NEWS- Huja crushes: As Dems winnow their Council candidates

You can attend forums, you can blog, you can seek endorsements, but the Democratic candidates most likely to get on the November ballot for City Council were the ones who phoned it in.

And Satyendra Huja had the party faithful on speed dial.

On a beautiful June Saturday afternoon, more than 400 Democrats filed indoors to pick three candidates for City Council from a field of five. A couple of hours later, Mayor David Brown, Holly Edwards, and Huja emerged with their names destined for the November ballot.

"The big surprise was Huja bringing in more people than anyone else," says Brown.

In fact, first-time candidate Huja, who spent 31 years as city planner, pulled in more votes than incumbent Brown– 304 to Brown's 261. Edwards placed second with 279 votes.

"The advantage I had when I ran the first time, I had a lot of time to make phone calls," says Brown. This go-round, attending Council meetings cut down on his dialing time. The incumbency has another liability.

"Being on Council," Brown says, "you make decisions not everyone is going to like." (Meredith Richards learned that lesson the hard way when the incumbent councilor was ousted at the 2004 convention.)

Huja was pretty sure that incumbent Brown and Edwards, who is a parish nurse and Public Housing Association of Residents coordinator, would be nominated.

"I was surprised to be first all along," say Huja, 65. His strategy: "I kept on the phone every night. Everybody likes to talk to the candidates and to be asked for their vote."

The only one admitting surprise that Holly Edwards got the nomination is Holly Edwards. "I know the nomination depended on who showed up, and you have no way of determining that," she says. And of those who do come to the convention, "The bottom line, how they voted, is between them and that piece of paper."

Like Huja, Edwards, 42, is a first-timer. "I'm the new kid on the block," says Edwards. "For me it was a numbers game. The only person I knew was going to be a shoo-in was David Brown."

Longtime activist and former School Board chair Linda Seaman came in fourth with 188 votes, followed by newcomer Jennifer McKeever at 149 votes.

"I think we had five great candidates, and it's inevitable two people are not going to get the nomination," Seaman says.

"Maybe I'm more disappointed," she continues, "there will only be one woman on City Council. I heard throughout the campaign the great desire to have more women. Having one woman who also happens to be the only black– I don't think that's good for the city."

City Councilor Kevin Lynch's pre-convention endorsement of Brown, Edwards, and McKeever didn't seem to help McKeever.

"It proved there is no substitute for the personal connection and calling people," observes Lynch. "Huja did an admirable job."

Lynch expected Brown and Edwards to be nominated, but thought the votes would be closer between the other three candidates.

And while he's pleased 426 ballots were cast, "I was hoping this would be the year we'd break our old record of 650," he says.

Last-place candidate McKeever, whose early campaign start seemed to give her an edge in the race, thinks Lynch's endorsement "definitely injected a lot of energy into the campaign," she says. "It really is about the phone calls," she says.

As a resident of the north side of town, McKeever is pleased with her showing in Clark, Tonsler, and JPA– the city's southern precincts. "That was very gratifying," she says.

Like so many others, she thought Brown and Edwards would be nominated. "Huja was always the wild card," she says. "He was on the phones."

Some party insiders expect McKeever to run again. "This was a great initial toe-in-the-water thing," she says. And undeterred by her finish, the ardent blogger put up a post entitled, "When fifth place feels like first."

Except for 2002, when Rob Shilling stunned the populace with a rare Republican victory, officially nominated Democratic candidates typically cruise to victory, and so far, the Republicans haven't floated any sacrificial candidates. However, independent Peter Kleeman will be on the ballot.

Dems say competition is good, but those who showed up at Charlottesville High June 2 had to pledge that they won't support anyone who opposes a Democratic nominee.

Chief teller David RePass, who kept track of the voting, doesn't like the term "loyalty oath" and insists the pledge is mainly to keep out ringers. "Otherwise, anyone could come in– even Republicans," he says.

And Dems who decide to support Kleeman, who unsuccessfully sought a Democratic nomination in 2000, won't be kicked out of the party. "People may have changed their mind," says RePass. He explains that the pledge is merely indicative of their intentions "when they walk into the convention."

Satyendra Huja got the most votes of any of the Dems.

Mayor David Brown came in third in the June 2 Dem convention to nominate three City Council candidates.