New blood: Firehouse primary ousts Taliaferro

news-szakos-taliaferroKristin Szakos in, Julian Taliaferro out after the May 9 "firehouse" primary.

Two newcomers have shaken the local Democratic establishment. Kristin Szakos, an Obama organizer, handily unseated incumbent Julian Taliaferro to claim his spot on City Council, and political unknown James E. Brown III prevailed in a three-man race for city sheriff.

Meanwhile, Mayor Dave Norris was renominated with 80 percent of the votes, followed by Szakos with 61 percent and Taliaferro with 43 percent. (Because voters could rank their preferences for the three candidates, the percentages are greater than 100 percent.)

"I thought she would do very well," says Taliaferro about Szakos. "I certainly didn't take if for granted that I would be nominated."

Szakos had never run for office, but she led the local Obama effort in the 2008 election.

"She had a considerable number of campaign workers knocking on doors," says David RePass, a Democratic insider who played a key role in getting Charlottesville Democrats to adopt an "instant run-off" when it tried out a convention instead of a daylong primary. This "firehouse" primary Saturday, May 9, ushered in the largest turnout: 1,600.

In the past at the nominating conventions, the largest of which drew around 600, ballots would be cast until a candidate got a plurality of the vote, a process that could stretch for hours on a spring Saturday. With an "instant-runoff" that Repass designed, voters ranked their first and second choices for each race, and the party was able to determine the winners from one ballot.

The instant run-off was not necessary in the City Council race because Norris and Szakos both exceeded 50 percent of the votes.

news-dem-jamesbrownJames E. Brown III, 38, who edged out two other opponents for the sheriff nomination, says he's no relation to the Godfather of Soul.

But in the sheriff's race, the first count gave Mike Baird, a captain in the sheriff's department whose father had been sheriff, 41 percent, Brown, an Albemarle police officer, 48 percent and Charlottesville police officer Phillip Brown 11 percent. In the instant run-off, because voters had ranked their second choice for a candidate, Baird ended up with 44 percent of the votes and James Brown, got 56 percent.

"James Brown worked extremely hard," observes RePass. "He was at every meeting. He got himself known to other Democrats."

Former vice mayor Meredith Richards was the last incumbent to be shown the door by her party. "With either process– convention or primary– being an incumbent is not a safe bet," she says.

Richards, who lost her nomination in 2004, doesn't think it was any particular issue that led to Taliaferro's ouster.

"I think on the heels of Obama, Kristin came in with an overwhelming constituency," says Richards. "I think Julian was depending more on an established constituency."

A postcard went out before the election that paired Taliaferro and Baird, and their list of supporters was like a who's who of mayors from the 1980s and '90s including Frank Buck, Bitsy Waters, Virginia Daugherty, Alvin Edwards, Tom Vandever, Kay Slaughter, and Blake Caravati.

"I think it was a repudiation of the Old Guard," declares WINA talk show host and former city councilor Rob Schilling. "If you look at who supported who, those supporting Taliaferro and Baird were repudiated."

Caravati, however, thinks calling it a repudiation is too strong

"It's a changing of the guard," says Caravati. "I say that with a smile. Kristen did a wonderful job getting people out."

Caravati says he was most surprised that Baird, who worked for the sheriff's office for 23 years and has lived here all his life, was not given the nod.

Baird was named in a 2006 lawsuit that claimed he knowingly made false statements that resulted in the arrest of former deputy Steven W. Shifflett for impersonating an officer in Alexandria, charges that were thrown out of court. Baird settled the $4 million-plus lawsuit in 2008.

Caravati doesn't believe that had any effect on the results. "I was working with Mike, and I didn't know anything about it," he says.

Schilling's theory: "Kristin Szakos gave the nod to James Brown and helped him," he says. "Clearly, the establishment central party Democrats were supporting Baird. Szakos' people were heartily endorsing Brown."

Szakos says she knew Brown from them both having children at Burnley Moran Elementary School, but she denies endorsing him. If her campaign workers were, "that was not by my orders," she says.

"Julian Taliaferro is sort of the old school Charlottesville candidate," says Waldo Jaquith, a blogger who ran for City Council in 2002. "With all the new people in Charlottesville, a lot of people just aren't interested in what you did 30 years ago."

"I think the biggest factor was having it open and set up as a primary," says sheriff-nominee James Brown.

Even Szakos was surprised. "The decisiveness and spread said people really wanted change." she says. "It seems to be happening across the country with the Obama election. People want to be involved."

And traditionally, because Charlottesville is so Dem-heavy, candidates nominated by the party are likely to face little opposition in the general election in November.

Caravati has concerns about the cost of the new process and worries that could deter some people from running.

"The last time I ran, I spent $1,500," he says. "This time the six of them spent $40,000."


Caravati doesn’t believe that had any effect on the results. ââ?¬Å?I was working with Mike, and I didn’t know anything about it,” he says.

I think Caravati is mistaken or in denial. It cost Baird the support of my family and my friends, and many of those I spoke with hopefully. Was it, combined with the repeated media coverage of it on May 8, 2009, enough to sway the 69 or 70 votes Baird needed to win in the "instant runoff" voting process to other candidates? I sure hope so.

I was surprised to see Phillip Brown do so poorly in the vote. But at least those who voted Phillip Brown as their #1 choice, and James Brown as their #2 choice, helped to push James Brown over the top in the instan runnoff as well. I think I persuaded a lot of people to vote Phillip Brown as their #1 choice and James Brown as their #2 choice.

