Party over here
For Charlottesville Democrats who want to have a voice in electing candidates for the City Council race in May, participation isn’t a matter of waltzing into a local polling place to cast a ballot at one’s own convenience. City Dems endure a more grueling process, one that required over four hours last Saturday before the two candidates— incumbent Mayor Blake Caravati and newcomer Alexandria Searls— were chosen from a field of six.
It’s not a wasted effort. Since 1986, the year Council’s last Republican, the late Darden Towe, was elected, this Democratic event has decided the ultimate victors.
Shortly before 10am, the hour when all good Democrats must be registered to vote in the caucus, the air outside the Charlottesville Performing Arts Center was festive. Republican Kevin Cox (yes, the longtime indie has gone GOP) gathered 20 signatures on a petition to elect Charlottesville’s now-appointed school board.
Waldo Jaquith’s table— loaded with muffins, bagels, and orange juice— provided nourishment hours later to those who had been foresighted enough to stuff sustenance in their pockets. Bern Ewert’s display featured a map of the Meadowcreek Parkway, and Joan Fenton’s table offered bottled water. Thus provisioned for the long ordeal to come, the Democratic machine gathered in the auditorium, ignoring the “no food or drink” signs posted on the door.
10:15am. Party co-chair Russell Perry calls the caucus to order and dispenses with four agenda items in two minutes. Each candidate is allowed five minutes to speak. Ewert announces he’s “the most progressive and forward thinking candidate.” Jaquith’s enthusiastic crowd of supporters whoop for the self-proclaimed “ACLU poster boy” who asks, “You’re wondering where the next generation of Democrats is coming from? Well, here I am.” Simmons and Searls deliver earnest pleas for support, and Fenton vows, “There will be no more Marriotts on my watch.” Incumbent Caravati, looking mayoral in a dark suit and yellow tie, focuses on the successes of his tenure on Council.
10:55am. The naïve may suspect that with the candidates’ speeches done, it’s time to vote. Instead, it’s time for nominating speeches (three minutes each) and seconding speeches (two minutes each). A stream of Democrats head out of the auditorium and take a break as Al Reynolds nominates Ewert. Al Weed calls himself Jaquith’s only supporter who owns a tie; Alvin Edwards in a pulpit voice exhorts the crowd to support Simmons; Ida Lewis and Doug Schneider double-second Searls’ nomination; Susan Payne describes the warm side of Fenton; and Grace Tinsley, going way over her two-minute seconding allotment for Caravati, has to be pulled off the stage by Democratic co-chair Lloyd Snook.
11:31am. The credentials committee reports that 442 Democrats have registered and signed the declaration forms that include a loyalty oath not to oppose Democrats. It’s time for the first ballot.
11:39am. Snook tells the milling Dems to sit down and be quiet. A videotape of the late Emily Couric receives a standing ovation. After the videotape, Fenton leans against a rail and describes her mood as “calm.”
11:59am. An overhead projector on the stage displays what looks like illegible results. Snook turns off the projector. Searls says she’s excited, not nervous. “This is a genial convention with a party atmosphere,” she comments.
12:16pm. The results are in. Caravati leads, but no candidate has the necessary 50 percent for a nomination, and Fenton, with 25 percent, is the first to fall. She addresses the caucus and asks her supporters to vote for Jaquith, who is in second place.
12:25pm. The second ballot is taken. Afterward, former mayor Kay Slaughter entertains the audience with the “Top 10 Reasons David Toscano is Leaving City Council.”
12:50pm. Searls munches crackers in the lobby. Cookies appear on the Fenton table, while Jaquith’s table offers chips, crackers, and orange juice. Standing near Gabe Silverman, who sports a “Waldo” button, Jaquith’s girlfriend, Amber Capron, says she’s feeling “very positive” about the outcome.
12:57pm. The Dems are getting restless. Lindsey Howerton wonders why it’s taking so long. “They’re not having to figure the trajectory to some far off planet,” she complains. Backstage, where the ballots are counted, and it’s apparent a third ballot will be necessary, Toscano says, “Now we’re not getting the true electorate electing the candidate. They’re leaving.”
1:10pm. Simmons is out on the second ballot. Backstage, Searls gives him a hug, and Caravati puts his arm around Simmons and pulls him away for a quick confab. Searls, in fourth place behind Caravati, Jaquith, and Ewert, announces she wants to address the audience. Simmons tells the rapidly dwindling crowd to support Caravati, and Searls beseeches Dems to stay. “I want to win this, and I haven’t given up,” she says.
1:14pm. Ballot number three— the blue one— is cast. Snook reminds the assembled party faithful that food and drink are not allowed in the auditorium, and if surreptitious eating and drinking have been going on, “Please pick up your trash.”
1:22pm. Simmons has just finished talking to TV cameras and tells The Hook, “I’m okay. I feel fine.” He warns that if there’s a fourth ballot, “They’re going to lose the group if they don’t get this nailed down.” Backstage at the ballot counting, Snook is asked what will happen if they need to go beyond four ballots, the number of ballots on hand. “That’s a mess I hadn’t even thought of,” he says. “I was told it was mathematically impossible.”
1:31pm. Drama in the counting of the third ballot: someone has cast a vote using the green fourth ballot instead of the blue third ballot, and the candidates’ tellers— their representatives monitoring the counting— huddle to decide if it’s okay to count the green ballot. “It’s like a mini-Florida,” says Ridge Schuyler. “This is a hanging chad.”
1:46pm. Dave Nelson approaches Ewert backstage, says, “Bern, you’re out,” and shakes Ewert’s hand. Ewert says he’s not going to endorse either of the remaining two candidates. Caravati wins over 50 percent of the votes this round and is now officially nominated.
1:50pm. Onstage, the results are announced. Following Caravati, Jaquith has 48.7 percent of the vote to Searls’ 43.19 percent. Ewert tells the ever-diminishing audience, “I can support either of those candidates.”
1:53pm. The fourth and final ballot, it’s Waldo versus Alex.
2:07pm. Waiting for the results, Dem website guru George Loper isn’t making any predictions. “It depends on how Bern’s supporters vote,” he says.
2:09pm. Searls wins by four votes of the 310 ballots cast. The morning started with 442 ballots at the first vote what seems like months ago.
2:14pm. A motion for adjournment is made. Waldo supporters look glum, and Jaquith, conceding that it’s disappointing to lose by four votes adds, “I’m not going anywhere. The City isn’t getting rid of me that easily.”
Having performed their civic duty, the remaining Democrats head out into the Saturday afternoon sunshine, perhaps to the late luncheon at Francis Fife and Nancy O’Brien’s house, or perhaps to pursue nonpolitical activities in the day’s remaining hours.