Ellen Pitera believes it’s time for a new generation of leaders in Orange County, and she’s willing to do her part.
Pitera, 48, is a write-in candidate for supervisor in District 3, which includes the Town of Orange and extends to Rapidan and Burr Hill.
She describes herself as a “natural-born” leader and speaks with pride of her role on a seven-member board of women that led the successful national effort to save Sweet Briar College from closing in 2015.
Central to her campaign platform is a desire to inform residents what’s going on in the county and give them the opportunity to have a say on important issues. She said many people she’s spoken to since announcing her candidacy in early September haven't known what district they live in or who their supervisor is. She is especially concerned that young people have little idea of the issues the county is facing or how to weigh in on them.
Pitera grew up on Rounton Farm on Rapidan Road, graduated from Orange County High School in 1989 and went on to Sweet Briar College, where she earned a B.A. in art in 1993. She also has a master’s degree in teaching from the University of Virginia.
When she was in high school, her passion for competitive riding motivated her to study hard.
“As soon as school finished, then I would be on the back of a horse,” Pitera said during an interview last Thursday. Her parents made it clear she had to do well in school to keep up her riding, and the same was true when she (and her horse) went to Sweet Briar College.
A teaching career in Falls Church, Kenya and Orange County
Forthright and engaging, Pitera is happy to discuss the teaching career that eventually led her home to Orange County. After graduating from college, she worked for a year as a nanny. Then, in the midst of her time teaching in Falls Church, she spent a year teaching in Kenya. In 2004 she accepted a position teaching third grade at Locust Grove Elementary School. For three years beginning in 2005, she taught fourth grade at Orange Elementary School.
Since 2008, she has managed the businesses at Rounton Farm— a wedding venue, a club for deer and turkey hunters and host of children’s camps—and focused on family responsibilities. She and her husband, Rob, have two sons, Charlie, 11, a sixth-grader at Prospect Heights Middle School, and Douglas, 8, a third-grader at Orange Elementary School. They live on the family farm with Ellen Pitera’s mother, Vibeke Ober.
Further, while she appreciates the longtime service of the five men on the board, she hints that things have grown a bit stale.
“There needs to be fresh leadership on a continual basis with the board of supervisors,” she said, “and the leadership needs to represent the demographics of the county.”
As a woman, she said she can bring a voice and perspective to county governance that it currently doesn’t have.
In the 150 years the county has had a board of supervisors, three women have held the office, most recently Shannon Abbs. Representing District 1, Abbs was elected in 2009 and reelected in 2013 but resigned in July 2014.
Until Pitera announced her write-in campaign against 12-year incumbent Teel Goodwin, none of the three current supervisors up for re-election had any opposition this year.
Contrary to appearances of widespread contentment, Pitera said, “What I’m hearing is that people want a change in leadership in Orange County. So it’ll just be fascinating to see how the votes go.”
Why are you running for supervisor?
Running for the board of supervisors is something that I have been encouraged by other people to do for a long time, and I have always wanted to do it. … Running as a write-in is a bit of a gutsy, chancy kind of move. But I felt like, well, if I don’t win, at least I have my name out there and I’ll run again in four years.
I think we’re in a happy spot where things are moving along and decisions have been made. But when the housing market returns and the economy starts booming again, we will be faced with a lot of big decisions [related to land use and development], and I want to be part of those decisions that are made.
There’s also solar energy coming. It’s becoming a big issue. It’s already an issue in Culpeper and Spotsylvania. I want to be part of those solutions and getting that done right in our community.
Aside from being passionate about, “What’s the future of Orange County?” I’m passionate about the younger generation becoming involved and I feel like there is a void in how things get communicated. …
The younger generation does not always read the newspaper. So we’ve got to figure out other social media and electronic avenues to get their attention because if we’re making decision about solar energy in Orange County and how things are going to be developed over the next 25 years, it’s really not for us. It’s for them.
What are the key skills a supervisor needs?
Well, you have to be able to lead and that leads you down a whole ‘nother lane of skills. One of the greatest things I learned from the “Saving Sweet Briar” experience … was you have to be able to sit at the table and and disagree and hash through things and not take it personally, because the goal is not a personal goal. …You have to be able to literally block out personal things or if it gets too personal, you have to be able to say, ‘I need to stop right here and then re-engage in this conversation later,’ or something like that. So having communication skills to the “nth” degree, I think is the most important.
Being able to advocate because … if it’s not in my backyard, it’s in someone else’s backyard. So be able to put yourself in their shoes and advocate for that person, as if it’s really in your backyard, I think is really important.
I think that for me, advocating for the schools as a former teacher, I think that would an easy place for me to advocate. And I’ll learn other areas where I need to advocate for people … who maybe personally [I] don't agree with the situation. But being able to see it from their viewpoint, I think, is really important.
What are a few of your strengths that you would bring to those skills?
As a leader, I am a great communicator. I am a great advocate, understanding the needs of others aside from myself. And I’m a connector, so if Joe over here is meeting Mary, I'm like, “OK, what's their connection? Like, how do they know each other?” And so I do that every time I introduce people …. It’s just in me to want to find a way for other people to connect with each other. That is the beauty of Orange County, and that’s one of the big reasons that we came back [from northern Virginia] is that the friendships groups, the ways that people connect through the generations—to me, it’s so beautiful here and that’s why people love being in a small town.