Having signed the loyalty pledge, James Brown will get my vote in November. I think he will do a fine job. And at his young age, it could possibly break up the cycle of having a new sheriff every few years like back in the 80's and 90's. My gosh, we had Mannie Norford for several years. We had Carlton Baird for several years. Then we had Rittenhouse for a few years before he decided he wanted to be police chief. At least Cornelia served 12 years, a very stable time period for the deputies in the office. It was extremely nerve-whacking for the entire staff of deputies to never know if they had a job when the next new sheriff came in. If I recall correctly, everybody below the level of sergeant left left for various reasons once Rittenhouse was in office as sheriff. Having said the above, you can't really blame all the old cops coming up to be city sheriff, serving as sheriff for the last few years of their city career greatly enhanced their retirement benefits. :)

One would also imagine that Baird's poor showing at the last Demo forum right before the election was also a factor. Brown and Brown had ideas and issues to discuss, and were lively, proactive, and engaging. The same could not be said of Baird, who was more defensive in his tone than anything else.

Maybe saying nothing about where you stand is what gets you elected.
And the fact that Szakos supports Norris for Mayor again. If the Republicans could find a moderate well known person to run who ran on a platform of cost matters I think they'd have a shot. It's the economy stupid--didn't someone say that ?

Szakos' strategy seemed to have been: mention Barack Obama's name enough times to get people to conflate the two.

We get it, you campaigned for Obama. Tell us what you think and want to see done. Because currently, it's like our own little mini-Hopenchange, forever speaking whilst saying nothing.

That's why I think someone could beat her. She doesn't really have a platform or record like Dave whose leading the charge to find out the cost of dredging. Where does she stand on that for instance? Does she just want to spend more money on pet projects and let the water and sewer rates skyrocket ? I think she's vulneralbe

You single-handidly removed Baird's chances for city sheriff. Is that what you are claiming? You are just an unstoppable presence. I am in awe of you..

Nope. I think the credit should go to various assorted reasons, there is no "single-handedly" involved:

1- The voters who listed Phillip Brown as their #1 choice for the nomination and James Brown as their #2 choice. Once Baird and James Brown neither had a majority vote, it came down to an instant runoff ballot. Baird got the votes of Phillip Brown that listed Baird as their #2 choice. And James Brown got Phillip's votes that listed James Brown as their #2 choice. This instant runoff pushed James Brown well ahead of Baird.

2- A lot of voters I spoke with didn't approve of the appearance of Baird hitching his horse to the back of Taliaferro's wagon for a free ride into office. I hadn't really paid much attention to it. But it seems other people had.

3- If true, the rumor that the Norris-Szakos team was secretly supporting James Brown. A rumor is worth what you pay for it, nothing. But the end result was indeed "Norris, Szakos, and James Brown."

4- Baird's past history. Namely, being hired by his father. And being promoted during his father's administration as sheriff. Had more of my friends and family actually lived in the City of Charlottesville and been able to vote in the caucus, I suspect James Brown would have ended up with about 1,000 votes in total.

5- The Hook has been collecting information, conducting interviews, and preparing to do a long story on the lawsuit mentioned above (and other defendants involved) for at least 18 months, the story to be done at the conclusion of all the lawsuits is my understanding. For whatever reason, The Hook decided to do a short clip on Baird just a day before the Democratic caucus was to take place. If this was damaging to Baird, I had no control over it. Their information was given to them and interviews granted a long time ago. Long before the Baird settled the lawsuit that was filed against him.

6- Baird's absolute refusal to appear on the Rob Shilling show. The other two candidates had no problem taking the time to appear and discuss their campaign platforms.

7- Baird's poor performance at the May 6 Q&A forum presented by the local Democratic Party. It seems some people felt he was getting too defensive and offering up feeble excuses instead of constructive answers. At one point Baird blamed everything on lack of manpower. In the next breathe he said he had a vacant deputy position and the funds to hire more staff, but hadn't done so. He couldn't have it both ways.

If each of these reasons didn't cost Baird but 10 votes each, it was enough to allow James Brown to win the Democratic nomination.

Taliaferro should be thanking Charlottesville Dems, so says Shilling.

Pretty funny stuff:

Tim Jim, after having read the top ten reasons Taliaferro should be thanking the local Democrats in the link you posted above, I was going to sit here and compose a list of the top ten reasons Baird should be thanking them too.

But, I couldn't come up with a single reason. Any and all of the old guard who assured Baird that he was a shoo in for the job should be obligated to buy Baird a 6 month supply of Kleenex to wipe away the tears.

In the game of politics, the losers are more celebrated than the winners. You can't possibly imagine how much I am enjoying this particular celebration!

(Now that the nomination process is over, does anybody know if Vohwinkel is going to remain as the Albemarle County Sheriff's Office 2nd in command now?)

Correct you are, Reality Check. Baird got Extremely defensive and somewhat upset when asked if the public has the right to know when there's an escape on his watch. He never really answered the question, but both Browns did. Of course the public has the right to know. The right to know where the escape took place, where the escapee was last seen, what the escapee is wearing, and what the escapee looks like. This is a public safety issue. The most recent escape was a drug addict about a month ago. Baird played this escape down quite a bit in the Q&A forum while in defensive mode. But a drug addict on the loose is a pretty serious concern when the escapee might mug, rob and injure citizens to get the money for his next fix while on the loose.

Incidents and escapes have routinely been withheld from the public by the City Sheriff's Office for the last 35 years that I know of. I guess elected officials just don't want the bad publicity. Public safety takes a back seat to bad publicity I suppose.

Somebody should have asked him about the recent incident where a person left the courtroom, obtained a can of mace, and re-entered the courtroom setting off the mace while assaulting another person. He probably would have gone into double defensive mode. :)

How about John Pfaltz ? He's a moderate. He ran once before as an independent and was against the Parkway but informed about transportation. He regularly attends Council and is involved in fiscal issues.

Are Indepedents not allowed to run for City Council? Not a job I would want given how little it pays, but there might be an Independent in Charlottesville who is qualified and ready.