One of the folks who has not made up his mind yet about whether to run for the Charlottesville City Council in 2002 is Waldo Jaquith.
Says Waldo, "If I had a committee, I'd declare it to be exploratory. Lacking a committee, I suppose I'm just exploring a run for Council on my own. I'm inexperienced at fund-raising, and in need of somebody to run my campaign. If I can secure these two things, then I will run for Council. Lacking those, it is likely that an attempt would be fruitless. I will run to win, not to "make a point" (Waldo Jaquith, electronic mail, August 28, 2001).
Read his biography below and check his ideas about racial and economic division, teacher pay and disenfranchisement of citizens.
Then send your thoughts about Waldo and the 2002 race for city council to firstname.lastname@example.org or to email@example.com where the most representative comments will be placed on my web site with full attribution.
I was born in Philadelphia, and, as a child, lived in Columbia, Maryland and London.
A decade ago, my family moved to Free Union, though we were immediately drawn to the downtown area, unpopular as it was at the time. I went to Western Albemarle High School for two years before transferring to the Living Education Center for Ecology and the Arts, an alternative private school on the Downtown Mall. I paid my way through school (combined with a generous scholarship from the school), working at 3WV, the Java Hut, Comet.Net and as an independent website developer.
In this time I also spent hundreds of hours volunteering at Live Arts, and spent every Saturday morning for a couple of years volunteering at the Virginia Discovery Museum. I also volunteered to teach juggling to middle school students at various city and county public schools. In 1996, I gathered together sponsors and hiked the majority of the Appalachian Trail, though I broke my feet and have not yet done the last miles of the trail.
Returning from my hike, I got a job at High RezSolutions, a local design firm, and helped turn it into a successful website design firm. In 1999, I left the company to start my own firm, Munk & Phyber, Inc.
For the past few years, I have lived and worked on the Downtown Mall, serving on the boards of FeO2, the Charlottesville Downtown Foundation and the IT Academy in that time. Now I spend my time running the business and my various websites, and I'm in the process of starting a new non-profit organization and, as always, tinkering with new projects to see where they'll lead.
Waldo Jaquith (electronic mail, August 28, 2001).
I've been told that people get elected to Charlottesville's City Council on the big issues: Meadowcreek Parkway, reversion, that type of thing. I can understand that, given that they occupy such a large amount of people's thoughts. This is, to some degree, because they also occupy a large amount of the local media's time. They're big issues in the same way that gun control, abortion and the death penalty are to state and national elections. By which I mean that they're important, but only because people have somehow become convinced that they are much more important than they really are.
What ties together many of these issues is that they're binary. Either you're for or against abortion, reversion, or the death penalty. The paper gets to put a little check in that "death penalty" column, and then you get given a label: "conservative," "reformist," and so on. This is good, to a large extent. Most people don't have the time to properly research the candidates in an election, and rely on these binary media-driven issues. This way the candidates can be boiled down to a six-second graphic on the evening news.
Unfortunately, my interests and passions don't break down so cleanly. And I'll bet that yours don't, either. Most people's don't. If I had to pick the one issue in Charlottesville that is most important to me, it would be our horrible stratification of racial and economic classes.
Racial and Economic Division
On a Sunday morning in Bodo's a few years ago, I was reading an article in USA Today about the most integrated cities in the United States. They had a top 10 list, and Charlottesville had made it. I was horrified. If we're one of the best, I shudder to think what some of the worst-integrated cities must be like. Racial relations in the town are nearly non-existent. Latinos make up 2.4% of the population, or about 1,000 people. Blacks 23%. Whites 71%.
Now, I don't have access to the data, but I'm going to guess that the majority of Charlottesville's black and latino residents are clumped together in a few locations, with few whites living there. Just take a walk through any number of neighborhoods - Starr Hill and Garrett Square come to mind immediately - and you'll see almost entirely black faces. But head out to any of our suburban areas and you'll find almost entirely white faces. And I certainly know that there are white neighborhoods - I seldom see minorities on North First Street, where I live.
Is this a problem? I don't have any doubt that it is, but some people will disagree. I've been told that it's "nice" that "they" (pick your minority) have a place to call their own. I come from a generation that thinks otherwise. Any racial division that exists in Charlottesville - and there's plenty - is undoubtedly fostered by the physical division that we have. "The other side of the tracks" is very much a real concept here, one that has existed for many years.
We end up with several racial - and economic - classes that don't mix. We white people go to our white coffee bars, our upscale grocery stores and live in our white neighborhoods. But that's not considered racial isolationism, it's considered living well, it's considered being upper-middle-class. When a black man gets gunned down at Garrett Square, just blocks from our increasingly-gentrified Downtown Mall, that's "some black thing," an act of black-on-black violence that has no impact on our lives. Because Garrett Square is a different world from ours.
