VIRGINIA BEACH — Democrat Dave Belote, a retired Air Force officer, improperly used his uniform and military status while campaigning for the 8th state senate district, according to a letter a senior Air Force official wrote to the campaign.
Conrad Von Wald, director of administrative law for the Air Force judge advocate general, sent a letter to Belote on Tuesday, Nov. 3 – Election Day – informing the campaign of the finding. Republican Bill DeSteph, a state delegate who served in the Navy, defeated Belote in the election itself.
The Air Force provided a copy of the letter to The Independent News on Monday, Nov. 9, in response to a request for correspondence with the campaign. The letter followed questions raised by The Independent News about a photo of Belote used repeatedly in campaign materials, as well as other potential issues that might have confused voters.
Aside from one use of an image of Belote saluting while in uniform, Belote campaign manager Aaron Bly previously said that image and others had been used within the guidelines of a defense directive meant to avoid the appearance of the military backing a political candidate.
The Air Force disagreed.
“A review of your campaign website and associated social media sites has given rise for concern,” Von Wald wrote to Belote. “We find that you are making improper use of your uniform and military status as part of a partisan political activity.”
Von Wald wrote that the Belote campaign did not make Belote’s retired status clear with images, placed disclaimers too far from images or did not use them, and used imagery of Belote in uniform in a manner that invited misperception.
“A member of the general public conducting a casual perusal of your electronic campaign literature could easily conclude that an Active Duty member of the Air Force was running for a state legislature,” Von Wald wrote.
The photograph in question shows Belote saluting while in uniform and standing in front of an American flag. This photograph has appeared as the main image at campaign websites, social media pages and posts, and in some printed campaign literature. A campaign video spot includes this and other images of Belote in uniform, but it does not make it clear Belote is retired.
Belote did not respond to an email and calls to his campaign and work offices this morning. Calls to Bly on Monday evening and today were not returned.
On Saturday, Oct. 31, Bly said the campaign reviewed the directive governing images of people in uniform and used images appropriately. In one instance pointed out by The Independent News, the campaign removed the image from Twitter because there was no disclaimer.
“We must have missed that one,” Bly said at the time.
The Air Force letter to the campaign makes it clear there were other issues in the way the Belote campaign presented the candidate to voters.
Representations of candidates who served in the military has been an issue before, even this election cycle. For example, the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus this year used social media to share criticism of state Sen. Dick Black’s use of his military uniform in campaign materials.
In October, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Gabrielle M. Hermes, a defense department spokesperson, released a statement that said resolving violations of the directive “can involve simply ceasing the conduct.”
Von Wald’s letter, effectively, simply asks the Belote campaign to cut it out.
It concludes: “We trust that no further communication on this issue will be necessary.”
Images of Belote in uniform remained in online media today.