Charlottesville Democrats who support independent City Council candidate Bellamy Brown or any other unaffiliated candidates could face expulsion from the local party committee under its bylaws.
Along with Democrats Sena Magill, Michael Payne and Lloyd Snook and independents John Hall and Paul Long, Brown is running for one of three open seats on the panel in November’s election.
Brown received a roundabout donation from sitting Democratic Councilor Mike Signer, which skirts the lines of what the party allows. Signer donated through a political action committee he established in 2011.
Signer, a former mayor, said Ivy Hinton, co-chair of the city committee, called him last week about the $250 donation and it was the first time he’d heard from the party “in two years.”
The city Democratic committee is made up of 100 precinct representatives and alternates, and former elected members who are given the status of ex-officio.
According to the committee’s bylaws, members “must not intend to support any candidate opposed to a Democratic nominee in the next ensuing general election.” The state party’s bylaws say Democrats must not “publicly support, endorse, or assist” any candidate outside of the party.
The city committee’s bylaws allow a majority of the committee to expel any member who is “found guilty” of publicly supporting any candidate who is running against a Democratic nominee.
Signer said he “wasn’t aware” that he was a member of Charlottesvillle’s Democratic committee and that he told Hinton he was “interested in knowing if there was a way to resolve this.”
Signer said he was also confused because former Mayor Dave Norris and former Councilor Dede Smith — both Democrats — supported independent Mayor Nikuyah Walker in 2017. Smith and Norris didn’t return calls for comment.
Hinton said no one was expelled for supporting Walker, although “some members” resigned, and no one has been expelled this year.
Signer said he’s asked how to work within the bylaws, including asking Brown to refund the donation, but, “my feeling remains the same” about Brown’s candidacy.
“I value the party and its rules,” he said. “I hope that there’s a way to resolve it.”
The husband of Democratic Councilor Heather Hill also contributed to Brown. Hill declined to comment on any specific candidate, but did discuss partisanship in local elections and said party affiliation should be “of little concern.”
“I have long struggled with the partisan nature of our local elections,” she wrote in an email. “To me, at this level in government, it should be about people and positions, not party and politics.”
Hinton said, “We have had discussions with members and nonmembers about the bylaws.” When asked if those discussions had occurred with Signer or Hill, Hinton paused and then said, “I’ll let you talk to them about that.”
Neither Hill nor Signer has publicly campaigned for Brown, although Hill attended one of his campaign events earlier this month.
Brown is the only candidate to reach out to Signer, according to Signer. The two had a meeting and Signer said Brown “seems to be committed to a fair and inclusive and rational process for addressing our problems and for making policies.”
“I appreciated that he had spoken out in favor of the need to make the meetings less abusive,” Signer said. “I thought that was a helpful contribution to the public dialogue.”
Speaking generally about party rules, Democrat Tom Vandever, a former mayor of Charlottesville, said if an ex-officio member wants to support someone who isn’t a Democrat, “the proper thing” to do is to resign from the party.
Brown has received quiet support from “several Democrats,” he said, but he declined to name them.
“There have been Democrats that have offered to support me behind the scenes, but publicly, because of the complications with their party, they haven’t been able to do so,” he said. “I think that the sense is that the party itself hasn’t necessarily gone in the direction that they’d like to see. … I’ve given them the professional courtesy of not getting them in trouble [with the party].”
Bob Gibson, a former Daily Progress politics reporter and previous director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, cautioned against local parties getting too heavy-handed in enforcing allegiance, saying it doesn’t encourage the attraction of outside voters.
“Parties that try to enforce that might suffer the consequences of a small town,” he said. “It’s often done to their own detriment.”
Walt Heinecke, a UVa professor and local activist, said some Democrats tried to undermine Walker’s campaign and could be doing it with Brown. Heinecke said he supports members of the Democratic ticket and wants to see Signer and Hill back their party’s candidates.
Heinecke said Democrats who have made commitments through the party should honor them.
“I think that the status quo councilors are supporting moving forward with the status quo,” he said. “I think the larger issue here is the progressives are making some headway in the electoral system and this is a sign of a pushback.”
Democrats have held a stranglehold on politics in Charlottesville for decades. Walker, elected in 2017, was the first candidate running outside a party to win a seat in more than 70 years, and no Republicans have been on the City Council since Rob Schilling took his seat on the panel in 2006.
However, Signer said Walker’s election shows, “There’s an appetite for people not running as Democrats.”
“Clearly, the size and scope of Nikuyah’s victory shows that there’s some disconnect between the traditional party structure and what the party populous wanted,” he said.
Walker finished with 7,926 votes, the most among six candidates for two seats in 2017. Hill finished second with 7,771 votes.
Signer said the idea of party loyalty is “a little antiquated” and probably doesn’t reflect “what the voters in the city want or with what the party wants to do.”
Signer wants to see the party consider a revision of its rules at the local level.
He said “the party should probably reconsider this rule in light of Nikuyah Walker’s election and in light of the clear desire of so many Democrats to be able to consider independent candidates at this local level — and the fact that the party doesn’t seem to be extremely interested in serving as a continuous resource and community for Democratic officeholders.”