Firehouse primary: Dems try out new nom process

Change you can believe in? Linda Seaman credits Obama's influence with changing even the way City Council candidates are nominated.

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.


I hope the Hook does a follow-up story after the primary detailing the opinions of those who participated or officiated.

I think there must be a mistake. Following the link to the 2002 article doesn't lead to an article describing Mr. Jaquith leading any of the ballots before losing on the fourth one. Instead the article described Mr. Jaquith being in the same position, second place, on each of the four ballots. Perhaps there is another article somewhere?

I had to look this up, because I had no idea. :) George Loper retained records each round of balloting on his website: round 1, round 2, round 3, and round 4. It appears that I came in second in all four rounds. (Though that's with the whole weighted-voting dealie. I actually won the second round in raw votes, and tied with Blake Caravati in the third round. But, again, they're weighted by precinct, so the person with the largest number of votes doesn't necessarily win.)

What a blast from the past�I haven't seen these numbers for years!

Speaking of which, will the votes still be weighted according to precinct?

Dear Billy Bob,
I meant to say Waldo was one of the leaders in the first three rounds of balloting, and I'm sorry that wasn't clear. I've updated the post to reflect the more accurate second place Waldo took among the field of six. Thanks for writing.
Lisa Provence

This, incidentally, is what I like about The Hook's editorial process. Work goes up on the blog, folks have a chance to respond, and the story can be adjusted accordingly before making it into print.

Well, there was a certain "dog bites man" aspect to the whole reference that made it peculiar. "Second Place Finisher Finishes Second!"

Oops. The issue has already gone to press without the update.

And a second place finish would have put Waldo on the ballot for Council with Blake Caravati. Instead, Alexandria Searls got the nomination and was defeated by Republican Rob Schilling in the election.

Again, thanks for writing.

That's a little misleading, Lisa. By saying "instead" you make it sound like Searls didn't defeat Jaquith in their runoff. She did. He finished in second place out of two on that ballot.

I suppose the devil is in the details. We'll find out more about how a "firehouse primary" works in the coming months. Why isn't it called a "primary"? After internet search, here's the only coherent description I could find:

"Candidates for elective office can be selected by (1) mass meetings, (2) party canvasses, (3) conventions, or (4) primaries. A mass meeting consists of a meeting where any participants must remain until votes are taken at the end. A party canvass or "firehouse primary" allows participants to arrive anytime during announced polling hours, cast a secret ballot, and then leave. A convention includes a process for selecting delegates, and then only the delegates may vote. Mass meetings, party canvasses and conventions are conducted by party officials and volunteers. Primaries are administered by the State Board of Elections at all established polling places. Because Virginia does not have party registrations, participation in primaries are open to any register voter regardless of party." (Wikipedia-- Republican Party of Virginia)

In Cville's firehouse primary, why do you have to be a Democrat- especially if no Republicans or Independents run? In most Cville elections, the Democratic mass meeting is the de facto election. Is party label more important than a candidate's content?

"Repass is also concerned that the primary gives an advantage to incumbents and the well-known."

-- This is true in mass meetings as well as any popularity contest (popular vote).

"something called an ââ?¬Å?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 if you have 3 candidates for 2 seats, and 3rd place has more votes than 1st or 2nd, then 3rd place wins? If Candidate A has largest sum of 1st, 2nd, 3rd place, does A win although B has the most 1st place votes?

I remember the 2002 mass meeting. I described it thusly: "The word 'property' was not used in 2 hours of 18 speechs." And I was listening for it. Of course it was the third year of my campaign to expose urban renewal locally. In 3 days preceding the mass meeting, Bern Ewert had 5 letters to the editor in Daily Progress endorsing his urban renewal involvement as assistant manager 1971-1976. Subsequently the Progress adopted a new letters policy to prevent this type of shenanigan. Morning of the meeting, Ewert responded by email and played dumb as if I didn't know about 1972 Garrett clearance. In his speech, he sounded angry and spoke in terms that only made sense in this context. He made it to the third elimination voting despite/because of this experience he denied. Then I had a letter in the Progress endorsing Schilling and Salidis, and Waldo as a write-in to split the Democratic vote because I saw at the mass meeting he had a lot of support.

It amazes me that people are so outraged by news coverage designed to protect their families and property. So you were inconvenienced by tornado warnings? Big deal. At least you are still standing to complain about it..ask the people in Suffolk who were in the direct brunt of a tornado, what is more important: timely warnings and concise coverage, or watching Survivor? Shame on The Hook for trivializing what could have been an actual disaster. Just be thankful it didn't happen.

Hi Valerie,

I'm just curious. Did you read the article?


YEP! MAJOR HYPE!!! I missed The Office because someone hit the panic button! Wouldn't that little marque at the bottom of the screen done the same job?

I did read your article and I found it just another slanted HOOK article.
I was wondering why you didn’t interview any of the concertgoers. I know many people who were very upset (to say the least) they were not told about the possible tornadoes while under the Pavilion that night. I wish the HOOK would cover all the bases and not print rubbish.
This will be the last HOOK I ever pick up again, thanks.

The people in charge at the Charlottesville News Complex need to reread the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. By sensationalizing a fairly benign thunderstorm as was done on 05/08 and again on 06/04, the News Complex is doing a major dis-service to the public by desensitizing them to what could be a life threatening issue.

I've lived in the midwest for most of my life and have learned how to read radar for tornadic activity and severe weather. There was nothing in these severe thunderstorm cells indicating tornadic activity and no reason for constant coverage. The cells that appeared to be spawning a bit of inflow quickly blew back out and turned back into big blobs of heavy rain and wind, enough to blow out your power if they wished.

My husband is a trained weather spotter, loves a good chase, and -- even though it is difficult to spot here in Virginia (go out and eye-witness severe weather) -- it is possible to based on accurate current radar, tracking trends, and through annual trainings. I'd be curious to see who exactly saw a "funnel cloud" and bet you it was just scud hanging from the sky, swirling around and being kicked up from the winds.

Constant [hours long] coverage only fuels fear, especially in areas that see very little tornadic activity. Interrupting a broadcast with a weather emergency and sounding the emergency broadcasting system alarms on radio and TV have been far more effective in my years of experience, especially when the threats remain localized.