57th varieties: Who will get Mitch's seat?
Let's face it. For years the 57th District race has been a snooze, held so firmly in the mitts of Democrat Delegate Mitch Van Yahres that after a succession of rookie contenders failed to come close to wresting the seat away, the Republican Party simply gave up even bothering to challenge him.
When the 78-year-old Van Yahres announced he was calling it quits in early March after 24 years in the General Assembly, former Charlottesville mayor and city councilor David Toscano, who'd been waiting patiently in the wings, announced his candidacy three days later.
Many assumed the Democratic nomination was a done deal. Toscano, with substantial local party support, would go on to accept his party's nomination, win the November election, and the 57th District would remain solidly Democratic for another generation or so.
Mercifully– for those who don't like predictable primaries– less than two weeks before the April 15 deadline for filing 125-signature petitions for a place on the primary ballot, wild-card candidates Rich Collins and Clement "Kim" Tingley declared their intentions, and suddenly the Toscano nomination veered from in-the-bag to up-for-grabs.
Collins, a 70-year-old environmental negotiator, retired April 1 from teaching at UVA– and came out of retirement April 4 to announce his candidacy.
A founder of STAMP– Sensible Transportation Alternatives to the Meadowcreek Parkway– and ASAP– Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population– Collins stands squarely opposite pro-Parkway Toscano.
Collins provided the campaign's first drama May 7 when he was arrested for trespassing in front of greengrocer Whole Foods Market in Shopper's World. With ACLU backing, he's now challenging Virginia's definition of public places and private property.
Tingley, a relative newcomer to Charlottesville and to politics, announced his own grassroots campaign April 6. The affordable housing builder received a political baptism by fire almost immediately when the Toscano campaign accused him of conducting a telephone "push-poll" that distorted Toscano's record and character, a charge Tingley denies.
Does either newcomer stand a chance of derailing Toscano's well-oiled– and well-funded– machine?
"If I were going to handicap it, I'd say [Toscano] definitely has the best chance, but Rich Collins is a fighter, and he'll fight you tooth and nail," says Charlottesville Republican party head Bob Hodous. "The smart money is on Toscano, but I'm not sure it's a lock."
"He got anybody of stature to not run against him– and that's not insignificant," says a local Republican pundit who declines to be named. "Toscano has to be thrilled to have two liberals running against him. This isn't just the city; it's the county, too. And the county people in the 57th are significantly less liberal than the city," he says.
Toscano, a member of the green-leaning Citizens Party before evolving into a more moderate, more development-friendly Dem, can see the Republican logic. "Both of these candidates tried," he says, "to portray themselves as more liberal than I am."
Despite the fact that the 57th District includes the entire city– "the people's republic of Charlottesville" according to one conservative quip– the liberalness of the 57th district isn't what gives Toscano pause.
What does is low voter turnout, and historically, the numbers don't look good.
Primary turnout in Albemarle County ranges from a "terribly God-awful dead" 3 percent to 19 percent, "which isn't that bad," says county registrar Jackie Harris– but that's talking presidential primary years.
This year's June 14 primary is the first dual-party primary since 1988, so that could generate more interest. But the 57th District encompasses only eight of Albemarle's 28 precincts. In the other 20, the only race on the Democratic ballot is for lieutenant governor.
"Absentee voting is a good barometer for turnout," says Harris. "We've had about 10."
Things are looking more active inside the city limits.
"We've had roughly 60 absentee ballot requests," says Lori Krizek in the Charlottesville registrar's office. But historically the turnout numbers are only marginally better than in the county: between 3.6 percent and 20 percent.
Democrats are doing everything they can to get out the vote, reports Toscano supporter George Loper. "If people really think Toscano is going to win and they're comfortable with that, it could suppress turnout," he says.
"Obviously Toscano is the favorite," says Larry Sabato, UVA politics prof. But Sabato, too, cites low turnout– and then notes, "It's a heavily Democratic seat– probably all three would vote the same [in the House of Delegates]. It doesn't matter that much in the scheme of things who gets elected."
He heads off the expected gasps: "I mean, it matters to the candidates, but not in the state."
Van Yahres has refused to endorse a candidate, and Hodous insists the Republicans are going to float a candidate at their June 6 mass meeting. [See sidebar on Tom McCrystal.]
For local Democrats sending someone to the Republican-held legislature, "It's important they can elect somebody who can work with the majority," says Sabato.
Can these candidates actually accomplish anything if they get a ticket to Richmond? And why are they running for this daunting task in Richmond, a place Van Yahres himself said has become so partisan that "It's not a pleasure to be there"?