We remain a city divided, a city with irreconcilable differences that nobody wants to acknowledge or help to fix. I've been told that I can't talk about this, because I'm white. I've been told that no good will come of my addressing this topic, because I am a part of the problem, and therefore cannot possibly be a part of the solution. Maybe I'm just clueless, and I should know better than to open my mouth, possibly issuing forth controversial statements that may even make me look foolish. But if I'm clueless, that's fine, because it just means that I don't know better than to point out that there's an elephant in our collective living room.
So what is the solution to this problem? I'm not sure. I've got a lot of ideas, but I don't know if they add up to anything. I can guarantee that the solution doesn't involve any new laws or a single band-aid action on the part of the City. I can also guarantee that this will be a problem facing Charlottesville for a long time to come. But without action by all of us, we'll never escape from it.
After Charlottesville's social problems, it's a bit of a toss-up as to what's next on the list. But here's an important one: Teacher pay. I just don't get it - why is it so horribly bad? This lack of understanding, I can say without question, is a result of my own naivete, but I must mention it. City Council and the Board of Education simply have to allocate more money to teacher pay. Everybody who runs for office promises that teachers will get paid more. After all, who could be opposed to paying teachers more? Yet it never happens. Our educators are in charge of a whole new generation of Charlottesville, and have one of the most (if not the most) important jobs in the city. And they make nothing.
As a matter of fact, I don't care why. It's not relevant to me. Teacher pay must be raised. This will attract better teachers to the jobs and reward those dedicated souls who have stuck by youths' sides for so long. Why City Council does not constantly battle to accomplish this simple goal is a mystery to me.
Disenfranchisement of Citizens
Again, I must speak without numbers to back me up, but I feel I'm on solid ground here. A tremendous number of Charlottesvillians feel as if they are entirely disconnected from City politics, that they have nobody on City Council that is truly representing their interests. To my generation (I'm 23), Maurice Cox's 1996 election was a small victory. At last, we had somebody that came from outside the standard political scene, somebody that understood the way that we thought, somebody that had the same interests and passions that we did.
Look at our election turnouts. They're pitiful. In 1998 22.6% of registered Charlottesville voters made their opinion known for the Council elections, with turnout in some areas as low as 12.7%. City activist Kevin Cox did the math and realized that's only 14% of eligible voters (as compared with registered voters), which is a shockingly small percentage of the city to be determining who our leaders are. Part of this low turnout can be attributed to when the elections are held - not in November, when people are going to the polls for more prominent elections, but in May during a special election. But certainly all of this apathy cannot be attributed to the month alone. Look at the comments of a former City Councilor:
"'You have five people who think alike and act alike,' said Thomas Albro, a Crafaik supporter who served as a Republican on the City Council from 1978 to 1982. 'If you like one-party government, you ought to like the red party in China. [The government] ends up not listening to the people, because it doesn't need the people." (The Daily Progress, 05/01/98.)
Though he exaggerates to make his point, I can't help but agree. Though Council has changed since (notably with the election of activist Kevin Lynch), the process that causes City Councilors to come into being has not. Council has long been Democrat-controlled, and the local Democratic party decides internally who they want to run. Once that selection is made, they throw their weight behind those individuals, get them the nomination, and they inevitably win. (The local GOP's lack of organization has a lot to do with Democrats' habitual victories.)
This process does nothing to ensure that the most qualified individuals end up on Council, it only ensures that the "right" people (as decided by a small group of individuals) end up on Council. Perhaps the worst part of this is the illusion of choice that is created during the primaries and the elections, when the result is obvious months in advance. In light of this system, what is the point in voting? What are the odds that a true people's representative could end up on Council?
Maurice Cox and Kevin Lynch both showed how to change that system, by getting elected from outside of the Democrats' machine. And, on Council, they're working through legal and practical means to continue that change. But there remains much to be done to make Charlottesvillians - black, white and latino; rich and poor; old and young - feel that their interests are being represented on Council.
None of these topics are sexy, and there's unlikely to be any major press about the disenfranchisement of some citizens or the economic divisions that keep the poor poor and the rich rich. Instead, they'll continue to skirt the issues, through the passing mention of a living wage, or lower voter turnout. But they are extremely important to me, and I certainly hope that they'll prove to be important to others, too. Sure, I can discuss the Meadowcreek Parkway, downtown parking and our rate of taxation. All of these topics interest me immensely, and I think that we're fortunate that they get as much attention as they do. I simply feel that until we address such basic issues as community unity, anything else simply takes the back burner.
Perhaps some day, Charlottesville will become the sort of a town where people will focus their attention on this topic, one where people can be elected to office on the strengths of their perspectives on these issues. I can only hope.
Waldo Jaquith (Waldo.net,
August 28, 2001).