Firehouse primary: Dems try out new nom process
Traditionally, Charlottesville city councilors have been chosen on a Saturday. That's when members of the city's majority party converge at a convention and pick their candidates, who, aside from a 2002 upset by Republican Rob Schilling, routinely get elected to the five-member governing body.
That's not going to happen this year. The Democrats' mass meeting has been supplanted by a "firehouse primary," which gives a 10-hour window during which party members can vote, without having to attend a meeting that can go on for hours.
"With the election of Barack Obama, people are ready for change," says Linda Seaman, who spearheaded the change in nomination process (and who unsuccessfully sought her party's nomination as Council candidate in 2007). "I think it's important to have as much access to the opportunity of voting and to extend that so it's more open."
Some long-time Dems fear, however, that independents and–- egads, Republicans–- might weasel their way into the process and that it will be more costly for candidates to draw supporters to the poll.
"I am not in favor of this," says David Repass. "There's going to be strong temptation for independents and Republicans to vote."
However, registered voters who show up to vote at the firehouse primary must sign a certification–- Repass doesn't like the term "loyalty pledge"–- that they're Democrats, that they're registered voters, and they believe in the party principles and do not intend to support any candidate who is opposed to a Democratic nominee in the next ensuing election.
But who's to know what lurks in hearts and minds?
"I call them Democrats for a moment," says a worried Repass. "They walk in, sign this thing, and vote."
At a mass meeting, which goes on for hours, Repass believes it's more likely a faux Democrat would be spotted. Seaman isn't dissuaded.
"We talked to people in other jurisdictions, and they say [the firehouse primary] actually discouraged this," counters Seaman. "I don't think it's going to be a major issue. It's not enough of a threat to not try it."
Repass is also concerned that the primary gives an advantage to incumbents and the well-known, and he contends that the cost of advertising throughout the city will discourage newcomers. "I'm frankly very worried about the future," says Repass, "that people who don't have money and time don't run."
"I would suggest being well organized and getting volunteers is the way to do it," says Seaman. "I think it's important for candidates for local elections have a broad base of support." She adds that that results in better government once elected.
The 2002 nomination, for instance, turned into a grueling four-hour marathon in which a young Waldo Jaquith got rejected despite taking second place in the first three ballots. Although he inspired many youthful voters who'd never taken part in a convention to come, Jaquith lost the nomination by four votes on the fourth ballot, mainly through the attrition of his weary supporters.
New with the firehouse primary, says Repass, are absentee ballots and something called an "instant run-off," in which voters rank their preferences so that the winners will have a majority of the votes without having to do the lengthy process of multiple ballots.
So far, community organizer Kristin Szakos is the only Democrat to announce her candidacy. Incumbents Dave Norris and Julian Taliaferro have not publicly stated whether they'll run again.
"I don't have a preference one way or another," says former fire chief Taliaferro about firehouse primary v. mass meeting. (He also says he's hasn't decided whether to seek re-election.)
Mayor Dave Norris says he will reveal his plans the first week in March. Norris supports the firehouse primary.
"My feeling is the primary is good in that it opens the process for more people," says Norris. "The downside, of course, is it makes the nominating process more expensive. It favors candidates who have money and/or name recognition and/or incumbency, and puts lesser-known candidates at a disadvantage.
"I think the pros outweigh the cons," he adds. "We'll see how it goes."
Updated February 18.