They have their reasons.
Smooth: David Toscano
"I have no plans to get arrested," says Toscano, when asked about campaign strategy. He's been there and done that decades ago, protesting the Vietnam war. Despite occasionally being branded a tool of developers, Toscano seems to have never really lost his '60s activism, and he's honed his political skills since getting trounced in a 1982 Congressional run as a candidate of the Citizens Party, a predecessor to the Green Party.
"We're just where we want to be," says Toscano three weeks before the June 14 primary. In the upcoming weeks, registered Dems can expect a barrage of direct mail, print, radio, and possibly TV ads paid for with funds from the $75,000 Toscano war chest.
"I have put a lot of energy into the campaign, but I haven't put my own money in," says Toscano, a lawyer in private practice. "I'm not a wealthy man," he adds.
An experienced politico, Toscano says there's one thing about the House of Delegates race that surprises him. "I thought there might be more attention paid to it than there has been," he admits.
And unlike runs for City Council, "You cannot rely on the party apparatus to do the organizing," he says. "You're pretty much on your own with the phone banks, signs, and get-out-the-vote effort. In a primary where people are not paying attention, it's challenging to get volunteers. That's taken a lot more time that I expected."
One thing he certainly has nailed: a broad cross-section of support, including endorsements from the business world– the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors– and the greenies–the Virginia League of Conservation Voters– an endorsement for which Collins, who's made a career out of dealing with environmental issues, might have seemed a logical choice.
On his website, Toscano lists the support of almost every Democratic elected official past and present, including all four Dems on City Council. "I think that made a difference and sent a strong message," he says.
Now there's just that voter turnout thing.
Day job: attorney
Immediate family: Nancy Tramontin (married since 1977), Matthew (7 years old)
Always been a Dem? Early Democrat, then Green Party, but Democrat for 20 years
Why run? To advocate and effect progressive change in Richmond
What do you do better than your opponents? Engage diverse groups to build consensus around issues, and get things done
Past political experience: 12 years on City Council, former mayor
Political hero: Robert Kennedy. Even as a youngster, he inspired me.
Past newsworthiness: Appearance on Oprah Winfrey Show
Favorite Rolling Stones song: Gimme Shelter
Pet peeve: People too rigid in their ways to listen and think about new ways to do things
Most influential book: The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell
If you were to come back as an animal, what would it be? Eagle
Motto: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest"– Mark Twain
Feisty: Rich Collins
How's this for bipartisan support? Allen Powell, owner of Republican stronghold Wolfie's restaurant, has offered to host a free victory party for Collins if he wins the primary. And he has a Collins sign planted out front of the rib spot on Rio Road.
"He says I'm his favorite liberal," says anti-Meadowcreek Parkway, anti-growth Collins.
In his first run for public office, Collins is surprised at the red tape– and at how quickly he's swung into politician mode. "I've become more concerned with my own drive to win. I've become more self-centered, and constantly selling myself," he confesses. The prof feels up to the challenge of persuading people to vote for him.
And he's not intimidated by Toscano's political prowess. "David had done such a good job of making it forbidding for anyone else to challenge him," says Collins. "With his money and brochures, you'd have to be crazy."
Three weeks before the primary, Collins' seemingly seat-of-the-pants campaign has raised $15,000, and he's chafing a bit at the demands of being a candidate. "I'm not used to having my life be this organized," he says.
Unlike Toscano and Tingley, Collins hasn't spent money on polls. "I'm not trying to respond to public opinion," says Collins. "I'm trying to shape it."
He thinks some people will be attracted to a 70-year-old who, if elected, would clearly be a short-timer. "It's time to get younger people in," says Collins. "This might mean loosening the party belt."
Though poll-less, Collins thinks he has a chance to win– and that he could be very effective in Richmond. "Working across the state... and working with bureaucracy– that's an advantage I have."
One day earlier, Collins has learned that Toscano snagged the Virginia League of Conservation Voters' endorsement.
"Ouch," says the founder of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation. He's clearly disappointed the League used "viability" as a factor.
"I know there's going to be few people voting," says Collins, "and I know there can be surprises."
Day job: Professor of urban and environmental planning, School of Architecture, UVA. Professor emeritus effective June 1, 2005. Founder and director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at UVA 1980-2002.
Immediate family: Wife Kate who has been, to use her words "stubbornly" married to me for 47 years. Son Brian works for U.S Navy in Alexandria. Daughters Kelly Burruss, Maureen Collins, Jane Collins, and Colleen Collins all live in Charlottesville or Albemarle County and all seven grandchildren are in Charlottesville-Albemarle public schools.
