catonsville, MD.

This clearly represents a full frontal attack on the current zoning of western Loudoun. More housing development, strip malls, chain stores, office buildings and traffic. Is that what you want?

We have over 30 million square feet of industrial and office space approved by the county and waiting to be constructed now, in addition to the 14% vacancy rate of existing buildings. A “no holds barred” approach to unfettered growth could likely result in more stalled commercial projects surrounded by houses which will be sold on the promise of a tranquil life in (rapidly disappearing) rural Loudoun. After which it will be even harder to convince businesses to fill the vacant buildings, considering our biggest draw is the beauty that surrounds us. So, the commerce we actually get may very well come in the form of fast food, strip malls and big box stores to service a sprawling residential demographic that works in Tysons Corner.

Are you really ready to give up the idea of Smart Growth? (Drive slowly by Rt. 15 N in the vicinity of WalMart and Target before you answer.)

Although outside money IS intent on buying access to the open space, if you disagree with this goal, you don’t need to dispair of being able to defeat that intention since the conventional wisdom about elections being all about money is not necessarily true: I noted with interest that in the Leesburg Town elections last year, Mayor Kristen Umstattd was re-elected even though she spent far less than other candidates during her campaign (approximately $2.60 per vote received compared to challenger Dunn’s $5.50.). Similarly Councilman Kevin Wright’s tally calculated at only $3.75 each, while Reid spent a whopping $7.00. Winning does not always require heavy fund raising and expenditures; it can be done with experienced name recognition and a history of trusted service.

The incumbant, Jim Burton (I) has a 16-year history on the Board of Supervisors as a strong supporter of Smart Growth and the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Contrary to the other Blue Ridge candidate, all of the donors on his recent financial report actually live in the Blue Ridge District that he represents.

Why did you move here? Why do you stay? This year’s elections, possibly more than any other, will determine the future shape of Loudoun County. The choice is between quick speculative profits for outside development firms — or sustainable economic development for a diversified area. It’s time to pick a side and make a stand.