Upset: 'Stop Meredith' move ousts Richards

Where else but in the special world called Charlottesville could an incumbent politician untainted by scandal (unless her support of a popular parkway counts) be ousted during the nominating process?

Local political pundits calling last Saturday's Democratic convention considered incumbents Kevin Lynch and Meredith Richards shoo-ins, with the real unknown whether party insider David Brown or neighborhood activist Kendra Hamilton would nab the third nomination to get on the City Council ballot.

Political punditry is not an exact science, and its limitations were obvious when two-term councilor and vice mayor Richards came up short in the field of four. Some say her ouster was orchestrated by two of her fellow councilors. Others deny that. How did the lady in line to be mayor lose her seat at the table?

"The slate that [retiring mayor] Maurice Cox orchestrated was being billed as a 'Get Rid of Meredith' effort," says Ellora Young, Richards' campaign manager.

"Absolutely not," responds Cox. "It's kind of sad those comments are being made... It's incredible when people assign to you influence and strategy when you're trying to create an environment where new candidates can come forward and feel supported."

He adds, "I've worked effectively with Meredith and have respect for what she's done on council. It's hard for me to be in on a conspiracy against someone I respect."

Not everyone is convinced.

"Kevin Lynch and Maurice Cox engineered the slate with their delegates," says a Democratic insider, who declined to be identified.

Lynch denies allegations of promoting a slate to exclude Richards. "We really tried to avoid the slate-making business," he says. "That's never healthy for the party– and it can backfire."

Some delegates at the February 7 convention borrowed from the Republican playbook that elected Rob Schilling in 2002, using a strategy of single- or double-shotting– voting for only one or two candidates– instead of the maximum three votes they were entitled to cast.

And it's a strategy that some saw coming. As soon as the convention convened, former mayor Kay Slaughter made a motion requiring all delegates to cast votes for three candidates.

Democrat party chair Lloyd Snook noted that the party says you don't have to vote for anyone you don't want, and Slaughter's motion was defeated by a chorus of "nays."

The auditorium at the Albemarle County Office building was packed, and Dems ran the gauntlet of supporters for presidential candidates John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark, and Howard Dean– even one for Dennis Kucinich– to get in the building.

For some reason, there was no microphone in the auditorium, presenting candidates with an additional oratorical challenge.

If applause is any measure, Hamilton clearly won the speech category. "The Democrats are in danger of becoming the party of the comfortable," warned Hamilton. "We're in danger of believing our own press clippings."

Mayor Cox led the standing ovation for Hamilton, whose candidacy was one of the factors he considered in deciding whether to run again. Cox is the council's only African American, and he lobbied to get another black candidate to run.

Then Cox nominated "bike-riding councilor" Lynch, and said, "Kevin won't stop until Charlottesville has a transit system that doesn't require a car."

In a reference that hinted at his opposition to the Meadowcreek Parkway, Lynch told the crowd, "I believe the city is a destination, not a shortcut."

The Parkway reared its head again as the most divisive issue facing the assembled Dems. When Charlottesville Sheriff Cornelia Johnson nominated Richards, she cautioned, "Do not judge Mrs. Richards by the Meadowcreek Parkway." Another Richards supporter, school board member Muriel Wiggins, noted the Parkway "schism."

Even as the party faithful waited for the ballots to be counted, there was still no consensus of prognostication.

"I see more Kevin, David, and Kendra stickers than Meredith," said first-time convention attendee Helen Reutlinger, Brown's neighbor. She predicted Richards wouldn't be reelected.

How right she was.

Waldo Jaquith, who ran for City Council in 2002, endorsed Lynch and Richards. He was at the convention manning an Al Weed for Congress table, and said, "Obviously, Kevin is going to be reelected by a landslide. The question is how upset people are over the Parkway."

"Kendra, Kevin, and Meredith" were Joan Schatzman's picks, and Katherine McNamara said her choice of Hamilton was based on the "applause meter."

"This is not an easy one to predict," said Maurice Cox, as he chatted with Lynch before the nominees were announced.

Indeed, after the candidates had been given the news, a glum-looking David Brown returned from backstage, leading to some speculation that he has lost.

"I thought it would be close, and I knew I had an uphill battle with the incumbents," Brown said. "I thought Kendra would prevail. I was nervous about my chances."

Brown says he didn't instruct his delegates to vote for a particular slate of candidates or to single shot. "A single shot was used by other candidates, obviously," he says. Looking at the potential of 1,590 votes that could have been cast if everyone picked three candidates, and the 1,392 votes that actually were cast, "between 100 and 200 people didn't cast votes for three candidates."

When the votes were counted, Hamilton had far outpaced the others with a whopping 429 raw votes out of the 530 ballots cast, topping Lynch's second-place 341. Brown got 322; Richards got 300.

As for whether Richards' ouster was engineered, Brown says, "I do think there were people making calls promoting me, Kevin, and Kendra. That wasn't engineered by me, and it wasn't engineered by Kevin. I wasn't a party to that, but it was beneficial to me."

The petite Richards carried her own platform– literally– to the podium, stepped up on it, and made a gracious concession speech, promising to support the other candidates.

Admiring her poise, fellow councilor Blake Caravati observed, "I don't know if you really know the pressures of losing in front of Democrats and friends and the press. Believe me, I know." (In 1996, Caravati came in fourth when Richards– along with Cox and Virginia Daugherty– got the nod.)

Caravati was disappointed at Richards' loss, and said he will miss the carmine-haired councilor. "Meredith singularly devotes herself to City Council," he says. "She's the work horse on council."

By Monday, Richards sounded matter-of-fact about her loss. "These kinds of things get played out at conventions. I was told there were slates being engineered, and I've seen the posters that called for a Lynch, Brown, and Hamilton slate," she said.

And although Richards says she was unaware that some of her supporters were planning to single shot, in fact, she garnered the most. Convention "head teller" David Repass reports 49 single shots for Richards, 5 for Brown, 5 for Lynch, and 1 for Hamilton.

Richards says she's surprised. 'That wasn't my strategy," she says. "Kay is a supporter of mine, and she wouldn't have made the motion if that was my strategy."

Some long-time Dem insiders think the Richards ouster heralds a shift of power in the city's Democratic machine.

Says one, "I have little doubt that Maurice Cox has emerged as a power broker for the city Democrats."

Cox pooh-poohs that notion, dismissing it as "nonsense."

Instead, "I thought we sent a very clear message that it was time to pass the leadership torch to a new generation," he says.

"I'm proud of what Meredith and I accomplished over these past eight years. Now it's time to exit stage left. That's what we're supposed to do," he says.[p

David Brown

Kendra Hamilton

Kevin Lynch

Meredith Richards