Always a Dem? I was president of the first Young Democrats organization at U.W. La Crosse in 1958. There was no competitive Democratic Party in Wisconsin until Bill Proxmire ran about that time.
Why run? Harmonic convergence and some Dylan Thomas poetry. More directly, I can vigorously and effectively represent the special character of the 57th District. I'm no stranger to advocating for what's right, and I'm no stranger to getting legislation passed.
What do you do better than your opponents? Why speculate? I challenge the other candidates to a pentathalon: downhill skiing, whitewater canoeing, tennis, distance golf driving, and skeet shooting. Our campaign managers negotiate the point allocation. Winner take all.
Past political experience: I've always been active in political and civic activities: chairing the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, and the Solid Waste Authority.
Political hero: Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, a rare combination of moral force, literary accomplishment, and personal modesty. Arrested many times by the Communists, he served years in prison and said, "The only kind of politics that truly makes sense is one that's guided by conscience."
Past newsworthiness: Lots of attention and phone calls because of numerous quotes in Steve Turner's authorized biography of Johnny Cash. John and I were roomies and fellow radio operators in the USAF during the Korean War period.
Favorite Rolling Stones song: Sweet Virginia and You Can't Always Get What You Waaaaant
Pet peeve: People who say after the meeting or fight is over, "I was with you, but I didn't say or act because..."
Most influential book: The neglected classic of American progressivism, Progress and Poverty, by Henry George (1879). George dedicated his book "to those who, seeing the vice and misery that spring from the unequal distribution of wealth and privilege, feel the possibility of a higher social state and would strive for its attainment."
If you were to come back as an animal, what would it be? A hedgehog-fox hybrid
Motto: Vote for Rich, it rhymes with Mitch.
Idealistic: Clement "Kim" Tingley
You can tell Tingley, 60, is a first-time political candidate when you ask how much money he's raised. "I don't think I'm going to talk about that," he says, preferring to wait until the June 6 deadline for filing campaign donations.
Local speculation is that Tingley's campaign, which includes a campaign office, polls, and phone banks that have called some local Democrat voters as many as three times, is self-funded. When asked, he replies, "That's also private campaign information."
But if a successful builder wants to finance a run for the General Assembly, why not? Clearly the race has provided an opportunity for Tingley, the former president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia to come out of the closet as far as his politics are concerned.
"I've spent a lot of time with conservative people, and as a consequence, tended to keep political views to myself," says Tingley. "The defining and shaping moment in this campaign is when I say, 'I am a proud liberal,' because 'liberal' has gotten such a bad rap over the years. People are hesitant to say they're liberal. It's liberating for me– and for other people to say that."
Tingley prides himself on not backing away from a challenge, and he remains undeterred that he has neither the name recognition nor potential volunteer base of Toscano and Collins.
He's thrilled when someone walks in the campaign office and hands over a $100 contribution. And he's crushed when he's making phone calls and gets hung up on, or when he knocks on a door and "they slam it in my face."
Being a novice politician is full of surprises. Like Collins, he's amazed at the issues he's supposed to have a position on. "I'm just this poor, dumb engineer," says Tingley. "Now I'm supposed to be an expert in civil liberties or education."
Tingley says his political education has brought more respect for what politicians and their families go through. And it has not shaken his confidence.
"We've got a plan in place, and we're going to win the election," he declares.
Day job: Building communities of moderately priced homes.
Immediate family: Wife, Deborah Lawrence; daughter, Penelope; sons Chad, Justin and Brandon; grandsons Van and Jude.
Always a Dem? Yes.
Why run? We need to change the direction of society. We have lost a lot of ground over the past decade.
What do you do better than your opponents? I am a proud liberal who will stand up on issues of principle. I am also a small businessman who can find practical solutions to problems. I get things done.
Past political experience: I've been the president of my trade association- the Home Builders Association of Virginia, which is quite powerful. I brought the HBAV to work with Virginia Forever, and together we successfully lobbied for funds for clean water and land conservation. I was also a principal player in the creation of housing revitalization zones.
Political hero: Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Past newsworthiness: Managed a Habitat for Humanity project building two homes in 56 hours in 40 minutes.
Favorite Rolling Stones song: Satisfaction
Pet peeve: Opinion masquerading as news... talk radio.
Most influential book: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
If you were to come back as an animal, what would it be?
A tiger. They are endangered, and we need more of them. I have a carousel tiger in my foyer.
Motto: The harder I work, the luckier I get.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO