How'd a Dem lose? Searls speaks out
Within hours of the Democrats’ first City Council defeat in 16 years, a lot of finger-pointing, self-flagellation, and speculation was going on. So why was Alexandria Searls the first local Democrat to lose an election since 1986?
Had she been hung out to dry by the Democratic machine? Did the Daily Progress influence the race with its election-day article on single-shot voting? Did Searls’ preservation and environmental platform swing too far left– even for those in her own party? Or did Republican Rob Schilling just run a better campaign?
Searls sat down with The Hook for her only post-election interview.
“I just want to speak my mind and not feel I have to run it through a committee,” she says, tellingly.
So what does Searls see as the number one factor in her 84-vote defeat?
“I should have definitely positioned myself as separate from Blake [Caravati] instead of in unison with him,” she replies. “Even when we agreed on issues, I should have spoken separately so people would see me as a strong candidate.”
In some ways, it seems the only thing Searls and Caravati had in common was the fact that they are both Democrats. Certainly on the key issue for the city– the Meadowcreek Parkway– the two candidates were in totally different camps (Caravati for, Searls against), representing the two major factions in the party.
And running a joint campaign meant that “I couldn’t control my own press releases,” says Searls, a factor she calls “huge” in her loss. “I was seen as not standing on my own two feet.”
Searls finds in the dust-up over the Marriott hotel on West Main examples of positions she favors that separate her from members of her party.
For one, it was the 1998 decision by four City Council Democrats on City Council to overrule the Board of Architectural Review and allow two houses to be demolished that allowed the Marriott to be built. That inspired preservationist Searls to become active in the Democratic party. Later, the hotel itself became the site of persistent picketing over its refusal to pay all employees a "living wage," an issue Searls holds dear.
On the contentious issue of the proposed bus transfer station on the eastern end of the Downtown Mall, Searls says it was made clear to her that she shouldn’t voice her opposition to the project.
“I felt responsible to the apparatus,” says Searls. She declines to name the Democrats who allegedly muzzled her, but she does say that at the first campaign committee meeting, when she heard that the party was running a “friends and family” campaign and not an aggressive campaign, should have been a warning sign.
After she sent out an email saying the Republicans were hoping the Democrats were asleep and that the party had to work hard, “I was discouraged from sending out emails.” That was her last public email– until her controversial post-election letter.
Searls sees even the positioning of the names on the ballot as compromising her campaign. “I was again clumped with Blake and underneath him. It reinforced the idea that I was in the shadows, not standing on my own.”
She continues: “I understand they’d want to lump similar parties– oops, the same party– that was a Freudian slip— together.” Unfortunately for Searls, alphabetical order meant that Caravati came before Searls on the ballot.
Searls says the election committee’s decision to cancel a rally of former city councilors as well as a phone bank were huge signals that the Dems wouldn’t be getting out the vote. And the paucity of yard signs, she believes, had at minimum a psychological effect, especially in the face of Schilling’s bold red blitz all over town.
In hindsight, Searls wishes she’d created a committee of people who considered her their first choice candidate.
While she slams the notion proffered by many Dems that this was a no-issues campaign, Searls says she realizes the advantages of having a sound bite like Schilling's: the succinct "common sense candidate." Being the preservation and environment candidate sounded “boring,” she says. “It wasn’t enough," she laments, "to capture the imagination.”
Other missed opportunities abound. For instance, Searls thinks the assaults by Charlottesville High students on UVA students should have made the concept of restorative justice a hot topic. And she thinks the litigation by Marta Sanchez, the UVA law student who filed suit against a professor for touching her in class, could have been another campaign issue.
“It disturbed me that in those cases, the community was making fast judgments,” she says.
To Searls, the notion of restorative justice got short shrift, particularly with Republicans, who saw it as an easy way out for the CHS assailants. Searls says that because she herself has been the victim of an assault by a juvenile, the attack sparked her support of restorative justice and got her active in victims’ rights.
And as an adjunct college professor who’s taken sexual harassment training, Searls feels sorry for Sanchez. “Certain people said this wasn’t a popular issue and don’t speak out on it,'” she says. “I wanted to say that we don’t have all the facts on her case. I want Charlottesville to be the community that doesn’t make quick judgments."
Other issues she thinks missed out on campaign attention: the living wage, the emergence of a UVA labor union, and the proposed UVA parking garage at Ivy and Emmet Streets– all of which highlight to power of the university.
“The law is not in place to give the community or the union a voice that they deserve,” says Searls. "There’s a power in speaking out. Voices are a power, and I supported those voices as a candidate.”
And then there was Jefferson School, which is the only issue where Searls felt the community was heard and the process of redevelopment was slowed in response.
“So when I hear people like Waldo [Jaquith] say there were no issues to rally young people, I’ve mentioned unions, race relations, and assault-– every kind of social issue,” she says.
In fact, Searls thinks it was her devotion to issues that may have hurt her campaign. “I was so busy working on issues that I didn’t get out there to say, ‘Vote for me.’”
Searls was torn between attending the meeting where the Board of Architectural Review was to vote on partial demolition of the Priority Press building and attending the last meeting of the UVA Student Council to discuss the parking garage. She opted for the garage.
The result? “The preservation candidate wasn’t at the meeting supporting preservation,” she says. “It looks ineffectual.”
And with councilor Maurice Cox there as the architect for First Baptist Church, “It looked like the Democrats were on the side of the demolition, and it looked like they didn’t support my candidacy.”
And, she points out, three demolitions were approved during the course of her campaign.
Another conflict came the day of the election. Searls is on the Virginia Commission for the Arts, which scheduled a meeting for election day. After going to the polls in the morning, Searls drove to Richmond where she was able to obtain funding for the Music Resource Center.
“The six o’clock news said I was nowhere to be found,” she recounts. “I don’t regret it: part of the reason I ran was to give the arts more attention. But I did feel frustrated.”
Media coverage is an area that Searls thinks harmed her campaign. “There was so much going on that wasn’t reported in the press,” she says. She found it particularly galling that the Daily Progress didn’t cover an environmental forum sponsored by UVA’s Student Environmental Action and the Sierra Club.
“I didn’t have recourse to get my own press release out to get coverage,” she says. “I felt I couldn’t take control of the media.”
(Searls says she doesn’t subscribe to the Progress because “their agenda is not what I believe in,” although she admits to reading it by recycling her neighbor’s paper.)
But it was an article in the Progress on election day about single-shot voting that particularly raised Searls’ ire. She calls the article “unethical” and seems annoyed mainly that she wasn’t contacted to comment on the strategy, unlike incumbent Caravati and outgoing David Toscano.
And she sees it as another example of the Progress’ “pro-road” agenda.
She doesn’t blame the article for her loss, although she found it hurtful, particularly comments by Kevin Cox-– “he’s my neighbor and I like him– saying he was happy not to vote for her.
Still, she concedes the weak get-out-the-vote effort was the major reason for her loss. And some of her supporters are wondering whether her opposition to the transfer station and the Meadowcreek Parkway toned down pro-Parkway Toscano’s support for Searls’ efforts to win his seat.
If she ever runs for office again, what will Searls do differently? “I’d build a team supporting me before I declared my candidacy,” she says emphatically.
Searls’ biggest regret is that she could have been a deciding factor in stopping the Meadowcreek Parkway. “If the parkway gets built, people are going to look back and say, ‘We should have left the house that day to vote.’”
And she has a warning for her fellow Charlottesvillians: “Wherever there is open space, there are plans to build something.”