Archives - City Dems Open Nominating Process
February 2009
Charlottesville Democratic Party: City Dems Open Nominating Process
Search for:


"The first time James E. Brown, III attended a Charlottesville Democratic Party mass meeting, he was turned away at the door. In 2001, he showed up at Buford Middle School on a Saturday to support Cornelia Johnson for city sheriff, but he couldn’t find a parking space. At last he found a spot on Cherry Avenue, walked to the school—and found the doors to Buford locked.

Kristin Szakos, the first declared candidate for City Council, isn’t afraid of the new nominating process. “As a person who believes that community organizing is an important thing, I think that people should participate in the decisions that affect their lives.”

That’s because of the traditional way city Dems have held their nominating convention. Only those who showed up punctually on a Saturday could participate—the doors were locked at a set time—and they had to stay until enough candidates were eliminated on multiple rounds of voting to whittle the list to the number of slots available.

But this year when Brown, who is a Democratic candidate for city sheriff, shows up to choose the nominees, he’ll have a little more time to find a parking space—and he’ll also find it easier to get out his supporters. That’s because the Charlottesville Democratic Committee voted on February 12 to scrap its old nominating process in favor of a “firehouse” primary, which advocates say will be more inclusive, and less intimidating.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in this city who have said, ‘Well, I’d like to vote as a Democrat, but I don’t want to go into a room where they tell me they’re going to close the doors and close me in there,’” argued Linda Seaman at the meeting. After losing the Democratic nomination to City Council in 2007, she championed the change to a primary.

The city Democrats’ primary will be distinct from the June 9 state primary that will be held for state-wide offices like governor and attorney general. It will be held at least 30 days before that primary and organized solely by Charlottesville Democrats. Those voting will be required to take a loyalty pledge, a measure to keep out GOP and independent spoilers.

Jonathan M. Stevens, a younger, pony-tailed member of the party, helped Seaman argue for the change. With Obama’s election, he’s seen so many new people participating in the political process. “I think the firehouse primary gives us the opportunity to reach out to those people, bring them into the political process, bring them into the party, get them involved in local stuff and not just congressional and presidential and gubernatorial races.”

It’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of the old system in terms of electing city councilors. Rob Schilling, in 2002, is the only non-Democrat to win a seat on City Council since the 1980s, and he lost when he ran for re-election. All five current city councilors attended the Thursday night meeting, as well as alums like Blake Caravati, Virginia Daughtry, Meredith Richards and Kevin Lynch.

But in a town where 15,705 people voted for Barack Obama, only 431 showed up to the city nominating convention in 2007. The prospect of a more open process helped bring out many committee newbies to last week’s meeting, including Tim Sims.

“I think we chose the most progressive process,” says Sims. “We’re in a time of change right now. If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back.”

The changes didn’t come without some resistance, both from those who have had success under the old process and those who haven’t. Former Councilor Kevin Lynch worried that the new system would require more money.

“In the system that we have now, I would start by calling everyone in this room, making a list of about 400 known active Democrats, and calling 20 of them a day for the next 20 days,” said Lynch. “It becomes a networking exercise where the candidates learn what’s going on. If I was going to run in a primary, the first question I ask is, ‘I need $20,000, how do I get that?’”

Stratton Salidis also defended the current system, despite the fact that he lost a Council race as an independent in 2002 after failing to win the nomination.

“I think this would be a move from grassroots organizing to big money being able to take over,” said Salidis.

Stevens acknowledges a primary will likely require more spending on flyers, but doesn’t think money will be the determining factor. “I think that the notion that there are only 400 Democrats in the city that you can call in a couple of weeks, an hour a night, is an incorrect definition of what it means to be a Democrat,” says Stevens. “It’s folks who believe in those principles and support the party, not just those who have been to previous mass meetings.”

The new process doesn’t daunt community organizer Kristin Szakos, who’s the only candidate so far to announce a bid for one of two slots open this year on City Council.

“I think it’s great,” says Szakos, who was a local coordinator for the Obama campaign. “As a candidate of course it means more work, but it also means a different level of participation, and I’m all for participation.”" (Will Goldsmith, C-Ville Weekly, February 17, 2009)

Comments? Questions? Write me at