New blood: Firehouse primary ousts Taliaferro
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.
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."