After Kristin Szakos decided to not seek re-election and incumbent Bob Fenwick lost in a June Democratic primary, two nominated Democrats and four independent candidates will appear on the ballot Tuesday for two open seats on Charlottesville’s City Council.
Though Democrats Heather Hill and Amy Laufer are hoping to extend the party’s longtime hold on the council, independent candidates John Hall, Kenneth Jackson, Paul Long and Nikuyah Walker are hoping that frustration with the status quo and outrage over the traumatic events of the white nationalist rally in August will give them a fighting chance for the at-large seats.
Aside from widespread commentary about the rally and government accountability, all six candidates have spent much of their time this year talking about the need for more affordable housing and creating an equitable community where all residents can thrive.
In the last two months, Hill and Laufer have teamed up in a coordinated campaign.
Laufer has continued to promote her Piedmont Promise, a tuition subsidy proposal that would allow qualifying Charlottesville High School graduates to attend Piedmont Virginia Community College for free. The program would be restricted to households making less than the area median income of approximately $75,000.
Meanwhile, Hill, president of the North Downtown Residents Association, has been touting her experience in engaging residents in low-income neighborhoods throughout the city. She said those conversations have opened her eyes to the need for more affordable housing in Charlottesville.
“While meaningful steps have been taken over the past decade to bring focus to this issue through policies and initiatives, at the end of the day we need to build more units and provide more options to those in need of affordable housing,” Hill said.
The pair also has focused on workforce development, saying they will work to improve various job training and business investment programs already in place.
“Growing our middle class is critical to the health of our community. We know that growing income inequality ultimately hurts Charlottesville,” Laufer said.
Similarly to their opponents, both Democrats have not been shy about criticizing some of the current councilors. But some of the independent candidates have questioned whether another set of Democrats will continue to promote higher-density development that can lead to gentrification and income inequality.
Long has used most speaking opportunities in his campaign to criticize Mayor Mike Signer, saying that, if elected, he would not vote to make him mayor again come January. Long said he thinks that frustrations with the mayor and the other councilors could lead to a larger than usual turnout of voters for the independents.
“I think a lot of people are listening to what the independents are saying. I don’t think the two Democratic candidates have a built-in advantage,” Long said. “There’s a lot of distrust and anger out there.”
Aside from criticizing the current crop of leaders, Long has called for the city and Albemarle County to develop a regional transit authority to improve public transportation options.
Long said that in addition to himself, he plans to vote for Walker. But some of Walker’s supporters, including former Mayor Dave Norris, are planning to cast a single vote just for her.
As in previous election cycles, some independent candidates and their supporters have been encouraging the “single-shot” or “bullet” vote to increase the likelihood of at least one independent getting elected.
“If someone votes for her and one of the Democrats, that just further increases the margin she has to overcome,” Norris said about the voting strategy. “If the voter really wants Nikuyah elected … then strategically it just makes sense to vote for her or one of the other independents.”
According to local civil rights icon Eugene Williams, he and other activists encouraged the single-shot vote in the 1954 council election. Williams said the strategy helped to get former federal judge and city Mayor Thomas J. Michie, a proponent of desegregation, elected to the council that year.
“The most important thing is we were able to show our black population how important that vote can be,” he said. “It motivated us to vote [only] for the best candidate.”
Walker, a social justice activist, has focused her campaign on transparency, battling social inequality and improving the way public funds are allocated to community-aid organizations, capturing those themes under the campaign slogan “Unmasking the Illusion.”
She said she wants to challenge city leaders who are more concerned with maintaining the image of Charlottesville rather than addressing issues that are hamstringing vulnerable residents.
A former substance abuse counselor who has worked for the University of Virginia and the Region Ten Community Services Board, as well as the nonprofit City of Promise, she said the council should be more cognizant of how public funds are being used by organizations that receive government assistance.
Though Norris and others are encouraging her supporters not to use one of their votes on Tuesday, Walker isn’t actively promoting the strategy.
“I’m suggesting my supporters vote based on their values,” she said. “All of the candidates are totally different, and there’s no one like me in the race. So, if I’m the person most aligned with a voter’s values, then I would be that only person — but they can vote for whomever.”
Local history blogger Blair Hawkins wrote about the single-shot strategy several weeks before Jackson encouraged his supporters on Facebook to vote just for him.
In 2002, when WINA radio host Rob Schilling was elected to the council as a Republican, some credited his victory to single-shot votes. At an election-night party that year, Alexandria Searls, a Democratic nominee who missed getting elected by about 125 votes, blamed a Daily Progress reporter for writing about Republicans’ plans to cast single-shot votes for Schilling.
Jackson, who ran for the council as a Republican in 2004, entered the race this year after publicly chastising the councilors who voted to remove the city’s monument of Robert E. Lee.
Jackson and Walker are the only candidates in this year’s race who grew up in Charlottesville, but Jackson has not been a resident of the city for several years.
Having previously resided in Prince Edward County, he said he moved back to the city this year but has been unable to find permanent housing. He has said he cannot find a home he can afford with the limited disability income he receives.
Known for speaking out against identity politics and the liberal activist groups advocating for the removal of the statues, Jackson has garnered the support of residents opposed to the removal of the Lee statue, as well as one of fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
He’s also supported by some people who remember him as classmate.
One of those former classmates, Lisa Custalow, said she isn’t sure who else she might vote for, but is casting a vote for Jackson because of his stance on the statues and because he is “more concerned about things that affect our lives every day,” such as housing affordability and crime.
“This whole debate has turned the city into a laughingstock and a spectacle,” she said about the controversy surrounding the statues.
Custalow ruled out voting for Walker because of her stance on the monuments.
“I’m not usually a single-issue voter, but I like Kenneth all the way around,” Custalow said. “And I don’t vote based on race, but I do like that he’s African-American.”
Hall admits he isn’t the most qualified candidate this year, but has said he wants the city to focus on improving its public infrastructure and growing its economy.
At a candidate forum in October, Hall revealed that he suffers from a mental health condition. At the final forum before the election, he said he wants to work collaboratively with other officials if he’s elected.
“I’m running so that other persons with mental challenges can be inspired to overcome their difficulties. In a small way, I wish to serve as an example for all people who strive to overcome their difficulties,” he said. “I pledge to be a good team member to take care of the business of the city in a careful and considerate way.”