Goode times: Ewert joins 5th District race

It was the birth of Bern Ewert's two granddaughters in January that inspired him to challenge Congressman Virgil Goode for his firmly held 5th District seat. "I just finally said I have a responsibility to at least say something," says Ewert. "They're driving our country into the ground."

Announcing his candidacy December 3, Democrat Ewert denounced the current Republican administration and its Congressional majority. "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of the mismanagement of the American government by ideologues and incompetents," he said.

Ewert, a former Charlottesville deputy city manager whose resume says he proposed the pedestrian Downtown Mall during the early 1970s, was most recently in the news for proposing the Ruckersville Parkway. He ran for City Council in 2002, but failed to secure the Democratic nomination.

And before he can take on Goode, Ewert must first win his party's nomination from vintner and decorated veteran Al Weed, who ran against Goode in 2004 and lost with 36 percent of the vote. The Dems most likely will choose their nominee at a convention in May.

That could put both candidates at a disadvantage in raising money. "It's going to be a bit awkward," says Weed. "Raising money for a challenger is always difficult, and now [supporters] won't know who that is until May."

Ewert's plan is to start early and stay organized. He's already snagged the endorsement of Delegate Mitch Van Yahres, who calls him "a fresh face," according to Bob Gibson in the Progress.

"The difference between me and [Weed] is I have a proven track record improving the lives of people... and working regionally," says Ewert, who served as Roanoke city manager from 1978 to 1985 and as Prince William county executive from 1997 to 2000.

Ewert lived in Roanoke for 16 years. "I rebuilt that city," he says. "People there know who I am." And although Roanoke is not part of the 5th District, people from neighboring Bedford and Franklin counties commute there to work.

"Bern's claim he has name recognition in Roanoke is from 20 years ago," counters Weed. "Mine is from a year ago."

And, says Weed, a Nelson County resident, "I'm not from Charlottesville. That's a big issue in the district. Are you an urban person or not?"

Weed challenges the "myth of the incumbency"– that the incumbent always wins. If the Dems float a new candidate every two years, as they have been doing, "The myth gets stronger, and you don't get any traction," he says. "I have supporters. I know the district. I know the people."

Goode was first elected as a conservative Democrat in 1996 to the 5th District seat, which stretches from Greene to Southside Virginia. Two years later, he won as an Independent, and he has continued to win as a Republican in a heavily Republican district.

But a new day may be dawning. "[Democrat] Tim Kaine won the 5th District," Ewert points out.

And Democrats see the two challengers to Goode as a sign of his vulnerability, particularly following his involvement with MZM, the company that has been linked to the Rep. Duke Cunningham bribery scandal. MZM's political action committee and its employees contributed almost $90,000 to Goode.

"Anyone in Congress can receive a donation from a company that goes bad," says Ewert. "What surprises me is [Goode] says he's not giving the money back. I'm astonished and disturbed by his ethics."

That ties into another Ewert campaign theme: regaining moral leadership. "There's a serious problem with credibility in the U.S. Congress," he says, citing the PAC of now-indicted former majority leader Tom DeLay, which also gave money to Goode.

"I think in general the Republicans are going to be more vulnerable because the Bush administration is handing the Democrats so many issues to run on," says former city councilor Meredith Richards, who waged an unsuccessful run against Goode in 2002. In particular, she predicts Dems in 2006 will campaign on the "culture of corruption that's the legacy of this Republican administration and Congress."

Says Richards, "Corruption is never a word people used with Virgil. Inept, ineffectual– but never corruption."

Goode did not return phone calls from The Hook by press time.

Despite Goode's perceived vulnerabilities, "It's still going to be a very tough race," says Virginia Tech political analyst Bob Denton. "The polls show an irony: people distrust Congress, but they like their congressman. Virgil remains well-liked in the district. Whether he can still pull in 60 percent of the vote as he has in the past remains to be seen."

"I'm always happy to see a challenge," says Waldo Jaquith, who ran against Ewert for City Council in 2002 and who supported Weed's 2004 bid against Goode. "I think Al will be a stronger candidate, and Bern will be a stronger candidate for the competition. I think it makes the 5th District Democratic Party stronger."

From exec to elect: Bern Ewert tosses his hat into the 5th District race.